Please Mind the Gap
DESPITE THE GRIM CHALLENGES OF AN ECONOMIC DOWNTURN, FARM DISTRESS AND JOB LOSSES, PUBLIC FAITH IN PM MODI’S ABILITY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS REMAINS STEADFAST
SPEAKING AT THE LAUNCH of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar’s biography in the Parliament library last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began with an anecdote about how he first met the late leader in the presence of former vice-president B.S. Shekhawat at an airport. Spotting Chandra Shekhar, Shekhawat had emptied the contents of his pockets into Modi’s kurta. The reason was soon evident as Chandra Shekhar searched Shekhawat’s pockets. It turned out Shekhawat was fond of pan masala and the former PM always dissuaded him from consuming it. “Imagine a socialist leader so concerned about a Jan Sangh leader,” Modi remarked at the book launch, not only drawing applause but even chants of “Modi! Modi!” Contrast this Modi with the one addressing election rallies. In his typical baritone, the prime minister invariably begins with his trademark ‘Bhaiyon, Behnon’ and ends his speech chanting ‘Vande...’ repeatedly, hands stretched up in the air, and the frenzied crowd responding with ‘Mataram’ each time. As an effective campaigner and communicator, Modi is known to use rhetoric, sarcasm, polemics and theatrics, cutting his opponents to size. The
way he turned the Congress’s ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ jibe during the Lok Sabha election campaign on its head into the ‘Mein bhi chowkidar’ campaign, was remarkable.
Compare this with Modi’s August 8 televised address to the nation on why his government withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. It was a sober and direct message meant to reach out to ordinary Kashmiris who, in the prime minister’s words, “have suffered and struggled”. Modi promised Kashmir early elections, prosperity and the restoration of statehood in the future.
Modi’s mass connect also derives strength from his persona of a strong leader in control of every situation. It’s the reason that resonated most with the respondents to the india today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey. Thirtyfive per cent said this was the topmost reason for the NDA’s victory in the Lok Sabha election. Sixteen per cent felt the NDA won because of India’s air strike in Balakot, 11 per cent saw it as the fruits of the Modi government’s achievements while 7 per cent respondents considered the BJP’s nationalistic campaign as the primary reason. Another 7 per cent attributed its success to Hindutva politics.
However, despite the endorsement of PM Modi’s leadership, his government appears to have failed to meet some public expectations: 35 per cent said unemployment worried them the most; for 16 cent, farmers’ distress was the most pressing issue. Corruption and price rise got 11 per cent and 10 per cent votes, respectively. Nine per cent said the economic slowdown was their biggest concern and 8 per cent said it was the widening income gap between rich and poor.
Paradoxically, though, while voters complained about farmers’ distress, joblessness and the economic slowdown, they believed PM Modi alone can solve the issues. Half the respondents said the condition of farmers had improved since the Modi government assumed power in 2014—a 30 percentage point increase over the January 2019 MOTN poll. An overwhelming 64 per cent believe the decision to extend the PM-Kisan scheme to all farmers will ease the prevailing rural distress.
But why do people faced with an economic downturn and other crises support who they believe is a strong incumbent rather than an anti-incumbent? A 2017 study, conducted by Duke University professor Hemant Kakkar and published in the prestigious ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ journal, concludes that “economic hardship creates feelings of powerlessness that draw people toward dominant, authoritarian leaders”. The study, which includes Modi, US President Donald Trump and other global leaders, argues that the threat of economic uncertainty leads people to prefer leaders perceived as authoritative and dominant over those who might be more knowledgeable or admired.
In Modi’s case, however, his popularity predates the downturn that has hit the Indian economy of late and could also be drawing sustenance from the weak opposition.
Asked about the top three reasons for the opposition’s failure in the Lok Sabha election, 31 per cent said the opposition had no prime ministerial face; another 21 per cent felt the Opposition was divided. Sixteen per cent blamed it on Congress allies refusing to accept Rahul Gandhi as the PM candidate, 11 per cent on the grand old party’s mismanagement of allies and 12 per cent on the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ campaign backfiring. Another 10 per cent said the opposition had failed to provide the country an alternative vision for the next five years.
In his book Imagined Communities: Ref lections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, the late anthropologist Benedict Anderson defined nation as ‘an imagined political community’. ‘Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings,’ the book argues.
For Modi, chanting Vande Mataram or Bharat Mata Ki Jai after every speech symbolically invokes the nationalism of the freedom struggle era. Furthermore, he has managed to appropriate nationalist heroes perceived as neglected by the Congress in a new nationalist pantheon of leaders—Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Madan Mohan Malviya, to name a few. Modi also makes it a point to recall the sacrifices of martyrs—from defence forces to police personnel killed in terrorist attacks—in his public speeches.
The prime minister’s vision on issues of national importance gets a ringing endorsement in the MOTN poll. Is ‘One Nation One Poll’ (holding parliamentary and assembly elections simultaneously) a good idea? Fifty-seven per cent said yes as it would save time and money. A whopping 64 per cent said the BJP-led NDA’s massive majority in the new Lok Sabha was good for the country as a strong government can take India in the right direction. By abolishing instant triple talaq, is the Modi government working towards women’s empowerment? Sixty-six per cent of the respondents said yes; among Muslims, 49 per cent said yes and 41 per cent no. On the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, 61 per cent were of the opinion that a Ram temple should be constructed specifically at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Nevertheless, 65 per cent said the ongoing Supreme Court-led mediation process was the best way to resolve the dispute. On the question of Kashmir’s future, 57 per cent said its autonomous status (guaranteed by Article 370) should go. An even higher 65 per cent believed the Modi government had the wherewithal and the numbers to resolve the Kashmir issue in the next five years.
Such is the public trust in Modi’s abilities. His extraordinary popularity in the face of grim threats to jobs, incomes and livelihoods and other economic challenges remains an enigma. Perhaps a strong leader and a nationalistic narrative have come to be the new opium of the masses. ■
REACHING OUT PM Modi interacts with sugarcane farmers in New Delhi