Modi’s Balakot Surge Gone, Economy Main Issue for Voters: Survey
"Bharat ne ghar me ghus kar aatankwadiyo ko maara”. In many election speeches, you would hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi make this claim - that under him, India entered Pakistan and killed terrorists. On the other hand, there are a few words that the PM may not mention as frequently such as “jobs”, “agriculture” or even his own catchphrases like “Make in India”, “Startup India” or “Digital India”.
This is clever politics from the Prime Minister. It seems that a focus on economic issues such as unemployment and agrarian distress is bad for Modi’s popularity but a national security thrust is good for his ratings.
CVoter’s election tracker shows the rise and fall in Modi’s popularity in the past few months and it also maps out which issues assumed more importance in the minds of voters at different points of time. Not surprisingly, Modi’s popularity has a strong positive correlation with public focus on national security and a negative correlation with people’s focus on economic issues.
A clear pattern can be seen from this timeline. In January, economic issues dominated the mind-space of voters - On 10 January, 70.7 percent voters said that economic issues - like unemployment, price rise, agrarian distress etc - mattered most to them. Only 2.3 percent said that security was the most important concern.
At that time, Modi’s net approval rating was at 34.8 percent. This pattern did not change much until the Pulwama attack.
Conversely, the proportion of people who considered economic issues as the most important reduced from 62 percent to 45.4. Even those who said that local issues are the most important, reduced by five percentage points.
This increased focus on national security appears to have helped prime minister Modi’s popularity as his net approval rating increased by 10 percentage points in this period.
His popularity continued to soar till around the first week of March. On 7 March, Modi’s net approval rating was 63.5 percent, the highest this year and nearly double of what it was in January. The proportion of people who picked security as their main concern had risen to 26 percent while those who chose economic issues were at 45 percent, much lower than the figure in January.
However, this national security centered narrative began petering out by the end of March and economic issues again became more important. PM Modi’s popularity began dropping as well.
On 1 April, the day PM Modi addressed the nation on ISRO’s Mission Shakti, 53.2 percent respondents said that economic issues mattered most to them. This was an increase of around eight percent. On the other hand, those picking security issues had fallen to 14.5 percent. Modi’s net approval ratings were at 49.6 percent, a fall of nearly 14 percentage points from its 7 March peak.
As many as 56.6 percent respondents said that economic issues are the most important while 23.2 percent said that local issues are the most important. This trend remained more or less consistent till the second phase of polling on 18 April. Nearly half of those who picked economic issues, tended to pick unemployment as the most important issue in the elections.
Clearly, increasing public focus on the economy is harmful to Modi’s chances of getting re-elected as the Prime Minsiter.
The BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Thakur from Bhopal indicate that the party is desperately trying to bring a game-changer than can shift the focus away from the economy.
We have seen in the past, be it after the Kargil War or the 2016 Surgical Strikes, the electoral impact of national security has significant state-wise variations. The political impact of the Pulwama attacks and the Balakot air-strike is no exception.
According to CVoter tracker data from 19 April, respondents in core BJP states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Delhi and Chhattisgarh gave the more importance to security as an issue, compared to the southern states and Punjab.
A piece of bad news for PM Modi is that in the states that in the states where a comparatively higher proportion of people gave primacy to security, also happen to be states that the BJP had swept in 2014 and there is very little scope for the party to improve its tally.
In six major states, over 15 percent respondents said that security is the most important issue in this election: MP, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana. In 2014, BJP won 102 out of 108 seats in these states. There is no way that the party can repeat this tally. At the most, the national security card will only enable it to restrict its losses in these seats.
The only area where BJP, according to the survey, can gain due to this issue are the smaller states in the Northeast. According to CVoter, over 18 percent voters in the six Northeastern states put together - Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura - said that security is the most important issue.
These six states comprise 10 Lok Sabha seats. The NDA had won only three seats in these states last time. There is some scope for the NDA to gain some seats in this region.
On the other hand, the comparatively lower resonance of the BJP’s national security card in battleground states like West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka should disappoint the party.
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