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In his first term as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made a sudden decision to demonetize high-value currency notes on 8 Nov 2016. Notebandi, as it came to be known in popular parlance, caused untold hardships for the common man even as it missed all its stated goals. Yet, Modi’s popularity, and by extension, that of his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remained intact.

A somewhat similar script seems to be playing out in 2020. One of the world’s most stringent lockdowns has brought immense suffering in its wake, and has shrunk India’s gross domestic product (GDP) by a historic margin. Unemployment rates remain high. The pandemic meanwhile continues to spread and claim lives. And yet, the BJP continues to retain its popularity.

An analysis of a wide range of survey data suggests two main factors at play. The first factor is Modi himself, who enjoys a high degree of trust among a large section of Indians. The second factor is the high degree of trust deficit for the Congress party in general and for the Gandhi family in particular (Rahul-Priyanka-Sonia Gandhi). Given that regional parties lack national appeal, this has created a strong TINA (There is No Alternative) factor that has helped the BJP cement its popularity.

Data from a recent Gaon Connection-Lokniti-CSDS survey shows that despite suffering severe hardships during the lockdown, approval ratings for the Modi government’s handling of the pandemic remains high. More than three-fourths of the 25,371 respondents who were surveyed between May 30 and July 16 across 23 states and union territories said they were satisfied with the way the pandemic has been handled. The high approval ratings cuts across the class divide in rural India. Only a fifth said they were dissatisfied.

Even on the issue of migrants, there is widespread support for the government’s moves, with 73% approving of the Modi government’s attitude towards migrant workers. A large majority share this opinion even in states ruled by opposition parties.

Data from another recent survey of 12,021 respondents cutting across rural and urban parts of the country shows similar results. 72% respondents said they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the Modi government in the India Today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey, conducted in July. Just 8% said they were dissatisfied.

According to this survey, a bigger proportion of respondents (25%) considered the government’s handling of the pandemic to have been a failure compared to those who considered it to be a success (7%). Nonetheless, overall approval ratings remain high, especially for the Prime Minister. 78% respondents rate his performance as either ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’. Just 44% respondents felt that the Congress’ performance as an opposition party was ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’. Just 25% felt Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic ‘made sense’. 61% felt he was leveling baseless allegations or doing it just for publicity.

The high levels of trust in Modi and the limited trust in Gandhi seems to be working in the BJP’s favour. Modi’s image as a clean risk-taking leader and the lack of a credible national alternative seems to have ensured that the BJP’s appeal remains intact, even in adverse circumstances.

Data from past surveys conducted by the Lokniti-CSDS team shows that Modi’s popularity has been consistently high ever since he became the Prime Minister in 2014. Barring a brief decline in 2018, his popularity ratings have never flagged. Post Balakot, Modi was able to recover lost ground, with 47% respondents in a post-Balakot survey saying they wanted him as the Prime Minister.

The Modi factor and the TINA factor are joined at the hip, and have catapulted the BJP to a position of dominance in Indian politics today. Based on the 2019 post-poll survey, the Lokniti-CSDS team estimated that of every 100 votes which BJP polled, at least 27 votes came because of Modi. Had Modi not been at the forefront of the 2019 campaign, BJP may not have registered such an impressive victory.

Modi’s singular appeal to voters is a challenge for the opposition today. But it could also become a challenge for the BJP in the future.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and a political analyst.

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