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

India Today - - MOOD OF THE NATION - By Ajit Ku­mar Jha

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

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