Pew survey has Narendra Modi's detractors splitting hairs and shifting goalposts to hang on to narrative

It is a little amusing to note western institutions embarking on a periodic discovery of Narendra Modi-led India and struggling to make sense of the results, and even more amusing to note Modi's detractors—both home and away—splitting hairs and endlessly shifting goalposts to hang on to their narrative even as India continues to repose faith in its prime minister.

 Pew survey has Narendra Modis detractors splitting hairs and shifting goalposts to hang on to narrative

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

The latest findings by Pew Research Center, a US nonpartisan think tank, confirm what most Indians already know: That the prime minister continues to grow in popularity more than three years into his tenure in defiance of trends in democracies.

Whereas most leaders experience the dreaded three-year itch as it tips over the halfway mark and approaches the end of tenure, the Pew survey finds that the Indian prime minister—after a short blip in 2016—has recovered 12 percentage points this year and has now touched levels that he had reached shortly after being elected in 2014.

According to the survey, 88 percent Indians (nearly nine of ten) hold a favourable view of Modi, including 69 percent of those who express "a very favourable opinion". As news agency Reuters points out, "Such high ratings are unusual for political leaders three years into office in south Asia, where governments are more often voted out than retained as people become frustrated with broken campaign promises."

What's even more astounding is that this apparent jump in popularity happened post-demonetisation, an audaciously disruptive move carried out in November 2016 which saw 86 percent of circulating cash being sucked out of the system overnight in a predominantly cash-based economy.

The Opposition, detractors and an endless array of western and Indian commentators, economists and journalists had written off the BJP's chances in the ensuing Uttar Pradesh elections due to the apparent disgruntlement that demonetisation caused among the public and the shock that the economy had suffered. We were told that Uttar Pradesh elections would be a "litmus test for Modi and BJP". Let us recount some headlines. These are just a few examples:

1. Uttar Pradesh Election Results 2017: Outcome will be a litmus test of Modi’s reforms and popularity ahead 2019 polls

2. UP polls 2017: With all decks cleared, it would be a litmus test for PM Modi

3. Now, Uttar Pradesh a litmus test for BJP 

4. Demonetisation Could Negatively Impact BJP's Performance In UP Polls 

5. After Modi's demonetisation gamble, a lot is at stake for BJP in 2017 

The Pew survey, which was conducted between 21 February and 10 March, 2017, corroborates the UP election results and exposes a huge chunk of commentaries as misleading. This is because most assessments of Modi's popularity and impact as a prime minister are a priori in nature that draws heavily on reductive logic and causal relationships.

It is therefore taken as inevitable that since demonetisation caused widespread hardships among the poor (which is true), the electorate would punish Modi by voting against him (doesn't necessarily follow). As many noted, Modi turned the currency ban into a morality play where hardship was necessary to purge the country of the evil of black money.

Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister and an acclaimed economist, recently repeatedly his charge that demonetisation was "organised loot and legalised plunder", that it had broken the back of small businesses and that it should be marked as a black for Indian economy and democracy.

Yet the survey finds that people are firmly behind Modi in his handling of the economy, and are satisfied with the progress of their democracy. According to Pew, 79 percent Indians (nearly eight in 10) are satisfied with the way their democracy is currently working, including 33 percent who are "very satisfied".

It is interesting to note—since the government has come under sustained attack on its handling of the economy—that "despite a recent economic slowdown, Indians are upbeat about both current economic conditions and the future of their economy. More than eight in ten Indians (83 percent) say the nation’s economy is good, and 30 percent say it is very good," according to Pew.

Not surprisingly, the findings have been welcomed by the BJP and trashed by its political rivals and detractors. We are now being told that the survey should be ignored because a sample size of 2,464 among a country of billion-plus is too small.

We are also being told that since this survey does not take into account the Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation blues, it is misleading and that the real picture is totally different.

Accordingly, headlines which carry a strong sense of déjà vu have sprung up again: Pew survey results boost Narendra Modi's popularity, but Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh polls remain litmus tests.

Pew is a credible, acclaimed, Washington-based think tank and its survey methodologies have been explained on the website. It says that this particular survey was conducted via face-to-face interviews with respondents who speak Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi and Odia.

It says that the sample design is "multi-stage, area probability" and though it is "disproportionately urban, but the data are weighted to reflect the actual urban/rural distribution in India." The results have error margin of 3.7 percentage points.

It is easier to discredit the survey than look for reasons why Modi might be reversing established trends. The prime minister has great communication skills, enjoys an image of a hard taskmaster bent on disrupting the system deliberately to make it work. This conception, along with his image of incorruptibility, has allowed Modi a surprising space for mistakes which is denied to most of his peers.

Modi is also perceived as a doer, not a status quoist, and hence his apparently disruptive moves fit nicely with the carefully crafted persona of a 'strong leader'.

It is instructive to note Pew's findings that "a majority (55 percent) of Indians also back a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts, while 53% support military rule."

It is here that the answers lie, not in shifting of goalposts or discrediting surveys.

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 07:23:22 IST