The singular appeal of Narendra Modi, explained in six charts6 min read . Updated: 09 Nov 2020, 08:30 AM IST
Modi has been able to sense and respond to the shifting expectations of Indian voters better than any rival, helping him cement his popularity
Exit polls suggest a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Bihar state government but Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to remain popular in the state, the election campaign showed.
Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, who had once refused to share the stage with Modi, was forced to ask for votes in Modi’s name this time as he struggled with a rising tide of anti-incumbency. Kumar’s principal opponent and the opposition chief ministerial candidate, Tejashwi Yadav, steered clear of any direct attacks on Modi, seemingly sensing his appeal. The man who gave wings to the anti-incumbency sentiments against Kumar, Chirag Paswan, also made it clear that his opposition was to Kumar, not to Modi or his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Cut my heart open and you will find... Modi," Paswan said in an interview.
What has happened in Bihar only reinforces the message from multiple surveys over the years: Modi appeals to a large cross-section of Indians. More importantly, fluctuations in the economic fortunes of voters don’t seem to have diminished this appeal. Most political analysts accept this today, but are divided on what lies behind this phenomenon.
Some argue that Modi represents the yearning for a strong Hindu leader who can safeguard majoritarian interests. Others take this argument further to posit that Modi’s followers have a somewhat blind faith in him as a saviour and, hence, ignore the actual performance of his government. Still others believe his popularity is the result of a well-oiled propaganda machinery that exaggerates his achievements and denigrates the opposition.
These arguments have some truth in them, but miss out important elements that have created the Modi phenomenon.
Our analysis of a broad range of survey data suggests three key factors driving the Modi juggernaut. First, the yearning for a strong leadership transcends religious divides, our analysis shows, indicating a secular component to the demand for a strong national leadership. Second, Modi and his party may have been able to sense and respond to the shifting expectations of voters better than rivals. Decades of rapid economic growth created a new aspirational class in the country that wants the state to help them prosper, but not necessarily through patronage. Modi and his party have been able to convince such voters that their welfare model of “empowerment" is superior to the previous model of “entitlements". Finally, improvements in last-mile delivery have ensured that more people today believe that government programmes reach their intended beneficiaries. With “Prime Minister" affixed to the names of almost all central schemes now, support for such programmes translates into direct support for Modi.
Our analysis is based on three different data sources, large nationally representative surveys carried out by Lokniti-CSDS; an urban online survey by YouGov, Mint, and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) conducted earlier this year; and historical data for India from one of the world’s most widely tracked opinion polls, the World Values Survey (WVS).
Data from WVS shows that a sizeable chunk of both Hindus and Muslim voters desire a strong leader who does not care much about parliamentary norms or elections. The data pertains to four rounds conducted during 1996-2012, when India was ruled by coalitions. A series of corruption scandals, growing perception of policy paralysis, and looming internal security challenges may have contributed to the yearning for a decisive ruler. Modi was able to use such frustrations to his advantage.
Further, Modi has been able to take advantage of the shifting expectations from the Indian state, and craft a new narrative on the relations between citizens and the state. The state in this worldview is perceived more as a facilitator than a provider, with people looking for empowerment more than patronage. This taps into the demographic shift that took place just around the time Modi reached the national centre-stage. In the decade leading up to 2015-16, 271 million people were able to climb out of poverty in India, the most in the world, according to a UN report on multidimensional poverty. The fall in the ranks of the poor and the rise in the ranks of the aspirational neo-middle class created a captive audience for the new narrative of empowerment.
The 2014 post-poll survey by Lokniti-CSDS showed that respondents were more likely to support big infrastructure projects over direct handouts to the poor. WVS data from 2012 suggests that those who believed that people should take responsibility for themselves rather than the government and support private enterprises were slightly more likely to support BJP.
Data from the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey conducted earlier this year shows that respondents from higher income groups are more likely to feel that people remain poor out of their own shortcomings such as lack of personal effort. However, there is little difference of opinion across classes when it comes to the statement that inaction by the government or lack of adequate opportunities cause poverty
By promising a reformed state that would unleash new entrepreneurial energies without the cronyism of the past, Modi has sought to win over a wide cross-section of society. That the earlier regime was tainted by corruption scandals helped his cause. He found it easy to portray their welfare schemes as leaky buckets, which helped party brokers and intermediaries more than the poor. His attacks on the entrenched lobbyists of Delhi served as a reminder to upwardly mobile voters of the forces that stood in the way of their aspirations and progress.
Economic progress during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime may have fuelled the new wave of aspirations in the country. However, the stink of crony capitalism tilted the scales towards Modi and his party in 2014. The perception that the UPA was favouring religious minorities added wings to Modi’s 2014 campaign. Since then, Modi has lost no opportunity to remind voters of UPA’s “misrule" and to assert his commitment to the development of all Indians, not specifically minorities.
A sizeable section of Indians also hold a positive view of the Modi government’s welfare interventions. Surveys in recent months have shown that despite undergoing significant hardships during the pandemic, voters continue to repose faith in the Modi government, and the steps taken by it to help the poor.
A large-scale rural survey conducted by Lokniti-Gaon Connection between 30 May and 16 July highlights some of the outreach successes of the government. Only 56% of the households reported having a ration card; 63% received rations during the lockdown. More than four in 10 households reported having received credit transfers from the government during this period. Of these, 58% found the amount to be adequate. 68% of migrants who returned to their native villages felt that the Modi government’s attitude towards them was good.
How does one square these findings against reports of distress-induced flight from cities in the initial weeks of the lockdown? The answer perhaps lies in how people from rural India perceived the pandemic and its threats. The fear of getting infected was the most important reason cited by migrants for leaving cities, the Lokniti-Gaon Connection survey shows. About 40% of migrants perceived this to be a greater threat than possible hunger or economic distress. A majority of respondents were satisfied by the harshness of the nationwide lockdown.
These findings suggest that people were generally fearful of the pandemic and supportive of government measures to tame it. A high level of satisfaction with the central government’s response to the pandemic (74%) reinforces this reading
Thus, for a large majority, dissatisfaction with their economic condition and satisfaction with Modi’s performance coexist without apparent conflict. Our analysis suggests that Modi’s success goes beyond his ability to consolidate voters from different caste groups under the banner of Hindutva. Modi’s ability to accurately gauge the needs and aspirations of voters and respond to them in an effective manner is an equally important factor driving his popularity. However, this also suggests that faith of voters in him is neither unconditional nor infinite. Such “faith" is strong enough to offset temporary setbacks and policy mistakes but not enough to offer lasting immunity in the long term.
If the promise of a better future eludes most voters, Modi too will find the going tough.
The authors are with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.