According to Morning Consult's Global Leader Approval tracker, his net approval rating has remained stable for a second consecutive week, arresting the fall of the previous 5-6 weeks.
Net approval refers to the percentage of people who approve of a leader minus those who disapprove.
As of 25 May, PM Modi's net approval rating stands at 33 points, with 64 percent people surveyed approving of his leadership and 31 percent disapproving of it.
This article will try and answer two sets of questions – short term and long term.
- What led to the decline in Modi's popularity?
- Why has the decline halted?
- What is the main reason behind Modi's dominance?
- Is it the lack of 'alternatives' as many have argued?
Why Did Modi’s Ratings Go Down in April Not May?
According to Morning Consult's tracker, the recent decline in PM Modi's approval rating began in the beginning of April and continued for about six weeks till the middle of May.
On 31 March 2021, Modi's approval rating was at a pretty robust 54 percentage points – with 74 percent approving of his leadership and 20 percent disapproving of it. But by 8 May this had declined to 31 percentage points – with 63 percent approving of his leadership and 32 percent disapproving of it.
Modi’s Net Approval Rating fell by as much as 22 points between 31 March and 8 May 2021.
However, since then, the percentage of people who approve of Modi has increased marginally to 64 percent and the ones disapproving has decreased marginally to 31 percent.
The question is – why did the PM's approval rating fall through April but revived slightly in the second half of May?
This could partly be due to the fact that official numbers of COVID cases peaked around 6 May and since then there has been a decline.
However, the impact of the pandemic – be it the dead bodies lying in crematoriums and at river banks or the shortage of oxygen in hospitals continued through much of May. So, it's not as if the pandemic has abated.
The fall in Modi's popularity in April also seems to have coincided with the West Bengal election campaign, in which he addressed a several huge rallies.
According to CVoter founder and psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh, “The fall didn’t take place due to factors like oxygen shortage or the tragic scenes at crematoriums. It's the contrast between people's suffering on one hand and PM addressing rallies with huge crowds on the other, that may have upset people.”
CVoter's tracker, too, reveals the same pattern – that the PM's approval rating declined through April but has started reviving in the second half of May.
“It’s like this, an average person is suffering and seeing destruction all around him due to the pandemic. And then he sees that the PM he elected is busy campaigning. Naturally he will doubt the intent of the PM.”Yashwant Deshmukh, CVoter
Deshmukh believes that keeping a low profile through May could have helped the PM halt the decline in his popularity.
What’s Behind Modi’s Long-Term Dominance?
The difference between "intent" and actual "performance" is crucial in understanding PM Modi's dominance. Modi's spin doctors have been successful in insulating his appeal from the reality of his government's performance.
It is no coincidence that in most of his ‘addresses to the nation’ or his monthly Mann ki Baat, the PM never refers to the specifics of government policy. His focus is mostly on the larger political message and his connect with voters.
The specifics are mostly left to his ministers, which often makes them the target of public dissatisfaction, not the PM.
Deshmukh points out that throughout Modi's tenure, there has been a significant gap between the PM's approval rating and that of his government.
For instance in CVoter's State of the Nation Poll in January 2021, the PM's approval rating was around 8-9 percentage points more than that of his government. In January 2020, this gap was about six percentage points.
It seems that to some extent, people separate the PM from the impact of the Centre's alleged governance failures.
Even when people were suffering due to demonetisation, a common refrain among people was “at least he’s doing something”. By and large people didn’t doubt the “intent” of Modi’s decision even if they may have suffered due to it.
The contrast between the rallies in Bengal and the devastation of the pandemic across the country, may have compelled a large chunk of people to doubt Modi's intent for the first time. It created the perception that the PM is power hungry and apathetic towards the people's suffering.
Is Lack of an Alternative a Factor?
In the last couple of weeks, a number of prominent political observers have written articles putting forward the argument that at the root of PM Modi's dominance lies the absence of credible alternatives. These articles often end up bashing the Opposition.
Of course there is no doubt that Opposition leaders may have failed to counter Modi's appeal. But this is often overstated.
The rise and fall of Modi's popularity is happening irrespective of the popularity of Opposition leaders.
In the CVoter tracker, the decline in Modi’s approval rating in April was accompanied by a significant rise in people replying “can’t say” when asked who they want to see as PM. There was no significant change in the popularity of Modi’s main competitors.
The alternative or the lack of it will become an important factor one year or 18 months before the next general elections. As of now, Modi’s decline and revival isn’t being determined by this.
Even if one looks at the UPA's second tenure, the decline in its popularity began somewhere in 2010 and intensified rapidly after the India Against Corruption agitation of 2011.
But there was no accompanying increase in the popularity of any of the then PM Manmohan Singh's challengers. The rise in Modi's popularity as a PM candidate began much later, in the beginning of 2013.
Therefore, Modi's decline or resilience as of now isn't entirely connected to the Opposition. It has more to do with the changes in people's perception about him.
The recent decline is a case in point. Opposition's criticism of Modi's handling of the Covid crisis actually intensified in May. Yet the main decline in his popularity, according to both Morning Consult and CVoter, took place in April.
People Reward Tough Decisions, Even if it Leads to Suffering
According to the Morning Consult's tracker, PM Modi's popularity peaked on two occasions in his second tenure. The first was around 10 August 2019– a Net Approval Rating of 73 with 84 percent people approving of Modi's leadership and 11 percent disapproving of it. This was around the same time as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
The second was on 2 May 2020 – a net approval of 72 (84 percent approving and 12 percent disapproving). This was during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown.
In both cases, PM Modi is perceived to have taken "strong decisions" and this contributed to his popularity. The Jammu and Kashmir case also ties in with the narrative of Hindutva but the second case is more instructive.
High popularity during the lockdown, like demonetisation, seems to indicate that people reward ‘tough and sweeping decisions’. These decisions led to a great deal of distress for the people yet, as data indicates, they seem to have received support because of the belief that the “intent was right”.
Faith in Modi's "intent" stems not from his competence as a PM but in what he represents for a major chunk of the population – a Hindu Hriday Samrat for some sections, and for others a 'strong' leader capable of taking 'tough decisions'. Obviously big factors behind this image creation are a pliant media and the BJP’s well funded publicity machinery.
To be fair, the Opposition has done a decent job of putting the government on the pat regarding its failures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic or its mishandling of the vaccination process.
But to break Modi's dominance, exposing the government's failures isn't enough, it would need to question Modi's "intent" and break the aura around him. Allegations of apathy may hit Modi harder than charges of incompetence.