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Narendra Modi should canter home for another term as PM, going by surveys; Opposition, critics have missed the ball game

In the interests of fairness (and perhaps also for a not-so-lofty motive of grabbing eyeballs, gaining TRPs and getting page-hits), there is an attempt in the media to always set up every election as a grand battle of equals. As if both sides are equally matched and only the shrewd and unpredictable Indian voter is aware of the truth. Opinion polls and surveys, however meticulously and carefully done, are never taken seriously. The attempt is towards a build-up that reaches the climax on the day of results, when depending on the results, pundits may say either "I told you so", or "no one saw it coming."

This time-tested formula of building up tension before every election is pointless before this edition of the Lok Sabha polls, because the answer is evident to all except those who indulge in willful suspension of disbelief or cannot afford to acknowledge the reality. Barring a miracle or an act of god, expect the BJP-led NDA to retain power and Narendra Modi to extend his term as prime minister for another five years, if we are to go by pre-poll surveys.

This premature verdict is not induced by faith. It is an inference drawn from surveys, long-term trends and current realities. The thing to consider, before we delve into the pointers provided by surveys, is that Modi has approached his tenure of prime ministership like no other before him. He has strived over the course of five years to communicate with the masses at a granular level on a regular basis. And he did this by bypassing the formal lines of communication and creating new channels. He has relied on a direct approach, instead of communicating through the traditional media.

Using technology old and new (such as radio and social media) and showing an almost inexhaustible energy to hold rallies and speeches all through his tenure (over and above those during the election campaign), Modi has taken prime minister-to-people and people-to-prime minister communication to the next level. He has presented a model for others to emulate.

 Narendra Modi should canter home for another term as PM, going by surveys; Opposition, critics have missed the ball game

Narendra Modi addressing an election rally on Sunday. PTI

As an article in The Times of India notes, “through regular radio broadcasts, social media interactions, and personal appearances at hundreds of functions and rallies each year, he has successfully conveyed to the average Indian that he is sincere, hardworking and decisive. Many may have specific complaints about unfulfilled promises. But few doubt his unwavering commitment to the nation and its people.”

The importance for a politician to remain in close touch with the people is often understated. Many critics and pundits are flummoxed by an apparent contradiction in voter behavior. They correctly detect a sense of disillusionment among the electorate over the illusive “achhe din”. They correctly assess the collective worry of the young over lack of jobs and the level of rural distress. Yet, for all the unmet promises and sense of disappointment with Modi, a majority of voters still seem to be taken in by him and prefer him by a mile over other candidates.

As an article in Washington Post points out, “Despite the government’s many foibles, from the inability to address the rising tide of rural distress to the disastrous consequences of demonetisation, there is a simple truth animating public opinion: All told, most voters like Modi. A lot.”

What may have escaped many critics — leading to their confusion over why those who are apparently dissatisfied with the Modi government and still willing to bet on the prime minister solving their problems if given another five-year extension — is that when a politician manages to persuade the people that his intentions are right ("saaf niyat") through a relentless effort to stay in close touch, then that politician surprisingly gets a lot of leeway for failure.

Simply put, voters are willing to overlook Modi’s failures and continue trusting him because the prime minister has convinced them that his intentions are noble, he works hard and doesn’t shy away from taking even tough, unpopular decisions. Despite all the miseries caused by demonetisation and GST, Modi continues to reap electoral dividends through a deeper, karmic rationale at play. And Modi has largely been successful in conveying this impression through his painstaking effort to remain in close contact with the electorate.

Modi has also been helped in no small measure by the listlessness of his political opponents, who have offered no alternate vision for the country’s future except a desperate desire to unseat him. Their lack of mutual understanding, internal inconsistencies, varying ambitions and geographical limitations have added to the impression that Modi’s opposition is a motley crew interested only in self-preservation. Modi has hammered home this difference by launching a presidential style of campaign, knowing that his rivals are in no position to offer the name of a challenger.

The result of this is evident. The second iteration of the National Trust Survey conducted by Firstpost-IPSOS polled 31,621 voters from 2 to 22 March from 287 urban wards and 582 villages in 62 socio-cultural regions. The exercise covered 334 parliamentary constituencies and was spread over 329 districts across 30 states/union territories of India.

The survey, that has 95 percent confidence interval and 5 percent margin of error, finds that the prime minister’s popularity has transcended “geographical and social divides” whereas the BJP’s popularity is “constrained by these divisions”. Compared to the previous round of the National Trust Survey conducted in November-January 2018, it was found that “preference for Modi as the next prime minister has increased by 10 percentage points. Modi, who enjoyed approval rating (52.8 percent) levels two times more than Rahul Gandhi (26.9 percent) has now doubled the lead to four times, 63 percent against 16 percent. The perception around Modi’s performance as prime minister has also gone up in similar proportions.”

The survey also points out that Modi punches above the weight of his party and in many ways, Modi is “contesting the election on his party’s behalf” instead of the other way around in India’s representative democracy. It is also interesting to note that Modi’s popularity is higher in West Bengal and Odisha than that of BJP, and it raises the possibility that BJP’s seat share may go up in these crucial eastern states because the election is perceived as a mandate on Modi.

When it comes to “trust”, that ephemeral commodity that politicians strive for, it is worth noting that the electorate trusts Modi more than even the Supreme Court. His trust level at 51.7 percent is next only to the armed forces at 60.1 percent. This explains a key finding in the survey and one that has commentators grappling for explanation.

If this election was to be fought on parameters such as the state of the economy, jobs, dip in farm incomes and distress in rural economy, incumbent Modi would have to give a lot of explanations. Curiously, however, public faith in Modi is “primarily built on abstract notions, not concrete issues,” due to voters’ “perception of him creating a better image of India abroad, capacity for taking big risks, bringing big changes and taking care of the country.” Politicians strive to gain the electorate’s faith because trust has the power to mitigate and even overcome reality, and Modi seems to be doing well on this score.

Other surveys corroborate this reality. The CSDS-Lokniti 2019 pre-poll survey conducted in March this year indicates that Modi’s popularity (43 percent) has rebounded from what it was in May 2018 (34 percent) to touch May 2017 figures (44 percent), and it is significantly higher than even the May 2014 level (36 percent) — the year he stormed to power.

The survey also points out that the dissatisfaction level with the Modi government has ebbed, and the satisfaction measure is now almost back to the pre-demonetisation high. More significantly, anti-incumbency sentiment seems to have weakened in the past one year. Other pointers include a rise in the number of respondents (34 percent) who believe the state of economy is now better, up from 26 percent in January 2018 and 19 percent in May 2014.

An opinion survey by Times Now-VMR predicts that the NDA will return with 279 out 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. The survey, which was carried out between 22 March to 4 April, 2019, interacted with 14,300 respondents, projected 149 seats for the Congress-led UPA while the Others (parties not aligned to either the BJP or Congress, are expected to win 115 seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Finally, compared to last year, for half of the respondents, Modi seems to have delivered on his promise of “achhe din”.

These findings are subject to appropriate disclaimers, but they point towards a truth that many Modi critics reflexively deny. The prime minister enjoys a high level of trust and the voters are willing to give him at least one more chance to build on the foundation that he has laid over the course of five years. It is nobody’s case that there are no dissatisfactions with the Modi government but surveys, anecdotal experiences and the dynamism of Modi’s well-attended campaign rallies are suggestive of the fact that voters consider him to be the man best suited to deal with the country's problems and take India to greater heights.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 09, 2019 10:25:03 IST