Almost eight months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned to power with an emphatic win in the Lok Sabha election. He became the first prime minister since Indira Gandhi to register back-to-back majorities in two consecutive elections. As the August 2019 Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey came shortly after his landslide victory, his popularity was intact, but there was high expectation that he would focus on reversing the trend of slowing growth which had been evident from two quarters before the general election. Attempts by the government to stem the slowdown have not worked so far.
GDP growth at just 5 per cent is the lowest in six years. On January 20, the IMF slashed India's 2019 growth forecast by 1.3 percentage points to 4.8 per cent from 6.1 per cent, the biggest scaledown for any emerging market economy. If growth continues to lag at 5 per cent or below, India will not only miss its $5 trillion-economy target by 2024 but grow at its slowest since the 2008 global economic crisis. The India today-Karvy Insights biannual poll reflects this — 60 per cent of MOTN respondents think the economy is slowing.
The MOTN poll throws up another interesting phenomenon. At 68 per cent, the prime minister's ratings have seen a drop of only three percentage points since August, miles ahead of his closest challenger, Rahul Gandhi. In the public eye, Modi is seen as a strong leader who is not corrupt and all for inclusive development. Forty-eight per cent of the respondents say they have received direct money transfers from central government schemes like the MNREGA, student scholarships, pensions and LPG subsidies. A majority (62 per cent) express satisfaction with the overall performance of the NDA government.
These responses, however, are peppered with warning signs that need heeding. In the first seven months of its second term, the government abrogated Article 370 and passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Promises that were no doubt part of the BJP manifesto but, given the state of the economy, did they deserve the focus they got?
While 52 per cent respondents believe the CAA-NRC are making minorities, especially Muslims, feel insecure, 43 per cent think these moves are being made to divert attention from issues like rising unemployment — 32 per cent listed unemployment as their top concern. Farmers' distress, inflation, corruption and economic slowdown are the other causes for worry. These concerns, if left unaddressed, could further erode the NDA's political capital. The effects of the CAA-NRC protests, which gathered steam after the MOTN, will be reflected in our next survey in August.
While MOTN respondents largely back the government's actions in Kashmir, 50 per cent say its decision to reduce the state to Union territories violates the federal character of the Constitution. There is no blanket support either for issues such as the CAA. While 41 per cent approve of the legislation, 33 per cent say they do not know what it is about, suggesting a communication gap.
MOTN numbers also suggest that the NDA could lose its 353 majority, were a Lok Sabha election held today. Without the Shiv Sena, for instance, the NDA would get only 303 seats, 50 less than in May 2019. The BJP on its own would bag 271 seats, a drop of 34 seats over its May 2019 tally. Drawing up a hypothetical scenario, in which the Left parties, SP and BSP join the UPA cohorts from 2019, the NDA could see its tally drop to 282. In another scenario, where the AAP, TMC and Sena join the UPA, the NDA could even fall short of a majority.
Surprisingly, 49 per cent respondents believe only a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family can revive Congress. Remarkably, Rahul Gandhi is still seen as the best bet to revive the comatose party.
Apart from the obvious fact that the NDA is losing allies faster than it is adding them, another major factor impacting its popularity is the general discontent in key states. The reasons for this range from the economic crisis to the unrest over CAA, NRC and NPR.
These are warning signs. Prime Minister Modi is fortunate that they come early in his second tenure and give him time for course correction. He has a chance to refocus his government's energies on the economy. The numbers show he still remains the man the country is looking for to solve its problems. This is a huge expectation and he must live up to it.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, That Uneasy Feeling, for February 3, 2020)