Narendra Modi’s popularity once seemed unassailable. Not anymore

May 3, 2021, 11:21 AM UTC

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s diehard fan following is legendary. But the tsunami of COVID cases that has slammed India in recent weeks, filling hospitals and overwhelming crematoriums, is testing Modi’s popularity like no other crisis has.   

India recorded 2.6 million new COVID cases and 23,800 related deaths in the past week. On Monday alone, India recorded 368,147 new infections and 3,417 deaths. People are dying from lack of medical supplies and equipment, just weeks after India dispatched vaccines and medicines to the rest of the world, confident the virus threat had receded at home. 

The wave of infections has incited criticism of Modi. Opponents say he was too quick to declare victory over the virus and prioritized politics over public health by holding huge rallies for state elections as the second wave gathered steam. The outcome of those elections suggest that Modi’s party remains resilient, even in the face of catastrophe, but opinion polling proves that the COVID crisis is tarnishing the Prime Minister’s once-unassailable approval rating.  

The election in the Indian state of West Bengal was the first test of Modi’s regime since the second wave began. For years, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has tried to make inroads in the India’s fourth-largest state, which shares a border with Bangladesh. West Bengal was a bastion of leftist rule for decades until Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress defeated the Left Front in 2011. Going into the election, BJP was in a close race with Trinamool Congress and had a chance to eke out a win. In the end, the BJP lost the battleground to the Trinamool Congress, which won two-thirds of the state’s votes, but Modi’s party still picked up substantial gains in the state legislature.

In another election in the northeastern state of Assam, the BJP retained power, while contests in Tamil Nadu and Kerala favored opposition parties. The tiny territory of Puducherry went for the All India NR Congress, of which the BJP is a junior partner.

Analysts say the outcome of the state elections was only a modest setback for Modi’s party and that voters in the state elections were more concerned with local issues than national matters that a Prime Minister can shape. “This may not have dented Modi’s image,” said Sandeep Shastri, vice chancellor at Jagran Lakecity University Bhopal. Even next year’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, are likely to turn on local, not federal, issues. 

In truth, Modi will not face a national reckoning on his handling of the COVID crisis until India holds its next parliamentary elections in 2024, and as Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of the book Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times, notes, “There is sufficient time for recovery [before then].” 

Political commentator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta says it’s too early to predict how the COVID crisis will shape the fate of Modi and his regime. But with so many people dying from COVID—including relatives of Modi’s followers—and a health care system near collapse, the support base for his government had likely eroded, Thakurta said.

There’s already evidence that Modi’s personal popularity is slipping. 

Yashwant Deshmukh, founder and editor of Centre for Voting Opinion in Election Research, a polling agency that surveys 3,000 people a week in 11 Indian languages, says the number of respondents who describe themselves as “very satisfied” with Modi’s performance has fallen sharply to 40%, down from 64% last year. Those describing themselves as “not at all satisfied” has increased to 32%, up from 15% last year.

The drop-off is substantial, but it may not be enough to loosen Modi’s grip on power. He remains an enormously popular leader among a wide swath of Indian voters, and his closest rival, Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, is losing support too. 

Modi’s approval has ranked above 50% for the entirety of his prime ministership, says Deshmukh. Modi has won over Indians by casting himself as a man of the people; a leader who’s honest, transparent, and capable of delivering on economic development. (His opponents are quick to call him an authoritarian ruler.) Indeed, Modi has long been the head of state with the highest approval rating on Morning Consult’s tracker of 13 world leaders. He remained in the top spot this week by an 12-point margin.

“Modi still gets a 60% rating on the quotient on who will be their preferred Prime Minister candidate,” Deshmukh said. “The nearest used to be Rahul Gandhi at 15%,” he says, but now there are more people undecided than committed to Gandhi.

Despite the drop in polling, “the Prime Minister’s personal ratings are still intact,” Deshmukh told Fortune. “People are looking at the central government separately [from Modi].”

The anger and frustration stirred by the most recent COVID wave is different from Indians’ reaction to another crisis, the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman physiotherapy intern in Delhi in 2012. Many analysts believe public outrage over the assault and the government’s handling of the case cost the then-ruling Congress Party its power. At the time, the Congress Party controlled Delhi state and the federal government. In demonstrations that erupted throughout the nation, protesters blamed Congress for inadequate security.

By contrast, opinions are more divided over COVID-19; some perceive it as a man-made virus unleashed by China, and others blame it on a failure of management by Indian authorities. There was some anger over the lockdown Modi imposed with little warning during India’s first COVID wave in March 2020, but the general public thought that he was trying to protect them. Anger over the second wave is directed at the state governments of the worst-affected regions, the federal government, and the public’s own lax adherence to protocols like wearing masks and social distancing.

The second wave of the COVID crisis also threatens to choke the recovery of India’s economy. Dipti Deshpande, principal economist at CRISIL Ratings, said that her firm is maintaining its GDP growth forecast of 11% for fiscal year 2022. But she acknowledged the firm may need to reconsider that estimate if the rate of new COVID cases, now running three times levels during the peak of last year’s wave, forces more lockdowns through May. 

She noted, however, that the current restrictions on Indians’ movement are less strict than the first wave. Indicators like electricity consumption, rail bookings, and road freight are softening but may recover quickly if the public health crisis can be contained.

Another economist said that there’s plenty Modi could do to boost the economy. 

Biswajit Dhar, professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the Modi-led government has failed to provide the kind of stimulus measures needed to prop up demand. “Even in the pre-COVID situation, the real problem was the demand side,” he said.

“There were a number of indicators to show demand had slackened, but there was no clear push,” he added. In some economies, “the clear intent has been to stimulate the demand.” He highlighted a recent survey by the Reserve Bank of India that said Indians’ consumer confidence had receded further into negative territory because of the deteriorating economy, with higher spending expected on essential goods.

Given the current crisis, however, even leading industry officials are urging Modi to tame the virus, no matter the economic cost. Uday Kotak, president of Confederation of Indian Industry, said in a statement on Sunday that his organization urged “the strongest national steps including curtailing economic activity to reduce suffering.”

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