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Modi has reasons to worry

By Vir Sanghvi
May 26, 2021 08:57 IST
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But his opponents are making a mistake. They shouldn't be smug, argues Vir Sanghvi.


Most criticisms of India's response to the Second Wave of Covid use the word 'smug'. The government was, it is now clear, much too smug because of its self-proclaimed success at fighting the first wave, and therefore, not prepared for the second wave.

In much the same way, the term 'smug' could also be applied to the government's critics and the political Opposition who take the line that the prime minister is in so much trouble over his government's mishandling of the pandemic that it is downhill for him from now on.

They may turn out to be right, but it is far too early to say so. Narendra Modi may well bounce back.

The view that this government's luck has run out gathered strength after the results of the West Bengal election were declared. The Bharatiya Janata Party had been so smug (there's that word again!) about West Bengal that Amit Shah had predicted a tally of 200 seats.

When the party went down to a humiliating defeat, the BJP's critics said that this proved that a. Amit Shah had lost his ability to read the public mood and b. That the old boast that when the prime minister campaigned he always swayed voters, had now been exploded.

Then there were the UP panchayat elections, where the BJP's vote share went down significantly compared to its triumph in the last Lok Sabha election. And those in the know say that polls tracking the national mood show that the BJP's popularity has taken a hit.

This is a strong case. But all too often we forget that there is also another side. And looked at from a different perspective, Modi may well be able to ride out this crisis just as he escaped electoral responsibility for the disaster of demonetisation.

I spoke to two psephologists I respect -- Yashwant Deshmukh and Sanjay Kumar -- who have been largely right about the public mood in recent times. Both of them had offered compelling reasons for believing the BJP would not win West Bengal even before the campaign started. And now both of them believe that any predictions about the exit of this government are premature.

For a start, as Sanjay Kumar pointed out, there are three years till the next Lok Sabha election, long enough for the public mood to change. There is also enough time for many things to happen.

Modi could change his approach perhaps and stop refusing to accept any responsibility at all for anything that goes wrong. He could finally realise that compromise and accountability are not synonyms for weakness and recognise that all his critics are not anti-nationals.

It is also long enough for other events to occur which could sway voters. For instance, says Sanjay Kumar, the BJP won around 60 seats more at the last Lok Sabha election on the basis of a last-minute surge of anti-Pakistan sentiment; what Sanjay calls the Balakot Bump.

Nor is it clear that Modi's perceived 'sincerity', the attribute that got him through demonetisation, has been badly damaged. All polling seems to suggest that he outperforms his party in popularity.

His approval ratings are in the 40s, which is bad by his standards (they were once around 70), but not so low that he cannot recover. (Joe Biden is regarded as very popular with an average approval rating of around 52 per cent.)

The BJP hopes that at the next election there will be a Ram Mandir bump. Frankly, that seems less and less likely. People who vote on the basis of their Hindu identity are already voting for Modi. There are very few votes left to win in that segment.

But Modi is nothing if not resourceful. As Prashant Kishor keeps warning, it is a mistake to underestimate him or the power of religious polarisation.

The prime minister has another advantage: The absence of a national alternative.

We know that the BJP can be beaten in the states. But is there a leader in the Opposition whose popularity rivals Modi? All polls say no.

As Yashwant Deshmukh explained, during UPA II, when Manmohan Singh's popularity went down, Narendra Modi's popularity went up by a corresponding figure. But this time, though Modi's popularity has slipped, no Opposition leader has seen a corresponding rise in his or her popularity.

The basic problem, of course, is the Congress.

Even as the BJP slides, the Congress does not appear to be the obvious alternative. It lost Assam where it was fighting an incumbent BJP government and even lost Kerala where tradition dictated that its victory was inevitable.

As we have seen during the pandemic, there is tremendous energy among younger Congress workers and more wisdom than is generally recognised (Rahul Gandhi has been totally right about the pandemic).

But even those voters who are disillusioned with Modi are unwilling to take the Congress seriously as an alternative. Until that happens, the BJP gets a free pass.

Will it happen? Will the Congress sort out its leadership issues? The BJP thinks it won't. But if the Congress does get its act together then the BJP could be in trouble.

Which leaves us with UP. Internal polling by political parties shows that Yogi Adityanath's popularity is dropping. But, says Deshmukh, the basic BJP support base of 40 per cent of the electorate is intact. That's enough to see it through the next assembly election.

Deshmukh says we are misreading the panchayat elections by comparing them to the last Lok Sabha election. Compare them to the previous panchayat election, he says, and the Samajwadi Party emerges as the real loser.

But there is also a Covid second wave rising in rural Uttar Pradesh. Nothing we have seen of Adityanath's governance so far gives us any confidence that he can effectively fight this wave. You can only terrorise whistle-blowers and hide dead bodies for so long. Ultimately, the truth will out.

Already, says Deshmukh, his research shows that one in five households has lost someone to Covid. If this terrible disease cuts a swathe through UP's villages, then the BJP is in deep trouble.

Public memory is short, but not when it comes to deaths in the family. And if the party loses UP, it will be difficult to get the numbers needed to win a majority in the next Lok Sabha.

So yes, Modi has reasons to worry. But his opponents are making a mistake. They shouldn't be smug.

Modi has outwitted them before. He could do it again.

Vir Sanghvi is a TV presenter and journalist.

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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus