New Delhi, India – Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains “by far the most popular national figure in Indian politics” more than three years after coming to power, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last week.
Nearly nine out of 10 Indians say they have a favourable view of Modi, says the survey conducted between February 21 and March 10 this year among 2,464 respondents.
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The survey says people are satisfied with the direction in which the country is being steered and the state of the economy under Modi despite the controversial decision to ban high currency notes last November and a bleak employment situation.
For the prime minister’s supporters, these approval ratings seem like vindication.
“It’s easy for the masses to identify with Narendra Modi since he is literally one of them having risen from a humble tea-seller to now the prime minister of the largest democracy,” said Nalin Kohli, spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“His agenda includes poverty elimination and creation of a ‘New India’ which is developed and inclusive, corruption free where delivery of benefits reach the intended and where aspirations can attain flight as India attains its rightful place in the global arena,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Pew poll findings show a majority of Indians still back Modi’s stewardship of Asia’s third-largest economy.
“More than eight-in-ten say economic conditions are good. And the share of adults who say the economy is very good (30 percent) has tripled in the past three years,” says the survey.
Young Indians (18-29) are more “intense” supporters of the divisive BJP leader than their elders. Seven out of 10 Indians approve of Modi’s record in dealing with corruption and “terrorism”.
But economist Mohan Guruswamy is not impressed.
“This is bogus research. I don’t accept that. They go around urban areas, middle-class, English-speaking areas to ask these light questions. Some of these surveys are very dubious, they are meant to also serve a political goal,” said Guruswamy, a former economic adviser to the federal government in the late 1990s.
“I won’t take this poll seriously because other numbers don’t reflect this sentiment – no job creation, no investments in infrastructure, in capital expenditure, the lacklustre state of the economy…. All these indicators showing things are not good,” he told Al Jazeera.
Pew admits the “sample is disproportionately urban”, but claims the data are “weighted to reflect the actual urban/rural distribution in India”.
“Go ask the people in the rural countryside of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, you would get a better sense of what the people really think. For me, the 600 million Indians who are below poverty line are the average Indians – Did Pew go speak to them?” Guruswamy asks.
The Pew survey – which does reflect this rural-urban divide in its findings – however, says opposition leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi “are more popular in rural areas than in urban areas”.
It's easy for the masses to identify with Narendra Modi since he is literally one of them having risen from a humble tea-seller to now the prime minister of the largest democracy
“Rural Indians view the prime minister’s handling of corruption less favorably than do city dwellers. Women are particularly critical of how he has dealt with communal relations. And rural Indians are less supportive than those in urban areas of his handling of both communal relations and air pollution,” the survey adds.
Public Relations expert, Dilip Cherian, says “high decibel communications and consistent repetition of images” has worked wonders for the prime minister.
“The Pew poll survey is indicative of one big thing that the government and more so the prime minister has done a terrific job of – communications,” Cherian told Al Jazeera.
“The Prime Minister’s ability to stick to his initial scheme of promises seems to be inexhaustible.
“Modi himself retains a healthy distance from all issues, which have hurt large sections of the public sentiment. It is a great management strategy specially, management of the self-image to retain the distance, stay on message and focus only on raising decibel levels,” he adds.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Modi’s biographer, also dismissed the findings of the survey, saying they “no longer have any relevance”.
“If the poll was conducted in February-March, why are they releasing the findings in mid-November? Is it because of the upcoming elections in Gujarat [state]?” he asked.
“This is mischievous. I would be very surprised if this sentiment holds true in November after the unraveling of the economy,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Faith in Modi’s intent and his integrity’
Pew has over the past few years released similar survey findings in autumn.
“If you look back at our previous research, we have produced reports on Indian public opinion every year for the last several years. And for the last few years, those reports have been released around similar times in the autumn based on our Spring survey. This year, that survey included 38 countries,” lead author of the Pew survey, Bruce Stokes, told Al Jazeera.
Enthusiasm for the prime minister has not changed in the BJP-ruled northern states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, while Modi’s popularity has been rising in southern India, according to the poll.
At least nine-in-ten Indians in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telangana strongly believe the prime minister is doing a good job.
Prashant Jha, Associate Editor at Hindustan Times and author of “How The BJP Wins”, endorses the findings of the poll.
“There is no doubt that even now Modi is by far India’s most popular leader. I travel a lot on the ground in different states and what I have sensed is that there is still enormous faith that the people have in the prime minister’s intent and his integrity,” Jha said.
“If the survey was conducted today, you might have somewhat different findings because the mood over the past few months have turned partially to disillusionment and disappointment particularly on the economic question. But I feel that those who supported him continue to believe that his intentions were right and they are willing to give him the benefit of doubt,” Jha told Al Jazeera.
Modi beats his closest rivals, leader of the Congress Party Sonia Gandhi by 31 percentage points and the deputy leader of the Congress Rahul Gandhi by 30 points.
“Sure Modi has strong hardcore support, 30 percent people will always back him even when we are sinking and the boat is going down. Because Modi is a charismatic, divisive leader,” economist Guruswamy said.
“But don’t forget even Hitler won popular elections.”