Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (File photo)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (File photo)

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Are the cracks beginning to show?

  • In this week's The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, "A Mood of The Nation poll suggests that the government still has support on Hindutva issues but when it comes to its performance there is dissatisfaction."
By Vir Sanghvi, Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 02, 2021 05:38 PM IST

Why is Narendra Modi one of the most unusual politicians in the history of independent India ? Well, it is because he has done what once seemed impossible: He has made Hindus vote on the basis of identity.

It is easy enough to get a minority --- especially a disadvantaged minority --- to vote on the basis of identity. But how do you take a dominant majority which has enjoyed most of the fruits of our post-Independence success and make it feel that it needs to vote on the basis of religion over everything else, including performance?

How do you make the people who dominate the country feel like the victims of some inequitable system?

LK Advani tried hard to achieve some of this in the 1980s and 1990s but met with limited success. Mr Modi, on the other hand, has been so successful that he has swept two Lok Sabha elections. That is his greatest achievement and the secret of his popularity.

People don’t vote for Mr Modi because of what he does. They vote because of what his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is: The party of the newly triumphal Hindu.

Admittedly, this approach has its limitations. People may thrill to Mr Modi’s oratory and treat him like some sort of sage in parts of the Hindi belt. But the South seems less enthusiastic. The recent elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu showed that voters were less awestruck by the fabled prime ministership. In Bengal, this approach was solidly rejected.

These are disappointments for Mr Modi but he knows that if he can continue to sweep the Hindi belt, his grip on power is secure.

But can he?

Well, as of now, he can. But we have to ask ourselves: Will a time come when identity politics can stop eclipsing performance? Will there be a stage when people say “yes, yes, he is a great Hindu Hriday Samrat but how does that help me? My life has actually got worse during his reign.”

It is the biggest question in today’s politics and, frankly, we have no answers. But we do have some clues. One of them is the recent State of Nation poll conducted for ABP News by C-Voter.

The poll confirms my view that Hindutva-affirming politics remains Mr Modi’s core strength. Asked what the greatest achievement of Mr Modi’s second term had been, nearly half of all poll respondents (47.4%) said it was the revocation of Article 370. A quarter (23.7%) picked the Supreme Court decision on the Ram Temple.

Even the decision to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was hailed. A majority (53.3%) thought it was the right thing to do. Mr. Modi’s proud claim that India could now hold its head high around the world was upheld. A substantial majority (62.3%) said that relations with other countries have improved during Mr Modi’s term.

So far so good. But there is more.

And that’s not so good at all.

Let’s consider how people responded to the government’s handling of the farmers’ agitation.

Despite the government’s campaign against the agitating farmers (‘Khalistanis, not-real-farmers-at-all, politically-motivated, Covid-spreaders’) the country does not wholeheartedly back the Prime Minister on this issue. More people (41.9%) said that the government should have accepted the farmers’ demands than backed the government’s position (32.8%).

From then on, it gets worse. Asked if the Chinese encroachment in Ladakh was a failure of the central government, 44.8% said it was (37.3% said it was not).

On economic issues, the responses were devastating. Asked who has benefitted most from the Modi government, a staggering 64.4% (nearly two thirds) said ‘big corporate houses’. Only 7.4% opted for ‘salaried class’ and just 12% said ‘farmers and labourers’.

Nearly half (47 per cent) also held the Modi government responsible for the rise in fuel prices.

That brings us to the three most common criticisms of Mr Modi in the newspaper comment columns. The government has always said that these are chattering class concerns and that the rest of the country does not feel the same way.

Well, think again.

The first criticism is that the Prime Minister should not have gone around campaigning during the pandemic. This criticism seems to have been upheld by many respondents. A substantial majority (60.8%) said the government should have postponed the elections and a majority (59.7%) also said Mr Modi should not have campaigned at all.

The second criticism is that super-spreader events like the Kumbh Mela should not have been allowed. Oddly enough, though the respondents were broadly supportive on Hindutva issues, they agreed with the commentariat's view that allowing the mela to go ahead was a mistake. A majority (55.3%) said that the Kumbh should have been scaled down to a merely symbolic event. Only 19.9% supported the decision to hold the full mela.

The third criticism concerns Mr Modi‘s handling of the pandemic. Even here, the majority of respondents did not seem particularly supportive of the Prime Minister. Asked what the biggest failure of the government was, 41% said it was its handling of Covid. (Another 23% said it was the farmers’ agitation).

Asked whether the government’s help reached people during the lockdown, 52.3% said it did not.

On the other hand, contrary to the views of the commentariat, responses about the handling of the vaccination programme were evenly divided. Asked if the government had handled the vaccine programme appropriately, 44.9% said yes while 43.9% said no. That’s short of approval but it is not an overwhelming rebuke either.

All this should give the Prime Minister and his supporters reason to pause and ponder. Yes, the support is still relatively solid on the so-called Hindutva/nationalist issues like CAA, Kashmir and the Ram Temple.

But it is no longer unquestioning. Even people who hailed the Ram Temple judgment thought the Kumbh should have been scaled down. The government’s constant maligning of the agitating farmers has not worked. There are doubts about its pandemic management as well.

And most devastating of all, it is seen as a government that benefits big business not the average Indian.

So far, the government has not changed its approach to any major issue. It probably knows that it has messed up its handling of the pandemic. But it also knows that it cannot retrospectively fix oxygen shortages or make the vaccines that it neglected to order suddenly materialise out of thin air. That process takes time.

So it has kept its head down during the second wave and focused on preparing for a third wave. By the end of the year, it believes, there will be enough vaccines, enough hospital beds and enough oxygen to ward off any third wave.

It knows that voters only remember how a story ends, not how it begins and reckons that, with three years to go for the next election, it has time to get its Covid management right.

This may well be a shrewd strategy for handling Covid. But these results suggest that the pandemic is only the most obvious reason for public dissatisfaction.

The other reasons are deeper. There is a sense in which voters feel hard done by on prices and do not regard themselves as the government’s top economic priority. They are unhappy with confrontations like the one with farmers and do not buy the government’s claim that it has handled the China border situation well.

More significantly, they are even beginning to question the Prime Minister’s decisions by declaring that he should not have campaigned in Bengal and other states.

Finally, even voters who celebrate Hindu triumphalism are beginning to ask questions about performance. The blind support that Mr Modi has taken for granted has begun to fray.

Obviously, there is time to recover. And there is no clear Opposition alternative. But Mr Modi faces two real problems.

First, he is fast running out of issues with which to appease the Hindutva faithful. He can impose a uniform civil code but after that, his options are limited. It is not clear whether a getting-tough-with-Pakistan strategy will work a second time.

Second, because the basic criticisms are related to his style, he has to make fundamental changes in approach. He can no longer get into confrontations with such groups as farmers and count on the country’s support when he portrays them as anti-nationals. And he can no longer refuse to sack his non-performing ministers. Finally, performance is beginning to count at least as much as identity.

Will Mr Modi see the point? Or is he surrounded by people who do not have the guts to tell him where he is going wrong? Does he mislead himself by watching too much of openly supportive TV news channels that speak about what a wonderful job the government is doing?

I guess we will find out. But there is no doubt that we are at an inflection point.

For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here

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