How Pop­u­lar Is Modi?

While he still re­tains wide­spread sup­port across the coun­try, it may be slip­ping

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - TIMES NATION - Rono­joy Sen

There is lit­tle doubt that Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s trump card and star cam­paigner in the com­ing gen­eral elec­tion. Well be­fore elec­tion dates have been an­nounced, the PM has em­barked on a 100 day cam­paign that is ex­pected to touch 20 states. If Modi was a pri­mary rea­son BJP won a ma­jor­ity in 2014, the ques­tion is how ef­fec­tive will he be this time around?

There are no easy an­swers to this ques­tion. One can re­sort to sur­veys. As is well known sur­veys, even by the most re­spected or­gan­i­sa­tions, are of­ten off the mark. For in­stance, both opin­ion and exit polls for as­sem­bly elec­tions in late 2018 showed a good deal of di­ver­gence. How­ever, if opin­ion polls are of­ten un­able to pre­dict elec­tion re­sults, they are at least rea­son­able in­di­ca­tors of gen­eral trends.

Most opin­ion polls have found Modi to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar well into his first term as prime min­is­ter. The re­spected Pew Global At­ti­tudes Sur­vey in early 2017 – around the mid­way mark of Modi’s five-year ten­ure – found that he was re­mark­ably pop­u­lar. Nearly 90% of re­spon­dents held a “favourable” view of Modi.

This num­ber had not only been fairly steady since Modi was elected in 2014, but also cut across re­gions. Modi was equally pop­u­lar, if not more, in south In­dia as he was in the north. The clos­est com­peti­tor to Modi was Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi, of whom nearly 60% of re­spon­dents held a “favourable” view.

Things have, how­ever, changed over the past year or so. While Pew has not pub­lished any sur­veys on Modi re­cently, sur­veys con­ducted by In­dian agen­cies give a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. CSDS-Lokniti sur­veys from May 2014 on­wards show that the voter’s choice of Modi as prime min­is­ter was at its high­est at 44% in mid-2017, around the time the Pew sur­vey was con­ducted. Since then the sup­port for Modi has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly to 34% in mid-2018. Cor­re­spond­ingly, the pref­er­ence for Rahul has risen from an abysmal 9% in 2017 to 24% in mid-2018.

Sur­veys con­ducted by a news mag­a­zine show a sim­i­lar trend though the num­bers are dif­fer­ent. These sur­veys show Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity at a peak in early 2017 with 65% of re­spon­dents pre­fer­ring him as prime min­is­ter. How­ever, by end-2018, 49% pre­ferred Modi as prime min­is­ter. The num­bers for Rahul have in that same pe­riod risen from 10% to 22%. Thus, both sur­veys show that Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity has fallen since its peak in 2017 and Rahul’s ac­cept­abil­ity has grown, though the gap be­tween the two re­mains sig­nif­i­cant.

An­other way to gauge Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity is his im­pact dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns. It is a com­monly held view that even if BJP is on a weak wicket the PM’s elec­tion ral­lies, which tend to hap­pen in the fi­nal days of cam­paign­ing, have a per­cep­ti­ble im­pact on vot­ers. There is also ev­i­dence to sug­gest that the fi­nal phase of cam­paign­ing usu­ally has a held ral­lies in the three states, BJP won in only a third. If one were to look at it through the met­rics of vote swing, the dis­tricts where Modi cam­paigned saw an ero­sion of BJP votes. In Ra­jasthan, for in­stance, there was a de­cline of nearly 8% in BJP’s vote share in the dis­tricts where Modi cam­paigned. For Ch­hat­tis­garh and MP, the de­cline was around 7% and 3% re­spec­tively.

In con­trast, Rahul Gandhi’s cam­paign in the three states had a pos­i­tive ef­fect for Congress. Of the 42 con­stituen­cies where Rahul held ral­lies, Congress won in nearly half. Again in the dis­tricts where Rahul cam­paigned, there was a sig­nif­i­cant vote swing in favour of Congress and away from BJP.

These num­bers are a rough as­sess­ment of the im­pact of Modi in the three states since lo­cal or re­gional fac­tors, par­tic­u­larly anti-in­cum­bency, were also at play in de­ter­min­ing the re­sults. Also the num­bers for Modi could have been skewed by the over­all ero­sion of votes for BJP in the three Hindi heart­land states. How­ever, they do sug­gest that Modi did not have the same kind of ap­peal com­pared to the Gu­jarat, Kar­nataka and ear­lier polls.

Fi­nally, even on so­cial me­dia, where BJP and Modi had first mover ad­van­tage, Modi seems to have slipped in com­par­i­son to Rahul. For ex­am­ple, while Modi still has far more fol­low­ers than Rahul on Twit­ter, the en­gage­ment with Rahul’s tweets over the past year has out­stripped Modi’s.

In sum, Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity might have de­clined, but he re­mains a for­mi­da­ble force, backed by a well-oiled and funded party ma­chin­ery, in a pres­i­den­tial-style cam­paign. How­ever, un­like in 2014, BJP knows it can­not just bank on Modi and the prom­ise of great things to come to win the gen­eral elec­tion.

That is one of the rea­sons why the party has em­barked on a se­ries of last-gasp mea­sures, such as reser­va­tion for eco­nom­i­cally weaker sec­tions and re­viv­ing Ay­o­d­hya, to off­set the fall in Modi’s vote catch­ing abil­i­ties.

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