Trust, Stephen MR Covey has written, is “the one thing that changes everything”. The word, it is safe to say, is high on the minds of the hundreds of millions of Indians who will vote for a new Parliament later this year.
Who do we trust to guide our country through the economic and social upheavals we are facing? Who do we trust to guarantee law and order? Who do we trust to ensure our children receive an education and will get jobs?
At the polling booth, trust is the opening balance of every candidate before the first vote is cast. The bigger this opening balance, the better the chances of victory.
Firstpost’s National Trust Survey breaks new ground by seeking to understand which leaders Indians trust and why. In an election as bitter and fractious as the upcoming one, the depth of the relationship of the voters with the principal players is key to understanding their behaviour.
This survey is very different from opinion polls seeking to provide us a snapshot of the public mood. Mood can be fickle, but trust is lasting.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) historic victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in March 2017, many political observers suggested that the return of the Narendra Modi-led government looked inevitable. The emerging consensus now is that the BJP is unlikely to repeat its brute majority performance of 2014.
Can the BJP and Narendra Modi turn the rising tide against themselves? The Survey conducted by IPSOS over three calendar months — November, December and January (for the second wave in four election states after the results) — points both to the possibilities as well as the constraints under which the BJP and Modi will have to frame their re-election bid. While on many indicators the results from the survey point to a very familiar pattern, there are some interesting insights.
First, the fait accompli: On India’s national political scene Narendra Modi is in a league of his own. The gap between how much respondents trust Modi and Rahul Gandhi is telling. Modi at 53% trust support is nearly two times more than Rahul at 27%. Mamata Banerjee (4%), Mayawati (3%) and Congress party’s latest star
Priyanka Gandhi (0.9%) are but a blip on the national radar.
Similarly, respondents’ trust in the principal opposition party remains very low. Surprisingly, the Congress’ victory in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh brings no good news regarding the improvement in the trust levels associated with either Rahul Gandhi or the main opposition party. There is indeed a slight decline in Modi’s popularity in the states where the second wave of the survey was conducted post-election, but a similar decline was also visible in Rahul Gandhi’s popularity.
Second, the BJP is trusted by a substantial number of respondents to tackle several issues ranging from law and order, addressing inequality, providing employment opportunities, dealing with corruption, and improving health, educational and general infrastructural facilities. The Congress lags the BJP on all these indicators. As the comparison of Wave I and Wave II data from four states suggests, though the trust level with the BJP declines slightly, there seems to be no improvement in the trust levels associated with the Congress.
ARITHMETIC AND CHEMISTRY
Third, despite the high level of trust for Modi as a leader and his governance record, this popularity is both socially and geographically limited. Regionally, the prime minister remains very popular, and respondents rate his government very highly, in the Hindi heartland and in western India. The same is not the case in southern and eastern India. Rahul Gandhi is more popular than Modi in the southern states. Trust in Modi is higher among the upper segments of Indian society, i.e., Hindu upper castes, urban dwellers, more educated and middle classes.
How should Modi approach his re-election bid? The survey data unequivocally suggests that Modi has national traction and thus the BJP will have a better chance if it manages to make this election a choice between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. While many of the controversial policies (such as demonetisation) do have reasonable support, the BJP seems to be losing the political capital generated in the first half of its term.
The BJP needs to ensure that the contest remains ‘national’ in character as state-by-state arithmetic does not look favourable. But that is not necessarily good news for the principal opposition party either. The data indicates that in the three Hindi heartland states where the Congress won the election, there is a convergence in trust levels associated with the BJP and Congress but the change is driven by a decline in the BJP’s position, not Congress’ rise (see Graph D). So, unlike the BJP, the Congress’ advantage lies in making this election a state-level contest.
Recent Opposition moves suggest that they have begun executing their plan to force the BJP to fight multiple parties in multiple states. The insertion of Priyanka Gandhi into the electoral mix days after Mayawati and Akhilesh decided to keep the Congress out of the their alliance suggests a coordinated plan to bleed the BJP by cutting into its vote bank. Modi revels in a One Vs All situation and the Opposition wants to deny him his electoral elixir.
Rahul Gandhi, the survey suggests, has made some inroads in his bid to knock down brand Modi. His Rafale allegations seem to be sticking but only to the extent of causing suspicion. This further suggests that the Congress has successfully challenged the BJP in controlling the political narrative and in setting the agenda.
The Congress must continue setting the terms of debate on employment opportunities, agrarian distress, among others, without falling prey to attacking the prime minister with personal jibes. It may win the party brownie points among the sympathisers, but given the PM’s popularity, it has the potential to backfire. Thus, Rahul Gandhi must avoid the election becoming a choice between himself and Modi.
In conclusion, the data from Firstpost’s The National Trust Survey suggests that while the contest of 2019 is wide open, the players have limited strategies available to them. That is why, perhaps more than in any past Indian election, 2019 will be a question of trust.
(BV Rao is Editor, Firstpost. Rahul Verma, Consulting Editor with Firstpost, is a political scientist and Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.)
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