How Popular Is Modi?
While he still retains widespread support across the country, it may be slipping
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.