Modi’s popularity soars as India weathers COVID-19 pandemic

NEW DELHI—Just before the coronavirus arrived in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced serious challenges, perhaps the biggest of his tenure.

Anti-government protests roiled the country. Hindu-Muslim riots exploded in the capital just as U.S. President Donald Trump was visiting. And India’s once-hot economy was slumping, shedding millions of jobs and casting a pall over the entire country.

Since then, as the world has been walloped by the coronavirus pandemic, many of these problems in India, especially the economic ones, have only got worse. But once again, India has rallied around Modi.

Recent opinion polls show that in the past few months Modi’s already high approval ratings have soared even higher, touching 80 per cent, even 90 per cent. Unlike two of the populist leaders to whom he is often compared, Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Modi is weathering this crisis quite well.

The result, some analysts say, is that if India continues to ride out the coronavirus in decent form, he may emerge with an even stronger hand when he and his party press their Hindu-centric policies. Much as the brinkmanship with Pakistan last year helped strengthen his re-election campaign, the deadly pandemic is bringing many Indians to his side despite lingering concerns about his agenda.

In times of national crisis, people tend to rally around the flag. Leaders across the world have enjoyed a coronavirus boost, although for many, it’s not expected to last.

Modi’s success, analysts say, may be more durable. He’s widely seen as a mobilizer, not a despot, which may explain why his countrywide stay-at-home lockdown, which he dropped on the country with four hours’ notice, has been largely obeyed. Even the softer, feel-good exercises he has insisted on, like asking Indians to stand in their doorways and clap at a certain time, or to light candles at another, have been followed by millions.

Still, it has not been a spotless performance. Modi’s government was caught off guard by the epic exodus of migrant workers pouring out of India’s cities, making desperate and sometimes fatal journeys hundreds of kilometres home. And many economists believe that the $260-billion (U.S.) relief package that he triumphantly announced this week, as he urged Indians to become more self-reliant, will hardly be enough.

But he never downplayed the virus threat or said India had capabilities it didn’t. And unlike in the United States, where partisan politics have gummed up the response and created great discord and even chaos, analysts say Modi has worked well with state-level officials across India, regardless of ideology.

The result is that the political landscape Modi, 69, has shaped over the past six years, since a surge in Hindu nationalism brought him to the top job in the world’s largest democracy, has only been shored up. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP, dominate the airwaves. They move unchecked when implementing policies. The political opposition is practically invisible.

“Modi is faring better than many peers because he acted decisively, pre-emptively and relatively early by going for the world’s most stringent lockdown when corona cases were few in India,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, outside New Delhi. “His phrase ‘Jaan Hain to Jahaan Hain,’” which means the world exists only if you are alive, “struck a chord.”

Now comes the hard part.

This coming week, after nearly two months of lockdown, India’s economy is expected to open up. The economic wreckage will emerge more clearly, with countless millions out of work and spilling into the streets.

Food lines will grow. Businesses will struggle to reopen. Many people will run out of money. Virus infections will also likely surge: the slope of India’s graph has already risen as some lockdown rules have begun to ease. Mumbai, the commercial capital, is struggling to contain infections, and a few protests have broken out in other places.

But for a country of 1.3 billion, the toll of 82,000 reported coronavirus infections and 2,700 deaths is much lower per capita than in many other countries, especially richer ones like the United States, Britain, Italy and Russia.

Although the virus picture here is especially hazy, because India is so big and it has performed fewer tests than many other countries, most independent health experts don’t believe that Modi’s government is hiding information.

What is clear is that many Indians feel thankful to him.

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“Had it not been for this man, hospitals and mortuaries in the country would have run out of space,” said Vrushali Khadse Shet, a human resources manager for a shipbuilding company in Goa. “His skill of delivering a message to the lowest strata of society worked, and we have been saved till now.”

Opinion polls indicate that much of India feels the same way. Morning Consult, an American firm that does online surveys in several countries, showed Modi outperforming other world leaders. His popularity is gauged at 80 per cent, far above Trump, Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and several others.

Another poll, in the Times of India, a leading newspaper, showed that 93.5 per cent of those surveyed felt Modi was handling the virus crisis effectively.

Of course, the Indians who have suffered the most under the lockdown — like migrant labourers — were probably not part of these surveys. Many migrants interviewed in the past few days have pleaded for him to end the lockdown and were not so enthusiastic about his decisions.

For this next phase as the lockdown changes, Modi is relying more on the chief ministers of every state. That might seem consultative and more democratic, but analysts say it’s also a tactic to spread the risk. If things don’t go so smoothly in the coming weeks as the economic pain really begins to bite, well, Modi’s argument will go, it’s not all my fault.

Scholars expect him and the BJP to keep pushing divisive policies that cater to Hindu nationalists in India’s Hindu majority. Those moves have come at the expense of India’s minority Muslim community, which has already suffered enormous setbacks under Modi.

“The only constraints on him would have to come from abroad,” said Sumit Ganguly, an Indian studies professor at Indiana University. “The guardrails of most of India’s democratic institutions have been breached with the BJP’s battering rams.”

Modi has seen his runaway popularity stalled before, over economic concerns. The country is lining up behind him right now, but the economic devastation from the coronavirus has yet to be reckoned with.

For years, Modi has won crucial support from moderates and the middle class by projecting himself as India’s “economic messiah,” said Sumantra Bose, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

And if the economy can’t pull itself out of a nose dive, Bose added, “the messiah may be hoist with his own petard.”

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