Missing the Mood for the Breeze

The media missed the Modi juggernaut that wasn’t even trying to hide in plain sight, and looked for results in the wrong place—the corridors of the national capital. All exit polls, however, got the direction right: Modi was coming back

Firstpost print Edition
By BV Rao

At the end of campaigning on May 17, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah hosted a news conference at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his side. It was a significant event for three reasons.

One, for what Modi did. This was Modi’s very first news conference at the fag end of his first term. Two, for what Modi said. “It is after a long time that a majority government, after completing its full five-year term, will be voted back with a majority. This will be a very significant event.”

The third, the significance of the first two itself was lost on the media. Firstpost fact-checked. The last time a prime minister leading a majority government (Indira Gandhi) was voted back with a majority was 48 years ago, in 1971. Network18’s resident psephologist, Rahul Verma, used cricketing analogy to put it in perspective. “It is like Sachin Tendulkar hitting a triple hundred in a one-day match and repeating the feat in the immediate next match.”

But the media was blissfully ignorant of the impending creation of electoral history. Most reporters went back to newsrooms to peddle trivia about how Modi remained mum as Shah took all the questions. The following two days, the media busied itself with questioning if Modi’s visit to Kedarnath and Badrinath during the campaign-silence period was a violation of the model code of conduct.

Then, on 19 May, exit polls were released to the public. The News18-IPSOS poll (for the Network18 group of which Firstpost is a part) predicted a big win for Modi. It gave 336 seats to the NDA and 276 to the BJP. Two other polls got closer to the NDA figure of 350, while most others predicted victory by lesser margins for the NDA. All exit polls, however, got the direction right: Modi was coming back.

If the media had trusted their own opinion polls, they would not have blown wind into the Opposition’s sails at this late hour. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu started flying around the country. His sudden flurry of activity must have been prompted by the fact that the ground was slipping from under his feet in his own state. But his purported objective, of course, was much grander. It was to cobble a national government of a million minor like-minded parties to stop Modi. Since everything was so much in the air, the media gave more free airtime to Naidu. All the stalwarts Naidu met in those frenetic 48 hours are now gasping for breath, including himself—and excluding Naveen Patnaik.

There was only so much whistling in the wind one could do. So the media moved on to the next non-story. If the media wanted to fill the time between exit polls and exact polls (as one BJP leader put it), the Opposition was only too eager to oblige. Rattled by the unanimity and unambiguity of the exit polls, they brought up the bogey of the long-disproved theory of EVM (electronic voting machine) tampering. They then put out half-cocked stories about smuggling of EVMs and started talking about ‘civil war’ and blood on the streets. Then in a desperate move to upend the whole process of counting of votes, insisted that it begin with counting of VVPATs.

VVPAT, or voter verifiable paper audit trail, is a safeguard to ensure that the vote is indeed registered in the name of the party one voted for. After the voter verifies (on a screen) that their vote has gone where intended, the printed paper slip is boxed. The number of votes polled on the EVMs are matched with the number of paper slips for each party at five per cent of booths in each constituency. That is the “audit” part of the VVPAT system. It is a secondary support process to eliminate malpractices. The Opposition now wanted the paper votes to be counted first, before the EVM votes. Audit first and count later. It was as absurd a demand as any but the media — half in its pristine ignorance of process and half intimidated by the Congress legal eagles—lapped it up and kept itself busy for the rest of the time till the size of Modi’s victory shocked them out of their wits on 23 May.

There is a reason why I have recounted recent events in such vivid detail. It is to underscore the point that so close to D-Day, the media had no clue that the country would be seeing the biggest electoral victory in more than six decades. The BJP has recorded an astounding seat strike rate of 70% compared with the 47% of its allies. In all the states that it topped up in 2014—Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Delhi, Uttarakhand, Himachal, except MP (-1) and Chhattisgarh—it played an encore, swept Karnataka, breached Mamata Banerjee’s citadel, challenged Patnaik in Odisha and maintained its tally in Maharashtra. The BJP crossed 50% vote-share in 10 states. To top it all, it minimised the damage in Uttar Pradesh to just 7, in spite of the formidable arithmetic of the gathbandhan which has duly lost its ‘Maha’ prefix.

In a country used to fractured mandates for decades before 2014, it is stunning that a political party could outscore its 2014 numbers, in itself a rare feat—by 21 seats. It is the first time a party has crossed the 300-mark in 35 years, a period that has seen parties with as few as 44 seats form the government. According to The Hindu, the BJP vote-share climbed from 31.3% in 2014 to 38.5%, an increase of 7.2%. To put it in perspective, Rajiv Gandhi was re-elected in 1984 on a massive sympathy wave following Indira’s assassination. The vote share increase then was 6.41%. Jawaharlal Nehru took his vote share up by a meagre 2.7 percentage points to 47.7 %. That was back in 1957. After that, the vote-base of every single prime minister seeking re-election has only narrowed, disregarding the 1984 aberration.

This is an eye-popping performance whichever way you look at it. Except that we were not looking. Or, as Amit Shah has said, looking in the wrong place. A senior colleague told me that when Shah was asked how he was so sure of a BJP victory while all reports were indicating a fractured mandate and a ‘federation of assembly elections’, he responded in true Shah style: “That’s because the media is looking in the wrong place. We are fighting the election here and the media is looking there.”

While it rightly fixated its sight on the ills of the government — the beef attacks, extreme nationalism, fear among minorities, etc — the media also forgot to look around to see what else Modi was up to. It was either cock-eyed or deliberately closed its eyes. Meanwhile, Modi was winning state after state, save Bihar and Delhi in 2015 and MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh late in 2018. There was enough empirical evidence to see, even with eyes closed, that Modi was gaining people’s trust rapidly. Perhaps it wasn’t so much about closed eyes as it was about closed minds.

Multiple opinion polls through his five-year term showed that Modi was quite easily the most favoured national leader. In fact, he went into the election — perhaps another first — with stronger approval ratings than when he came in. The first Firstpost-Ipsos National Trust Survey in January revealed stunningly high rates of approval for Modi on all fronts. At 53% he was the most the preferred prime ministerial candidate for 2019, more than all the pretenders to his throne. By the time of the second Firstpost National Trust Survey in March, post Pulwama-Balakot, his rating had soared to 63%. Rahul Gandhi was reduced to 16% or one-fourth of Modi, and all the others were in low single digits.

This support for Modi didn’t come from thin air. He scored high on every attribute of leadership, outgunning Gandhi on every parameter by more than double in the first survey and by nearly four times in the second. Party-to-party, the BJP enjoyed way more trust than the Congress for solving national issues. This support was very high in the heartland, an early indicator of the eventual sweep of the area. Modi’s marquee social sector schemes and major decisions were runaway hits. Ujjwala, Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan scored 80, 79 and 77%, showing how deeply these schemes had impacted the people. ‘Dealing with Pakistan’ got 75%, suggesting that even the Balakot strikes could not overshadow the impact of the welfare schemes.

This narrative was fully missed during election coverage, which the media portrayed as a purely nationalistic, anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim campaign. The role of these issues in Modi’s victory is undeniable but these were the toppings. Modi had laid a strong base for gaining his trust through all the welfare schemes he rolled out. The numbers are staggering. About 35.6 crore Jan Dhan accounts into which beneficiaries get subsidies directly, improving efficiency, reducing cost of administration and corruption. Nearly 18.25 crore Mudra loans for small entrepreneurs, of which nearly five crore are first-time credit seekers. More than seven crore gas connections to the poor, 9.8 crore toilets across the country, about 1.5 crore houses for the poor, 2.62 crore houses electrified, 35 crore LED bulbs distributed, Rs 6,000 annual financial support to five crore farmers, health cover of up to Rs 5 lakh for 50 crore poor Indians.

Even if we take government claims with bags of salt and the fact that same beneficiaries will have figured across schemes, it is still an impossibly high number of people whom Modi touched, directly and repeatedly. A mass contact programme of this scale has rarely been mounted in a five-year time span. This helped the BJP create a vote-bank all for itself. The size of that bank is 22 crore voters (which incidentally is also the number of votes the party has polled).

Add to this the outreach of the party. Shah took over the BJP with a 2.5 crore membership base. The BJP now has 12.5 crore paid members. It has recruited members and volunteers in every nook and cranny, except perhaps the south.

The combined impact of this audacious, pre-announced mission to take their vote share past the 50% mark would have been impossible to measure, but not tough to anticipate or feel on the ground. It is just that the rest of the country was busy looking at the top of the social pyramid while Modi-Shah were busy conducting the election at the bottom of the pyramid. Modi did point this out. When News18India asked him about how Time had depicted him as ‘divider-in-chief’, Modi said: “Even if there was such a division, it is fair to ask if it’s a vertical division or a horizontal division. If caste barriers are collapsing and poor across the spectrum are asking for the right share in development, it is a welcome division.”

It a measure of his confidence in his ‘Bank of Beneficiaries’. He was saying that the media was reading the election wrong. That people will be rising above archaic caste equations and the power of the gathbandhan was being over-estimated.

We can feign surprise now, but it was there for all of us to see. A prime minister’s politics and political beliefs are an important measure of his appraisal, but cannot be the only one. In the first five years, Narendra Modi was judged only for his politics. Not for his leadership, ability to take big decisions, administrative skills or expertise in project execution of gigantic development and welfare schemes. The next five years we will hopefully be different.

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