New Delhi, Jan 24 (IndiaToday) – Serious surveys showcasing serious issues that engage the Indian voter may, or may not, result in serious slanging matches in TV studios where party representatives throw barbs at each other like gladiators hurling poisoned missiles. But they serve a far more serious purpose: gauging the actual “mood” of the nation. Is it good, bad or even ugly?
There was a time in the aftermath of the second wave of the pandemic when the good seemed to be a distant memory with hundreds of thousands of Indians grief-stricken by the avoidable loss of family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbours and office colleagues to an abundance of Delta and an acute shortage of medical oxygen, among other lifesaving things.
The mood was bad and threatening to get ugly. About six months down the road, India seems to be healing, though the scars and the hurt persist.
The government has not just been at war with the pandemic; for most of 2021, it looked as if the farmers of India and the Government of India were at war with each other. Party spokespersons hurled abuses at each other even as they competed to praise the “annadatas”.
In heavy-duty newspaper and magazine columns, even pundits became polarised. One section called the three farm laws a great and bold reform measure while another called it an invitation to rapacious fat cat industrialists to sneak through the back door and grab the land of peasants. The farmers won – the laws have been repealed and the reforms lobby is licking its wounds.
Against this backdrop, the latest Mood of the Nation survey comes across as a relatively soothing voice. The seething rage seems to have dissipated, Indians (except the extreme partisans) across the board are proud of the mammoth vaccine effort and, even as a majority battle falling incomes in conjunction with rising prices, they hold a sliver of economic optimism for the near future.
Once again, elections are around the corner and though the Election Commission of India (having learnt its lessons during the second wave) seems determined to spoil the “party” by imposing daunting curbs, people in this “electoral autocracy” and “partly free” or “deeply flawed” democracy (as western and liberal media would have you believe) are busy sloganeering and freely abusing each other.
There has been no earth-shaking change in the mood of the nation between now and the previous two surveys. But there have been subtle and significant changes. They promise to have an impact not just on the Assembly elections, but also the 2024 Lok Sabha election and the future of the Indian economy.
I know a week is a long time in politics. But I also know a decade is a mere blip when fundamental changes are coursing through the society and polity of a country. Here are my personal takeaways from this survey:
1. MODI REMAINS MOST POPULAR LEADER
Despite the depredations of the second wave and the year-long protests by farmers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains by far the most popular and tallest political leader.
There is no one even close to him. Close to 58 per cent of respondents are very satisfied or satisfied with the performance of his government. Of course, in a sign of increased polarisation, almost 26 per cent are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the performance of his government, up about 8 per cent compared to the August 2021 survey.
Close to 63 per cent rate his performance between good and outstanding. This comes at a time when he is going to complete eight years as prime minister and the economy is in poor shape. He also remains the most popular prime minister ever, way above towering personalities like Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
2. PM MODI PLAYS A HUGE ROLE IN BJP’S ELECTORAL SUCCESS
As things stand today, if the NDA led by the BJP were to win a historic third successive term in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the personal charisma, popularity and “connect” with the voters that PM Modi enjoys will play a key role along with a perpetually war-ready electoral machine, a dominating share of election funds and the untiring efforts of the much-unloved foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar.
One clear hint of this comes from this survey where respondents were asked to rate chief ministers. There are ten chief ministers whose performance rating is above the national average. Only one of them, Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam, belongs to the BJP and NDA. All other NDA chief ministers performed below the national average. This has been observed since 2017.
In Uttar Pradesh, the party won a monstrous mandate without projecting any regional leader as even a possible chief minister. The Congress almost pulled off a stunning upset in December, 2017 in Gujarat. But it was PM Modi’s last minute heroics and histrionics that saved the BJP in the state.
In April-May of 2018, the BJP failed to win a majority in Karnataka and watched helplessly as the Congress-JDS post-poll alliance formed the government.
In December 2018, the party was swept out of power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh despite powerful and popular regional chieftains like Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Dr Raman Singh.
But in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP virtually swept all those states. If the BJP loses more Assembly elections by 2023, it could work to the advantage of PM Modi as anti-incumbency against local BJP leaders and state governments would have dissipated and voters would be back to their Modi-at-the-Centre logic. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
3. REGIONAL PARTIES POSE CREDIBLE CHALLENGE TO BJP DOMINANCE
If there is anybody posing a credible challenge to the dominance of the BJP, it is the regional parties. In the 2019 Haryana Assembly election, it was a new, virtually unknown breakaway faction of the Lok Dal led by Dushyant Chautala, a scion of the clan that was started by late Devi Lal, that saved the chief ministerial post of Manohar Lal Khattar of the BJP.
In Jharkhand, a Hemant Soren and JMM-led alliance won a clear mandate with the sitting Chief Minister Raghubar Das of the BJP losing his own seat. In the aftermath of the same set of Assembly elections, the old and wily warhorse Sharad Pawar reached out to Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and taught a master-class in realpolitik to Modi and Amit Shah.
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The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won the Maharashtra election and the BJP emerged as the largest party; but today it sits in the Opposition while the MVA government sits pretty despite the usual intra alliance squabbles. Then came early 2020 when Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP once again humiliated the BJP in Delhi.
In Bihar in the same year, the NDA should have thanked AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for preventing a resurgent Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD from becoming chief minister. Then came 2021, when further humiliation was in store for the BJP. Nobody expected it to do much in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where regional parties dominated completely. It didn’t.
But it was gobsmacked by a tidal TMC wave led by the fiery, combative and belligerent Mamata Banerjee, capping it to just 77 out of 294 seats. Sure, that’s a huge jump from three seats in the previous Assembly election. But the BJP balloon was well and truly deflated in West Bengal.
Their victory in Assam was a consolation prize. There is one very important factor here. In many other states where the BJP loses Assembly elections, the Modi magic works in Lok Sabha elections. These regional leaders have largely not allowed that to happen in their states.
For example, as per this MOTN survey, if the Lok Sabha election was to happen today, TMC would win 35 out of 42 seats in West Bengal, reducing the BJP to seven. If Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav pulls off a coup in Uttar Pradesh, the “regional” challenge will become even more formidable.
4. CONGRESS MUST SOUL-SEARCH
The trio of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress has some serious soul-searching to do as regional leaders intensify their efforts to put up a strong anti-BJP front. The latest MOTN survey gives the Congress a national vote share of 20 per cent if Lok Sabha polls were to be held today.
No other Opposition political party comes even close to 5 per cent. In any other situation, the Congress would be the automatic fulcrum of a pre- or post-poll alliance to oust the BJP-led NDA, as it happened unexpectedly in 2004. But there is a problem this time around in a virtual repeat of 2014 and 2019.
Despite a 20 per cent vote share, the MOTN survey projects the party to win just 62 seats. Sure, that’s more than 44 and 52, but come on. Except Karnataka and Haryana, the Congress is projected to perform miserably against the BJP in straight fights.
How then can regional party leaders who have demonstrated their ability to beat the BJP in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections accept Rahul Gandhi as their leader when he refuses to become Congress president, choosing to rule via proxies?
But politics doesn’t tolerate a vacuum for a very long time. Sooner or later, the Gandhis have to decide what their role is going to be in an Opposition effort to oust PM Modi. Otherwise, events will take over. It’s a tired old cliché but still very valid: time and tide wait for none.
5. STATE OF THE ECONOMY SHOULD WORRY BJP
That brings me to my final personal observation about the elephant(s) in the room that should worry the BJP immensely as it starts preparing for 2024. And that is the state of the economy. I am not talking jargon like GDP, FDI, PLI, etc. I am simply talking about how ordinary Indian households are struggling with family finances, often failing to make ends meet. Rising prices and/or inflation have emerged as the biggest issue in this MOTN survey.
It was the biggest issue in August 2013 and January 2014, bigger even than scams and corruption. Worries about unemployment have declined since the August 2021 survey, but it remains the second biggest issue for respondents who will be voters in 2024.
The good news for PM Modi is: the Lok Sabha election is still more than two years away, giving him time to deal with the elephant(s) in the room. If he fails to do that, it will be the first time in his almost 23 years in a constitutional post (by 2024) that he would have failed to create opportunities out of a crisis.
I have no more observations to make. But I do have a request. None of us know where Omicron is headed and where it could take us. It could remain less malignant and become an endemic in due course. Or, it could mutate into something worse than the Delta variant that ravaged us last year. So, please don’t drop your guard and take every possible precaution. Human lives matter more than political debates and electoral outcomes.