Home / Opinion / Views /  The pandemic’s impact on the PM’s popularity

For most of the past seven odd years, Narendra Modi’s popularity as India’s Prime Minister has indeed been extraordinary. For one, it has not been a typical function of common factors like peace and prosperity. For another, unlike in the case of most past leaders, the count of those keen on his leadership has not even been much of a variable. Socio-economic conditions have varied far more. Also, Modi’s dominance of the electoral arena gave him an aura that appeared to outshine that of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The covid pandemic, however, may have pushed our politics back towards the ordinary. Such a reversal can be spotted in the latest results of a biannual ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey done by India Today and released this week by the news-weekly. On a sample of 14,559 people polled over 10 days in the midst of July across 115 parliamentary constituencies in 19 states, 71% of them rural residents, it found that only 24% of respondents chose Modi as “best suited to be India’s next prime minister", a drop from 66% last August and 38% this January. As in all polls of this kind, how reliably that sample reflects the opinion of our electorate depends on how well it was selected. But a drop this sharp over the span of a year cannot be explained by error margins.

Interestingly, it wasn’t an opposition leader who got the second spot on that survey’s chart of PM-candidate popularity, but the BJP’s own Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Support for him as our next leader rose to 11% from 3% last year, with opposition leaders not very far behind: Rahul Gandhi of the Congress was the pick of 10%, while Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress were jointly placed fourth, with the backing of 8% each. This aspect of popularity, though, should not be mixed up with approval ratings. This was a separate question on the survey, one on which popular perceptions registered a change too. Asked to rate the Modi government’s performance, 54% of those surveyed went for “outstanding" or “good". While this was a slide from 74% in January, it notably remained above the halfway mark.

Two waves of covid trauma over the past year, with a peak last September and a bigger one this summer, may have combined with a dimmer view of governance to deliver those survey results. Modi had declared victory over the virus in early 2021 and hit the campaign trail for state elections soon after. Election rallies and other mass gatherings generated an air of normalcy, but within months, we had patients gasping for life as oxygen ran short and funeral services overwhelmed as badly as hospitals. Laments of a nation let down by the state were sure to arise, as they did. While the Prime Minister has shuffled his cabinet and taken other corrective actions, irreversible losses weigh heavily on his administration’s record. Modi, however, is not even midway through his second term. Our next general elections, due in 2024, are a long way off. Given his sway over voters and his party’s narrative skills, covid may loom less large over political preferences than it does today. What opposition parties do could play a role, too, even if signs of this so far have been weak. For all that, how our economy fares as a generator of jobs could prove pivotal. Given the tough times we faced, there may be no better crowd pleaser than an economic upsurge.

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