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Pew survey results boost Narendra Modi’s popularity, but Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh polls remain litmus tests

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign managers must be happy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, on which hinges saffron party’s fortunes, remains intact, said a survey by American think-tank, Pew Research Center. That is so after three eventful years of Modi’s rule at the Centre and his controversial economic experiments.

To be precise, nearly nine-in-ten Indians hold a favorable opinion of Modi, said the Pew survey, adding that roughly seven-in-ten say they have a very favourable view of the prime minister similar to public views in 2015. The only problem with the survey is that its sample size is too small — just 2,464 respondents in India from February 21 to March 10, 2017.

Hence, when the survey finds “the public’s positive assessment of Modi is buoyed by growing contentment with the Indian economy”, one can argue that that may not necessarily go well with the mood on the ground, particularly if one looks at other indicators or reports on business optimismunemploymenttrends and perception among small traders.Even for a basic statistical survey, that is an insignificant number for a nation of 130 crore people and, especially so, when you want to give a verdict about the national level popularity trend of the leader of the ruling political party. Secondly, though the survey was done at the peak time of the note ban impact, it doesn’t capture the public mood (particularly among small traders) post the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1 July, 2017.

Having said that, coming from a globally reputed think-tank, the Pew survey (unlike the surveys done on the Narendra Modi app) will hold highly in favour of the Modi-government’s campaign managers ahead of the crucial state Assembly election in Gujarat — Modi’s home state and one of the biggest industrial hubs in India. And at a time when the Modi government is facing criticism from both within and outside his party on charges of economic mismanagement, this is good news for Modi’s poll campaign managers.

Remember, Modi faced criticism on the economy despite initiating certain big moves to clean-up the parallel economy (through demonetisation), bring in a uniform tax regime (GST), change India into a global manufacturing hub (Make in India) and work towards ease of doing business. But, lack of planning and inadequate execution skills proved to be the villain in each of these initiatives denying the full credit to the government and giving an opportunity for the political opposition to launch counter-attacks.

Demonetisation was one of the high-risk political moves executed by Modi with the intention to clean-up the economy but poor planning caused more damage, particularly in the cash-intensive informal sector, compared with the gains of the stated objectives. Modi pulled off GST — the biggest indirect tax reform in India’s history — after breaking a decade-long deadlock but, again, faced backlash when the rate structure and compliance process hurt small traders and caused confusion.

The delay to act in clearing the banking sector mess and address the economic slowdown (mainly caused by drag in the manufacturing segment and a slump in demand) proved costly in the third year of Modi’s rule forcing his government to come with one of the biggest economic stimulus packages in India’s history worth Rs 9 lakh crore, of which Rs 2.11 lakh crore came as recapitalisation fund for banks and the rest to push investment in infrastructure.

The Modi government, particularly Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, has been in a continuous state of denial about the sad state of the economy. But, by offering a massive fiscal stimulus, the government acknowledged the problem, finally.

Indeed, the Pew survey is a shot in the arm for BJP and Modi. But, no political analyst would attach too much of importance to popularity surveys, because when people finally go to polling booths, the outcome may not be in sync with these surveys (remember Donald Trump’s popularity polls ahead of the 2016 US Presidential Elections).

Modi continues to be BJP’s mascot and trump card even after three years of his ascension into the national scene. The pan-India BJP wave is still riding largely on Modi, and the Pew survey surely works towards the party’s advantage, but Modi’s real popularity test will come when the votes are counted in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls, where the prime minister continues to dominate the poll scene more than the local leaders.

Yes, there aren’t too many political analysts who doubt BJP’s win in the BJP dominated Gujarat. But, the victory margin and trends will be watched keenly as a metric of Modi’s popularity.

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