CVoter’s COVID-19 survey shows that the Narendra Modi government enjoys a high approval rating as far as its handling of the pandemic is concerned. When people were asked if the “government of India was handling the crisis well”, as of 23 April, 93.2 percent agreed while only 5.6 percent disagreed.
While this data made headlines in the media, one needs to delve a little deeper to understand the reason behind this high approval rating.
Sudden Spike in End March
If one looks at the entire CVoter tracker, which begins on 16 March, it shows that even in the beginning, the Narendra Modi government enjoyed a high approval rating of around 75 percent.
But it is around the fag end of March and beginning of April, that there’s a sudden spike, taking the approval rating above the 90 percent mark.
This graph shows that this sudden spike coincides with a similar increase in the proportion of people who believe that the COVID-19 threat is real.
When people were asked in the CVoter survey “do you believe that the COVID-19 threat is being exaggerated”, around 31-38 percent disagreed between 16 to 31 March. But this increased to 47 percent on 1 April and has been above 50 percent since 3 April.
This is supported by another set of data in the CVoter survey. It is around the same time – March end and first week of April – that there was a sudden spike in the proportion of people who felt that they could get COVID-19.
When people were asked “do you feel that you or someone in your family could get COVID-19?”, the proportion of those who agreed was 30-36 percent until 30 March but suddenly increased to 45 percent on 1 April. It has been above 40 percent since then.
So, the sudden spike in Modi’s approval rating coincides with a similar spike in COVID-19 fears.
‘Rally Round the Flag’ Effect
This is not surprising. PM Modi’s popularity has consistently increased due to “threat perception”, be it after the Pulwama Attack in 2019 February or the Uri attack in 2016.
In both these cases, Modi was seen as having taken decisive action. The same can be said about the COVID-19 crisis. Irrespective of the actual performance of the government, the perception is that it has been decisive, mainly due to the tough lockdown.
The spike in Modi’s approval ratings in end March and first week of April also coincides with another important development – the row surrounding COVID-19 spread due to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi. This is around the same time that much of the media’s focus shifted from the migrant workers’ crisis to the Tablighi Jamaat.
It is possible that the addition of a communal angle to the pandemic threat also contributed to increased support for Modi among a section of the population.
Of course, support for the incumbent during times of crisis is not unique to India. This happens often across the world and is often referred to as the “rally round the flag effect”, a term first used in the US.
Incumbents often use this effect to ensure reduction of criticism regarding their performance.
Even in the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Gallup-CVoter survey, people across the world have tended to support their respective regimes even in badly hit countries like Italy.
Of course, the survey says that support for the regime is among the highest in India, even by international standards.
Prime Minister Modi also appears to know how to channelise this “rally round the flag effect” to increase his popularity. This is evident in the manner in which he told people to turn off their lights for 9 minutes at 9 PM on 5 April besides lighting candles. Incidentally, this took place in the first week of April, the period when Modi’s approval rating witnessed a spike.
As the saying goes, “Bhay bin hoye na preet (fear commands obedience/devotion).” For the Modi government, this certainly holds true.