India: Why Modi is Still So Popular Even as India Fails to Fight Virus

  • India is battling one of the world’s highest coronavirus caseloads, its worst-ever economic slump, shuttered factories, farmer protests and the deadliest border fighting with China in decades.
  • Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to remain as popular as ever. Opinion polls in Bihar, where from 28 Oct 20 to 7 Nov 20 he faces his first major electoral test since the pandemic, show his coalition comfortably retaining control of the state government.
  • A separate India Today “Mood of the Nation” poll in Aug 20 said 78% rated his performance as “good to outstanding” compared with 71% in 2019.
  • Modi backers also blame others for India’s woes, and there is no shortage of targets: Federal bureaucrats, state governments, village leaders, opposition parties and even their fellow citizens.
  • The prime minister has helped endear himself to India’s poor by meeting their daily needs with programs to supply cooking gas, toilets and housing, all while taking measures to bolster the status of the Hindu majority over religious minorities.
  • In the absence of significant national opposition, voters have been willing to give Modi a very long leash, according to Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow at the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • “He is popular because he has ideological clarity and he’s only implementing what the BJP had promised in their manifesto, like the promise to repeal Article 370,” said Arun Anand, research director at Delhi-based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra and author of two books on the BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Politicians keeping their word is rare in India.”
  • Part of his success is an ability to control the narrative. Modi hasn’t held a single press conference as prime minister during his six years in power, instead reaching out to the masses directly through a weekly radio program as well as posts on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. His party’s social media army has effectively deflected blame for problems, including to opposition parties.
  • “Modi’s ability to reach his message directly to individuals is unsurpassable,” said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at Center for Policy Research. “I am increasingly convinced of the connection between creating of a powerful charismatic leader and a media-controlled narrative. How do you build trust in somebody? You keep telling stories that build his credibility.”

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