CSDS poll

Mood swing

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Textile traders and workers during a protest against GST in Surat in July 2017. Photo: PTI

Kites featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi for sale in Khammam in Telangana on January 4, 2017. Photo: G.N. RAO

The latest CSDS survey shows a shift in popular opinion against the BJP and Modi, but questions remain about the opposition’s ability to mount a challenge.

SINCE MID 2014, as the Indian polity gradually became dominated by the personality of one man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and one political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), reliable and nuanced assessments of public opinion about government performance have been a rarity. In the recent past, however, two Mood of the Nation (MOTN) surveys carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) have revealed in remarkable detail the shifting public perceptions and opinions about the Modi government, its key policy decisions and the controversies it was embroiled in.

The first MOTN poll was carried out by the CSDS in May 2017 when its researchers surveyed 11,373 respondents, all of them voters, spread across 19 States. A second round of this survey was carried out in January 2018 for a slightly longer duration and among a relatively large sample size—more than three weeks and among 14, 336 respondents, respectively. Both these surveys were carried out for the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) media group, but summary findings of both reports have been released on the CSDS website for public perusal. So far, in the public domain, it appears to be the only exercise of its kind done by an independent agency and having insights with contemporary political relevance.

In the 2017 survey, CSDS researchers found that the Modi government’s “honeymoon period” had been unusually long. The survey report observed, “Every newly elected government enjoys a honeymoon period. It’s a phase during which the party elected to power and its leadership is judged by the public with a tinge of indulgence and enjoys reasonably high ratings. While in the U.S. a honeymoon period for a new President rarely stretches beyond a few months, in India it has usually stretched up to a year and a half, at times going up to two years, rarely beyond that. However, three years after it swept to power in the country, the electorate’s honeymoon with Narendra Modi’s government appears to not merely continue, but seems to have grown stronger.”

This was a situation with few, if any, precedents. The survey report compared public satisfaction towards the incumbent government in 2017 with the degree of public satisfaction towards the previous two governments led by Manmohan Singh to explain the extent to which the Modi-led administration was being favoured.

It noted that “among 11,373 randomly sampled voters in 19 States [the survey] has found that nearly seven in every 10 voters (69 per cent) are satisfied with the performance of Modi as Prime Minister. This satisfaction rating is higher than the satisfaction ratings recorded for Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh at the end of the first two years of the UPA I and II [United Progressive Alliance] governments. When Lokniti-CSDS had conducted similar nationwide surveys in 2006 and 2011, satisfaction levels with Singh’s performance had been lower at 61 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively.”

Significantly, the survey also found that people’s preference for Modi as Prime Minister had grown. “Time series data on the Prime Ministerial preference of Indian voters reveals that Modi, from being the spontaneous choice of a mere 2 per cent of the electorate in 2009, is now the preferred Prime Ministerial choice of a whopping 44 per cent of India’s voters. This is also eight points higher than the proportion of those who wanted to see him as India’s Prime Minister during the 2014 election. None of Modi’s opponents come anywhere close to him, their popularity being limited to single digits,” the survey report stated.

It appears from the 2017 report that behind these impressive numbers was the voters’ overwhelmingly positive view about demonetisation, the government’s overall and ostensible battle against black money and the issue of nationalism that was taken up aggressively by Modi as well as the ruling party. This was so despite the survey recording negative feedback from voters about their financial condition, availability of jobs and crisis in the farming sector. Indeed, the survey also recorded voters saying that “unemployment is the single biggest problem in the country today”.

Evidently, this was a situation of paradox. The researchers quantified the paradoxical situation thus: “As paradoxical as it may sound, acche din [better days] have also arrived for an overwhelming majority of those who say employment opportunities have decreased in last 3 years (57 per cent) and for those for whom unemployment is the biggest problem in the country today (68 per cent).”

Notwithstanding this peculiar situation, the survey projected a comfortable victory for the ruling party in case snap elections were held in May 2017. It stated: “…in the event of a Lok Sabha election taking place now, the BJP would secure yet another convincing victory, quite similar to the one it notched up in 2014. The survey found the BJP to be the vote choice of 39 per cent or close to four of every 10 voters. This is eight percentage points greater than the vote share secured by the party in the Lok Sabha elections held three years ago. The BJP’s allies are expected to get 6 per cent votes, taking the ruling alliance’s vote share to about 45 per cent. This significant vote increase, however, may not translate into too many additional seats for the BJP as most of its major vote gains are in those States where it had already scaled the peak in terms of seats in 2014. In fact, it may actually lose a few seats in these stronghold States as the vote share of the opposition parties is highly concentrated.”

Eight months after the first report, however, a second round of the MOTN survey found public opinion moving against the Modi government.

“The Narendra Modi-led government continues to ride high on its popularity, even as clear rumblings of discontent are visible below the surface. This is the strong message from the second round of the MOTN Survey,” the report observed.

It elaborated upon the electoral consequences of these “rumblings of discontent” in January 2018 thus: “…in the event of a snap Lok Sabha election in the country today, the BJP would in all likelihood secure about 34 per cent of the total votes. While this estimated vote share is three percentage points higher than what the BJP got in the Lok Sabha election of 2014, it is, quite significantly, five points less compared to May 2017, when round one of the MOTN Survey had found the ruling party to be netting 39 per cent votes nationally. The BJP’s allies remain where they were eight months ago, securing 6 per cent of the votes.”

Strikingly, CSDS researchers noted a slight increase in favourable public sentiment towards the Congress. The report said: “The slight dip in the BJP’s popularity seems to be benefiting the Congress party the most, for now. The Rahul Gandhi-led party is expected to secure the vote of one in every four Indians (25 per cent) if a national election takes place now. This is an upward improvement compared to the May 2017 MOTN Survey when it was found to be receiving 21 per cent votes (one in every five) nationwide. The Congress’ recovery is not surprising as the incumbency effect is finally catching up with the BJP and therefore, slowly its vote share is reaching the same level as in 2014 (with a possibility of further decline). This makes the future political competition interesting, to say the least.”

However, the researchers, observing the state of opposition parties, added a note of caution in the report. They stated: “Here one must note that even while it faces a decline in its overall support, the BJP-NDA should be able to secure a comfortable majority for itself if an election was to be held today, given the disunity in the Opposition parties and the still quite wide lead it has over the UPA.”

What caused this relative drop in positive public perception towards the Modi government? The report suggests three issues: the crisis in agriculture, poor implementation of goods and services tax (GST) and rising unemployment. These issues have translated into a decline in support for the government among the farming community, traders and the youth, the survey report said.

They have also cumulatively contributed to a situation in which the overall voting trends may be affected. The report noted: “While in May 2017, close to two-thirds of the voters nationwide had reported satisfaction with the NDA government’s work, the figure has now dropped by 13 points to a little over half. Dissatisfaction has gone up from a little over one-fourth to four of every 10, a rise of 13 percentage points. More significantly, the proportion of those fully dissatisfied with the government’s work is now greater than the proportion of those fully satisfied (17 per cent as opposed to 10 per cent). What should worry the BJP even more is that dissatisfaction with the Modi government’s performance has gone up in nearly all the States where the survey was conducted, barring one or two.”

Much of the loss in support for the BJP, the researchers noted, was in west and central India—especially in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. However, that may not seem like a surprising finding given that the surveyors met with their respondents, who were voters, less than a month after the Gujarat election results were declared. The closely fought Assembly election was evidently a tough one for the BJP and one which sent a message across the country that the BJP was not the unchallenged force in its bastions anymore. The verdict, in some quarters, was also framed as a revolt of Gujarat’s farmers who supported the Congress. Notably, the second survey report also found that the level of dissatisfaction against the government had also grown in States such as Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh since May 2017 when the first MOTN poll was conducted.

Most astonishingly, however, the eight months between the first and second surveys also saw a shift in voters’ opinion about arguably two of the biggest assets with the current regime: the hypnotic promise of acche din and Modi’s personal popularity.

The report observed: “Back in May, nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) had said that Modi had succeeded in bringing acche din. Eight months later, the figure has fallen to just four of every 10. There are in fact more people now who believe that Modi has failed in bringing acche din than those who think he has succeeded (50-41 per cent). Prime Minister Modi’s own personal popularity has also declined in the last eight months, although he continues to be the most popular leader by quite a distance. In May 2017, 44 per cent of the voters had wanted him to return as Prime Minister in the event of a snap election. Now, the same figure is down by seven points to 37 per cent. Modi’s popularity has, in fact, declined across all the four regions, with the drop being the sharpest in south India.”

Since this survey, there were quite a few controversies in the past two months which the Modi government had to contend with, such as the banking scandals and questions over the Rafale deal, among others. The only thing that brought unqualified good press was the election victories in the north-eastern States. It is unclear to what extent the election victories helped undo the damage to reputation caused by scandals.

Speaking to Frontline recently, CSDS Director Sanjay Kumar, who led the MOTN survey exercise, said that although the scandals brought bad press to the government, Modi’s personal credibility remained untarnished, so broader public support, as the surveys showed, still remains inclined more towards him than the opposition.

However, Kumar qualified this with an important observation: “What happens six months from now, I do not know.” This uncertain comment describes the national political situation quite aptly.