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Modi has reason to worry

Most criticisms of India’s response to the Second Wave of Covid use the word ‘smug’.

The government was, it is now clear, much too smug because of its self-proclaimed success at fighting the First Wave, and therefore, not prepared for the Second Wave.


In much the same way, the term ‘smug’ could also be applied to the government’s critics and the political opposition who take the line that the Prime Minister is in so much trouble over his government’s mishandling of the Pandemic that it is downhill for him from now on.


   They may turn out to be right but it is far too early to say so. Mr. Modi may well bounce back.


   The view that this government’s luck has run out gathered strength after the results of the Bengal election were declared. The BJP had been so smug (there’s that word again!) about Bengal that Amit Shah had predicted a tally of 200 seats. When the party went down to a humiliating defeat, the BJP’s critics said that this proved that a) Amit Shah had lost his ability to read the public mood and b) that the old boast that when the Prime Minister campaigned, he always swayed voters had now been exploded.


   Then there were the UP Panchayat elections where the BJP’s vote share went down significantly compared to its triumph in the last Lok Sabha election. And those in the know say that polls tracking the national mood (some of which will soon be published) show that the BJP’s popularity has taken a hit.


   This is a strong case. But all too often we forget that there is also another side. And looked at from a different perspective, Mr Modi may well be able to ride out this crisis just as he escaped electoral responsibility for the disaster of demonetisation.


   I spoke to two psephologists I respect –Yashwant Deshmukh and Sanjay Kumar --- who have been largely right about the public mood in recent times. Both of them had offered compelling reasons for believing the BJP would not win Bengal even before the campaign started. And now both of them believe that any predictions about the exit of this government are premature.


   For a start, as Sanjay Kumar pointed out, there are three years till the next Lok Sabha election, long enough for the public mood to change. There’s also enough time for many things to happen. Mr. Modi could change his approach perhaps and stop refusing to accept any responsibility at all for anything that goes wrong. He could finally realise that compromise and accountability are not synonyms for weakness and recognise that all his critics are not anti-nationals.


   It is also long enough for other events to occur which could sway voters. For instance, says Sanjay Kumar, the BJP won around 60 seats more at the last Lok Sabha election on the basis of a last-minute surge of anti-Pakistan sentiment; what Sanjay calls the Balakot Bump.


"Will the Congress sort out its leadership issues? The BJP thinks it won’t. But if the Congress does get its act together then the BJP could be in trouble."

   Nor is it clear that Mr. Modi’s perceived ‘sincerity’, the attribute that got him through demonetisation, has been badly damaged. All polling seems to suggest that he outperforms his party in popularity. His approval ratings are in the 40s, which is bad by his standards (they were once around 70), but not so low that he cannot recover. (Joe Biden is regarded as very popular with an average approval rating of around 52 per cent.)


   The BJP hopes that at the next election there will be a Ram Mandir bump. Frankly, that seems less and less likely. People who vote on the basis of their Hindu identity are already voting for Mr. Modi. There are very few votes left to win in that segment. But Mr. Modi is nothing if not resourceful. As Prashant Kishore keeps warning, it is a mistake to underestimate him or the power of religious polarisation.


   The Prime Minister has another advantage: the absence of a national alternative. We know that the BJP can be beaten in the states. But is there a leader in the opposition whose popularity rivals Mr. Modi? All polls say no. As Yashwant Deshmukh explained, during UPA II, when Manmohan Singh’s popularity went down, Narendra Modi’s popularity went up by a corresponding figure. But this time, though Mr Modi’s popularity has slipped, no opposition leader has seen a corresponding rise in his or her popularity.


   The basic problem, of course, is the Congress. Even as the BJP slides, the Congress does not appear to be the obvious alternative. It lost Assam where it was fighting an incumbent BJP government and even lost Kerala where tradition dictated that its victory was inevitable.


   As we have seen during the Pandemic, there is tremendous energy among younger Congress workers and more wisdom than is generally recognised (Rahul Gandhi has been totally right about the Pandemic). But even those voters who are disillusioned with Mr Modi are unwilling to take the Congress seriously as an alternative. Until that happens, the BJP gets a free pass.


   Will it happen? Will the Congress sort out its leadership issues? The BJP thinks it won’t. But if the Congress does get its act together then the BJP could be in trouble.


   Which leaves us with UP. Internal polling by political parties shows that Yogi Adityanath’s popularity is dropping. But, says Yashwant Deshmukh, the basic BJP support base of 40 per cent of the electorate is intact. That’s enough to see it through the next assembly election.  (Deshmukh says we are misreading the Panchayat elections by comparing them to the last Lok Sabha election. Compare them to the previous Panchayat election, he says, and the Samjawadi Party emerges as the real loser.)


   But there is also a Covid Second Wave rising in rural Uttar Pradesh. Nothing we have seen of Adityanath’s governance so far gives us any confidence that he can effectively fight this Wave. You can only terrorise whistle-blowers and hide dead bodies for so long. Ultimately, the truth will out.


   Already, says Deshmukh, his research shows that one in five households has lost someone to Covid. If this terrible disease cuts a swathe through UP’s villages, then the BJP is in deep trouble. Public memory is short but not when it comes to deaths in the family. And if the party loses UP, it will be difficult to get the numbers needed to win a majority in the next Lok Sabha.


   So yes, Mr Modi has reason to worry. But his opponents are making a mistake. They shouldn’t be smug. Mr Modi has outwitted them before. He could do it again.




  • Siddhartha 21 May 2021

    Modi mirrors the thinking model of forward class Hindu who dominate the population, he is not going anywhere.

  • Swapan Roy 19 May 2021

    Immaculate political dissection by Vir Ji.
    Given basic points of Modi's popularity intact, and Akhilesh failed to be an alternative, to regain UP in 2022. So, to win UP , will not be that easy. How Priyanka force plays, also to be marked.
    Only win in UP , may open vistas for 2024.
    Modi's oratory skills have miserably flopped in Bengal. Opposition, along with a probable break way faction, like Yashvant Sinha ji, may bank on Mamata Banerjee.
    Smug is BJP's , opposition to take advantage

  • Gajsingh Bapji Jodhpur 18 May 2021

    The way Covid mishandling has been scripted is uni-polar pointing to Modi-Shah for everything that’s gone wrong. Understandably so as conversely there is only one fountain head for credit when due to whom even Shah plays second fiddle - Modi. But his invisibility has been culpably shattered. With the masiha image been blow there is only one attribute he can fall back on - sincerity ! For that he must accept vulnerability & honesty atone as a mere mortal.

Posted On: 17 May 2021 08:00 PM
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