It was almost a perfect storm that had built up against the BJP led NDA before the just concluded Bihar assembly elections in India. A once-in-a-century global pandemic that caused an unprecedented health crisis. Severe economic dislocation due to the lockdown that affected both livelihoods and trade. A ‘forced’ reverse labour migration, the pathos of which was captured by all TV cameras.
15 years of accumulated anti-incumbency built up against the existing NDA government. A completely new generation of voters who had no lived experience — hence no obvious antipathy — of the governance under the opposition RJD-Congress, which is ubiquitously referred to as ‘Jungle Raj” (rule of the wild). An entire media ecosystem, which was cheering the challenger as the new hope, aligned against the BJP led NDA.
Normally, just one of these factors is more often than not good enough to sink an incumbent government. And yet, the BJP led NDA prevailed, winning a comfortable majority in the newly elected assembly.
Popularity of Prime Minister
As all post-election analysis has noted, it was the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that pulled the NDA alliance through in Bihar. The only party that increased its base significantly was the BJP which won 74 seats out of the 110 contested — a staggering strike rate of 67.2%, which is more than double the 33% strike rate in the previous 2015 (53 wins out of 157 contested) elections.
Compare this with strike rate of other parties: RJD went down from 80% in 2015 (80 wins out of 101 contested) to 52% in 2020 (75 wins out of 144 contested).
JDU down from 71% in 2015 (71 wins out of 101 contested) to 47.4% in 2020 (43 wins out of 115 contested)
Congress down from 67% in 2015 (27 wins out of 41 contested) to just 27% in 2020 (19 wins out of 70 contested).
This surge in the popularity of BJP under Modi is further buttressed by the results of various bypolls that came on the same day, with BJP winning handsomely in the East (Manipur), the West (Gujarat), the South (Karnataka and Telangana) and the North (Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh).
So, what is it about Modi that his popularity seems to have not just held through but actually increased? The answer lies in who Modi is and what is his governance model.
Consider first the response to COVID-19 pandemic. Modi was among the very few global leaders who enforced the earliest and strictest lockdown. The result — despite India’s size, population density and relatively less developed health infrastructure, the infection rate per million as well as the CFR rate per million is among the lowest in the world. The exponential growth phase of the virus, that shocked other countries in Europe and the US, never really occurred in India.
Excellent pandemic response
While other countries were still figuring out their response to the various other facets of the pandemic, Modi ensured two things immediately after imposing the lockdown. First, the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) model he had built was deployed immediately to transfer cash to the poorest and the neediest. Second, free rations were given all those who needed it because of the economic disruption. Since the lockdown in April earlier this year, more than 800 million people are being given free rations, every month. This ensured that while economic disruption was indeed there, there was no economic distress.
Next an economic plan was put in place to provide jobs under the employment guarantee act to the labourers who were forced to migrate back to their homes. Next, Modi got his unlock timing also right as the economic data coming out of India for the last three months indicate. All indicators — from FDI investment to manufacturing PMI and from retail sales of auto units to demand for electricity, cement and such other items indicate that the economic recovery in well under way.
Finally, by prudently keeping agriculture open even during the lockdown, and then ensuring record procurement of the agricultural produce at increased support prices, Modi has ensured that the rural economy has been insulated from any economic shock or distress.
The people realised that COVID-19 pandemic was not something that Modi could have anticipated or even planned for, but the way he handled it in real time, when most world leaders have floundered, has now met the overwhelming approval of the people.
But beyond the immediate context of the COVID-19 management, the elections are also an endorsement of the governance model of Modi, which is built on five pillars.
Bold constitutional steps
First, Modi is a nationalist who does not shy away from policies such as abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution and integrating Jammu Kashmir with the rest of India or from enacting laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to give path for accelerated Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities in the Indian subcontinent.
Second, Modi is the master executor of the ‘last-mile’ delivery mechanism. Most politicians struggle in converting their good intentions into effective last mile delivery. Modi revels in it. From a pucca house (concrete roof house) over every head, to electricity in every home, to piped water supply in that home, to health assurance to every poor to a functional bank account for every Indian — the visible and quantifiable change that Modi brings to the lived experience at the margins is what distinguishes him from everyone else.
Third, Modi has defied the conventional wisdom that good economics is not good politics. Despite tremendous pressure from all around, including from his well-wishers, Modi has never become fiscally profligate. This has meant that India has kept its inflation rate under check for the entire period of his tenure, delivered high real growth and ensured India’s status as an attractive destination for foreign direct investment among a host of other benefits for pursuing sound economic management.
Fourth, Modi is an economic reformer who has successfully mastered the art of politically selling tough selling economic reforms. Just before the elections, and during the peak of the pandemic, Modi enacted some of the most far reaching economic reforms ever. India’s agriculture sector was freed from the clutches of middlemen. Long pending labour reforms, a political hot potato, have finally seen the light of the day.
Coal sector is now open for private commercial mining. These reforms were pending for so long because previous governments could never muster the political courage to face the potential backlash. Modi did these reforms during a pandemic, just before a state election and still carried the support of the people.
Finally, Modi is a visionary who while delivering the most basic needs at the margins, also simultaneously inspires the next generation. From creating the third largest start hub in the world to a global success story in creating the entire digital value chain, and from seeding an entirely new entrepreneurial culture in India to modernising India’s education sector — Modi is building a New India in tune with its aspirations.
This New India is nationalist in its outlook. This New India is unapologetic about its ambitions. This New India is not shy of asserting its civilizational heritage. This New India votes for development politics. And for this New India, the Modi led BJP is the vehicle for fulfilling these aspirations.
When the COVID-19 pandemic crushing the approval ratings of almost every other elected leader in the world, the evidence of the just concluded election cycle in India demonstrate that at present, Modi is one of the most popular currently serving leaders in democratic world.