Why Covid-19 Catastrophe In India May Not Dent Modi’s Popularity

AS India descends into chaos following runaway Covid-19 surge, many people foresee the eventual unraveling of the charisma of the country’s strongman leader Narendra Modi. But there are reasons to believe that the virulent second wave may not be enough to dent the PM’s popularity. His 21 years in power – six of them as prime minister of the country – prove it.

From 2001 to 2013, he won three successive elections in Gujarat despite getting a bad press in the country and being shunned internationally. The PM was banned from setting foot on the US soil for his alleged role in Gujarat riots that led to death of over 1000 Muslims. But despite the controversies surrounding his rule, Modi’s popularity in Gujarat rose and soon spilled over its borders. He began to be seen as a tough and an efficient guy, a one-stop solution for country’s ills. Soon, the myth around and about him caught on. Later he diversified his image and added to it the dimensions of a good organizer, administrator and the promoter of Gujarat’s economic development. By the time, Modi won his third Gujarat election, he was a nifty package of all the ideal qualities that a critical mass of Indian population in 2014 wanted in its leader.

As prime minister with an absolute majority in the parliament there has been no looking back for Modi. With a penchant for dramatic measures that create a false impression of being a magic bullet for the country’s problems, the PM in 2015 announced demonitization of high denomination notes. The move triggered nation-wide chaos. The entire population of the country was forced to stand in long queues outside banks in the heat of harsh Indian summer to deposit old notes – scores of people perisged while doing so. Demonitization also set back the small-scale business sector, a fallout that was further reinforced by the subsequent implementation of uniform tax regime for the country.

But Modi became only more popular. He turned the massive suffering into a moral experience for people. Soon after, he won the all-important polls in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically very important state. The victory in Uttar Pradesh was of profound significance not only for the future of the state but also for India as a whole. At stake was not only the mundane question of who ruled UP over the next five years but where India was headed as a country.

Modi’s win in UP was also a ringing public endorsement of demonitization and mandate to the PM to go ahead with similar radical measures. Thereafter followed the surgical strike against Pakistan. But by the time, 2019 elections drew around, Modi’s chances of re-election looked diminished. This is when Pulwama attack that killed over 40 CRPF personnel took place. The PM once again launched an attack against Pakistan, this time deep inside the country on alleged terror camp at Balakot. This fired up his support base, winning him the election with a landslide majority. Pakistan’s swift retaliation, the loss of a fighter plane and the capture of its pilot did nothing to affect his chances.

Soon after, the re-elected PM embarked on far-reaching moves like repeal of Article 370 that granted J&K its semi-autonomous status under India’s constitution. The move per se didn’t invite any adverse international reaction. Even Pakistan, the country most affected by the move, restricted its response to diplomacy and the downgrading of the bilateral relationship.

The Article 370 move was followed by measures like National Citizens Register, Citizenship Amendment Act that not only deprived lakhs in Assam of their citizenship but also made religion as the basis of citizenship. Last year, without any debate or consultation, the PM enacted new farming laws impacting millions of farmers. Both the citizenship law and the farming legislation triggered monthslong nation-wide protests but Modi kept winning. His image has often hurt but he has managed to bounce back with a vengeance, often rallying people around a new contentious issue.

Similarly, last year when lakhs of daily wage labourers in major metropolises lost their jobs and were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes following the sudden announcement of nationwide lockdown, few expected Modi to win more elections – at least not in the home states of these labourers like Bihar. But the BJP, Modi’s party, increased its tally in the state in subsequent election – a significant chunk of his seats comprising the constituencies largely inhabited by these very labourers.

It is true that the catastrophic nature of the second Covid-19 wave has confronted the PM and his overarching image its biggest challenge. Lakhs of infections and thousands of deaths caused largely by the lack of adequate medical facilities has apparently unraveled brand Modi. But this state of affairs won’t be enough to do him in. He may have lost West Bengal but the BJP has secured its place as the No 2 party in the state, virtually eliminating the communists and Congress from the scene.

Looking ahead, there are still three years to go before another general election. So the PM has ample time to not only resurrect his battered image but also rally people around a new crisis, manufactured or otherwise. But, yes, ahead of 2024, the election in Uttar Pradesh next year would be crucial for the PM’s future. A loss in the country’s most populous state would certainly cast shadow over his re-election.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer
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