Opinion polls, especially those conducted at moments when there is no election in sight, can be very instructive. Apart from being a snapshot of a moment uncluttered by those considerations (like community, caste and candidates) that prevail during the election season, they are a guide to a country's unprompted mood. The India Today-Cicero Mood of the Nation poll that was released last week, based on a national survey done in the first half of March, was, quite predictably, flaunted by its media sponsor as a “wake up call” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The alarm clock analogy has been terribly overused in the media, to the point where it has lost resonance. But only up to a point. The poll findings were indeed a “wake up call”, but not one that should cut short Modi's sleep. If anything, the findings suggested that it is the media, particularly the hyperactive English-language media that should cut short its sweet dreams and smell the coffee.
Let's look at the findings. Contrary to the impression conveyed by the editorial class that the Prime Minister and his Government had lost its way and is in a state of befuddlement, the findings of Mood of the Nation poll showed that in the event of a snap election-an unlikely possibility-the NDA would probably retain its 300-seat tally in the Lok Sabha. The BJP could slip marginally, with Uttar Pradesh contributing most to the slide, but it would probably be within a whisker of its absolute majority. More to the point, the BJP, both singly and in alliance, would probably secure a slightly higher percentage of votes compared to the general election of 2014. To put it bluntly, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Indian voter is regretting its decision to put Modi in the political hot seat. The wave of disappointment and disillusionment that the media has detected, is probably confined to the watering hole of the Press Club.
Second, it would seem that media reports of a country emotionally torn apart by a wave of communal polarisation, doesn't correspond to people's real life experiences. The majority of Indians don't seem to feel that religious differences have suddenly become paramount. This doesn't imply that India has been overwhelmed by a perspective that in shorthand is often described as the “RSS view.” The poll quite clearly indicated that what is called the “RSS view” isn't shared by a majority of the electorate. In other words, while they don't approve of polarisation along communal lines, they don't also believe that such a division has happened in India. The conclusion that the media has been playing with fire and exaggerating the importance of small events is inescapable.
The great detachment of the media from the prevailing consensus is further reinforced by a third conclusion: The majority approval for steps to prevent all religious conversions. Does this imply that India is becoming intolerant and showing scant respect for Article 25 of the Constitution? The answer, it would seem is a little more complex. Read with the disinclination to embrace the so-called RSS mindset, it suggests that the activities of those who believe in “harvesting souls” and even those who want individuals to change their ways of worship are viewed with general distaste. In a principally religious country, people like to have their faith insulated from outside interference. The findings reflected India's unequivocal belief in the right to retain one's faith-be it to multiple deities, to Islam or to Jesus Christ. This is as much a lesson to evangelists as much as it is to the ghar wapsi brigade.
However, the poll did show that the Prime Minister's personal popularity has registered a little dip. Although this isn't as yet a cause for political concern since Modi enjoys a popular approval higher than that enjoyed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a similar point in his prime ministership, it does indicate the yearning for some big changes. The Government's approval rating is very high but it is balanced by a feeling that there have been few discernible changes in people's daily lives. This can be explained by the fact that an economic turnaround takes time to manifest itself. Indeed, I believe that the results of the various 'ease of business' measures will probably begin to be visible between Diwali and Christmas this year.
For Modi and his Government, the real political challenge is to keep people's spirits up till then. This isn't easy, not least because people are often inclined to get impatient. But the Prime Minister shouldn't allow any room for panic. The final point that the poll revealed was that the attempts of the media and Opposition parties to make a big deal about the changes to the Land Acquisition Act haven't struck a chord. Despite the apparent outward turbulence, the mood of the nation is still calm and expectant. There is a yearning for a better India and a hope that this can happen. But that is not a 'sexy' story for a media that has never overcome its loathing for Modi to pursue.
Sunday Pioneer, April 5, 2015