Why Second COVID Wave May Hurt Modi’s Popularity Unlike the First
A poll shows Modi has the highest approval rating among world leaders but this is his lowest rating since Jan 2020.
Morning Consult's Global Leader's Approval Rating shows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi retains the highest net approval rating among a selection of 13 world leaders.
According to the tracker as of 27 April, PM Modi has a net approval rating of 39 percentage points, higher than President Joe Biden of the United States, Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil, Italian PM Mario Draghi, Boris Johnson of the UK, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Moon Jae In of South Korea, Scott Morrison of Australia, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Perdo Sanchez of Spain, Yoshihide Suda of Japan and Justin Trudeau of Canada.
However, the tracker also indicates that this is PM Modi's lowest net approval rating since January 2020. The previous low was 46 points on 9 March 2020.
As of 27 April, 67 percent Indians approve of PM Modi's leadership while 28 percent don't. Though this is still a healthy approval rating, the disapproval is the highest than it ever was throughout last year, despite the first COVID-19 wave, the nationwide lockdown and the resultant migrant crisis.
This article will try to answer two questions:
- Is the present crisis different from last year?
- Should PM Modi and his spin doctors worry?
How the present crisis is different
Now, PM Modi has consistently enjoyed a high approval rating even throughout the lockdown and COVID-19 crisis last year. This is supported not just by the Morning Consult tracker but also CVoter's international tracker, that has extensively been covered by The Quint.
However, this hasn't been due to some exceptional governance or COVID-19 management by the Modi government. The lockdown did lead to immense suffering to millions of Indians and many say that the government could have acted faster in addressing the COVID-19 threat. However, there was a sense that the crisis wasn't of PM Modi's making and that he acted decisively to impose the lockdown.
PM Modi also benefitted a great deal due to the 'Rally Around the Flag' effect — the tendency of people to support the government during a crisis, war, natural calamity etc.
Having said that, it seems that the present crisis is a bit different from the situation last year and the narrowing of Modi's approval rating in the Morning Consult tracker might be an indication of it.
Last year, more than the pandemic, it was the lockdown which affected people. In the second wave, the focus almost entirely has been on the pandemic, with dead bodies piling up at crematoriums and graveyards, people dying due to shortage of oxygen and the existing health system proving to be woefully inadequate. To add to this has been the government’s slow response in providing vaccines to people.
The ‘rally around the flag effect’ is also subject to diminishing returns and no government can expect to be benefitting from it constantly.
Also, there is a distinct class difference between the people affected most last year and those feeling the maximum impact this year. The middle class, Modi's strongest constituency, has been the worst-affected by the second wave of COVID-19. The 2020 lockdown on the other hand affected the poor and migrant labourers most. Though numerous, this is a politically powerless constituency compared to the middle class.
Middle class anger on the other hand has the potential of shaping the national narrative and even the otherwise pro-government media won't be able to entirely ignore the sentiment in this section.
The importance of middle class anger can be seen from the fact that the much smaller Anna Hazare movement damaged the then government much more than the much larger movements against CAA and farm laws that the Modi government has faced.
The other section that the BJP needs to worry about is the youth. A large number of voters in the 18-25 age group may not be that keen to continue giving the BJP a chance in the face of multiple crises.
This crisis is also different because none of the usual spins carried out by the government seem to be working.
The ministry of external affairs has directed ambassadors to take steps to contain bad publicity internationally, but to very little benefit. The efforts to clampdown on online criticism from the public met with a stern response from the Supreme Court. Even a letter written by 'mental health experts' on the reporting of deaths, was proven to be an RSS-inspired move. On the other hand, statements such as that by health minister Harsh Vardhan and UP CM Yogi Adityanath that there's no shortage of oxygen, fell flat in the face of rising deaths due to oxygen shortage. For once, the BJP seems to be losing the perception battle.
Unlike the first COVID-19 wave, it couldn't even transfer blame to an Opposition-ruled state like Maharashtra, which has done a much better job of boosting capacity and managing oxygen supply ahead of the second wave. Barring Delhi and Chhattisgarh, the focus of the second wave has been largely in BJP-ruled states, most notably Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka.
Should the Modi Government Be worried?
Make no mistake, this is the toughest moment politically for PM Modi in the last seven years. Even after the 2016 demonetisation and 2017 GST, Modi did face a great deal of criticism, espcecially from traders. But even then few raised doubts over Modi's intent and competence. This has changed this time on, with Modi's competence being directly in question. Modi's self congratulatory speech at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, praising his government's handling of COVID-19 has come back to haunt his government and appear as a cruel joke in retrospect.
After demonetisation, Modi did benefit from the sentiment among poorer voters, that he had taken an important step targetting the allegedly illicit wealth of the rich. There's no such sentiment this time. The farmers' movement had already created a perception that the Modi government is against farmers. Now the urban middle class is also hurting. It remains to be seen if the poorest voters remain supportive of the government or not. This may become more and more difficult as the pandemic spreads to rural and semi-rural areas.
But is there any real political threat to the government?
Maybe not immediately. After all elections are still three years away. But the more immediate impact will be felt by states where elections are due in 2022.
As things stand today, Punjab is a lost cause for the BJP, which will be lucky to save its deposit in most of the seats. There is a great deal of anti-incumbency against the BJP governments in Uttarakhand and Goa, and both are states for the Opposition Congress to lose. Incidentally, in both these states the Aam Aadmi Party is also staking claim to the anti-incumbency vote.
The main battle, however, is Uttar Pradesh. A few weeks ago, the election seemed a done deal for the BJP.
Despite running a lacklustre government, CM Yogi Adityanath is said to have pushed BJP's ideological mission and also weakened the Opposition enough to win a second term in office.
However, the second wave of the pandemic has been catastrophic in Uttar Pradesh. Already videos have gone viral of angry relatives of those killed in the pandemic attacking CM Adityanath. Interestingly, many of those criticising the CM claimed to have once been BJP supporters.
In UP, the BJP is already facing opposition from Jats following the farmers' agitation. If more of its earlier committed voters shift, then Adityanath's second term might be in danger.
Of course a great deal depends on how the Opposition – be it Akhilesh Yadav, Priyanka Gandhi, or Mayawati – play their cards and put the Adityanath government on the mat.
But the political tussle surrounding the pandemic may play out much before the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Going by the Modi government's track record, it is likely to undertake some major measures at least to be seen to be acting. Whether this genuinely addresses the raging pandemic isn't sure, it is likely to lead to further concentration of power with the Centre.
In either case, the seeds for a major shift of public opinion against the Modi government have been sown in this pandemic and the government has only its own failures to blame for it.
Whether the Opposition is able to capitalise on this remains to be seen.
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