As it heads into a general election after two non-stop terms, the UPA government’s standing with the public is sliding, fuelled mainly by scandals and a perception that it faltered on governance due to the lack of a cohesive coalition.
Findings from a new HT-MaRS national survey suggest no noticeable improvement in the public’s views of the UPA, while a majority thinks the government’s image had been battered most by scams, followed by views that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was “weak”.
The poll, conducted among 4269 adults (2155 men and 2114 women), who were personally interviewed in 13 cities using a structured questionnaire at the household level, shows corruption and bribery remain a worry for the people.
A majority of the respondents (42%) -- or a little more than 4 in 10 people -- felt scams were the biggest reason behind an erosion of trust in the UPA. More young people (46%) between the age group 26-30 years feel that way, than those above 50 years (38%).
Reflecting concerns that lack of clear decision-making had hobbled the UPA, more than a third (39%) of those surveyed felt Singh was a “weak” prime minister. Just over 15% felt the government wavered in its functioning because of the pulls and pressures of running a coalition, while 12% felt the government tended to be indecisive due to existence of “multiple centres of power”.
Views around Prime Minister Singh seem to be a significant factor behind the public’s cynicism.
Among those who viewed Singh’s performance unfavourably, the proportion of young population and the old were not significantly different when seen across various age groups.
However, more older people than young were skeptical of Singh’s style of running his government. For instance, 37% of those surveyed and above 50 years thought Prime Minister Singh wasn’t strong, compared to 29% in the age group 21-25 years who held a similar view.
Hoping to shore up its image, the UPA had in May last year launched the flagship Bharat Nirman media campaign, pulling together some of its “major achievements” and stories that aimed to boost the government’s image by presenting an “alternative narrative”.
The Bharat Nirman campaign is a blend of television, print and social media ads in several languages. Buffeted by a sharp Opposition campaign, the government felt its side of the story wasn’t reaching the public.
The campaign focuses on key “milestones”, from the economy to education, rights to food, education and information, a telecom revolution, infrastructure and inroads against poverty.
The infomercials depict lives of ordinary Indians and how they have been impacted by the UPA’s policies. Bharat Nirman is the UPA’s main rural infrastructure plan, from roads to telephony, worth Rs 15-lakh crore in the 12th Plan, or roughly the size of India’s annual budget.
Yet, the UPA’s public outreach has been feeble. Today, nearly 40% of the people aren’t fully aware of benefits and processes involved in getting enrolled for Aadhar, the UPA’s national identification programme linked to end-user benefits, such as cash transfers and subsidies, the survey shows.
A nearly equal proportion (39%) was fully acquainted with the flagship programme. However, a significant 12% of those polled did not know about its existence at all.
Perception vs reality
Prime Minister Singh, in his press conference on January 3, had said inflation and jobs were big concerns but his government had taken major steps to bring transparency, especially in the way natural resources are allocated to the private sector.
He also said that people had benefited from the government’s policies and poverty levels had come down. On July 22 last year, official data showed poverty in India had declined from 37.2% in 2004-05, the year UPA took power, to 21.9% by 2011-12, a fall of nearly 15 percentage points.
To be sure, rural incomes have continued to rise, clocking 13.1% in August 2013, although this is significantly lower than an 18% rise in 2012 and 23% in 2011. This increase in rural incomes, driven largely by the rural jobs scheme MNREGA, has been higher than a rise in rural inflation for the most part.
Yet, the government had to fight a perception battle of being “insensitive” when its official poverty line was widely criticised for having been set absurdly low -- at Rs 32 – that few Indians could get by on it.
Corrupt practices remain a big concern, with nearly 18% saying they are more likely to pay a bribe now than a year ago. Although their proportion varied across cities, a significant 36% said they had to use personal contacts to get work done. Clearly, corruption scandals have taken their toll on a government struggling to flaunt its sunnier side – that of rural welfare and poverty reduction.