The American polling company, Morning Consult recently released findings about the popularity of leaders around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India at the top of the list.
The survey shows a rise in support for Modi from 76 percent to 82 percent “based on an average of 3,000 daily online interviews per non-U.S. leader (within respective countries)” conducted between Jan. 7 and May 19, 2020, according to the line graph the company sent to News India Times on May 20. (https://morningconsult.com/form/coronavirus-outbreak-tracker/#section-94)
Interestingly, while the line graph fluctuates before March 17, it shows an almost steady rise in Modi’s popularity after the nationwide lockdown was imposed that day.
Experts on India, political and data analysts, as well as those pro and anti the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, agree on one point — the poll may not adequately represent the lower income and poor people of India, as according to Morning Consult, “Surveys are conducted in that country’s official language, and the respondent can manually change to English.” Which experts say, leaves one with the conclusion that the poll was conducted online, by phone, or other electronic device, not available to every economic strata in India.
The question asked in the poll, which appears to be ongoing, is: “Do you approve or disapprove of the job (NAME) is doing as (TITLE)?” Respondents are able to select strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, strongly disapprove, or don’t know/no opinion.
That phone/online surveys,, say India watchers, means the surveys leave out vast masses of the population who do not have phones or computers, and that could include large sections of the migrant workers left bereft and on the highways, even suffering casualties in their desperate attempt to go back to their villages when the lockdown was declared with almost immediate effect.
Going past the agreement on how representative or not the Morning Consult poll was, those interviewed by News India Times differed on how popular Modi might be, based on their different perceptions of what has been transpiring in India vis-a-vis COVID-19.
According to the figures on Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of May 21, 2020, the total confirmed cases of COVID in the world were 5,101,400, of which U.S. held the largest share of more than 1.5 million, and India just 18,226.
Global deaths stood at 332,876, with U.S. deaths at 94,688, and those in India at 3,584.
So far, India is doing something right, which may explain Modi’s popularity.
“Prime Minister Modi has handled the COVID pandemic very, very skillfully, with perfect timing, and the complete lockdown,” said Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times. “In a country of 1.3 billion where the majority have very small spaces to live in and even the middle class has five to six people in a family occupying some 1,200 sq. ft. on average, he was able to keep the infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, down, even if it required deploying police and paramilitary forces,” he added.
The plight of migrant workers was very sad, Dr. Parikh said, and felt the Government of India should have followed President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress’ COVID-19 relief package – the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP. “It was the lack of coordination with the states,” by New Delhi. “But now they are handling it and providing shelter and food to these workers,” he said.
Despite India’s relatively impressive performance on the COVID fatalities front, there are naysayers, second-guessers, and doubters, says Professor of Communication at Columbus State University in Georgia Ramesh Rao. He closely tracks Western media coverage of India, which he claims has a largely anti-Hindu bias.
Prof. Rao echoed the views of Dr. Parikh, on why the Morning Consult poll reflected public opinion in India.
“The Indian government and Prime Minister Modi had one of the most challenging tasks compared to other leaders in the world. Managing such a densely populated, large, messy democracy with political opponents not just nipping at their heels but indulging in gamesmanship,” Rao said, adding that Modi had stepped up to the plate and put the whole country under lock and key, understanding they would be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.
“The Indian people, the large majority of them, have paid heed, and they are showing that under strong and steady hands they are ready to be guided,” Rao contended.
According to Professor Gyan Prakash of Princeton, the Morning Consult poll was skewed to middle class Indians. “To begin with, internet penetration in India is at best 50 percent. So Morning Consult may have reached the ‘balcony-owning’ Indians,” Prakash contended.
When News India Times asked Morning Consult if it could interview someone about the India survey, the company responded, “We won’t be able to accommodate an interview, but appreciate your interest in our world leader data.”
Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, Sumit Ganguly, says the Morning Consult survey may be skewed in favor of the middle class in India, but Modi’s rising popularity is also true. More so, because “The opposition has not come out with a set of alternatives except the obvious,” during the pandemic.
“The Gandhis are going to ruin the country, they will not give up their privileged position in the party, and yet are inept. Under these circumstances, the popularity of Modi will be there, regardless of the quality of the poll,” Prof. Ganguly maintained.
Jayashree Joshi Eashwar, an environmentalist, a pioneering organic farmer in close touch with grassroots rural community of India, concedes there is the “rally round the flag” syndrome that has helped Modi’s approval ratings in several polls.
Also, “It must be noted that a threat perception has always helped Mr Modi who is seen as a strong and no-nonsense leader. He is also a mobilizer who seems to know how to channelize the emotions of his people and bring them to focus on national macro issues rather than the micro aspects that trouble or hurt them,” she said. However, the jury is still out on Modi, as the nation waits for the lifting of the emergency in June, she added. (In the interest of full disclosure, Joshi Eashwar is known to this writer for many years).
After the candle-light vigils and banging of pots and pans, there is the massive migrant labor crisis that Joshi Eashwar says will affect that popularity rating in light of “unsatisfactory redressal” and “systemic cracks” that “have become apparent” even in the relief package announced for the poor.
Parth Parihar, a PhD scholar in economics at Princeton, has been studying the numbers closely. His area of study is the nexus between economics and politics.
Parihar says the poll is as accurate as can be.
He looks at the beginning and end of the months covered by this and other polls on Modi’s popularity and approval ratings.
The Morning Consult poll results show all the world leaders experienced an initial bump when the COVID threat loomed in January. And as the virus spread, the approval rating for many either stayed constant or rose.
But for some, the numbers went down as the virus infected numbers rose. The latter happened with leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Trump.
“So the initial reaction was to rally round the flag; then as time goes on, people tend to get fatigued, and to look more closely at what is happening, as in the U.S.,” Parihar said. “In the Indian context, that drop hasn’t happened. Why? Because even with the limited resources, India has managed the crisis reasonably well,” he says.
Modi’s 76 percent popularity rating in January as shown in the Morning Consult survey, is close to that in other polls with a wider reach,
The “high-quality IANS-CVoter survey conducted in late January found that Prime Minister Modi had an 82 percent approval rating, adding together ‘satisfied’ and ‘very much satisfied’ responses,” Parihar says.
A March 26-27 survey conducted by CVoter’s Coronavirus tracker showed 66.4 percent of respondents “strongly agree” and 17.1 percent “agree” with the Modi government’s handling of the crisis, The Quint reported. That equals 83.5 percent popularity rating, almost identical to that of Morning Consult’s March 31 rating of Modi which stood at 80 percent.
As India slowly relaxes the lockdown with an eye to a possible resurgence, the nation and the world is looking to see if Modi will maintain his position as the most popular leader, or, one of the most popular leaders, in the world.