Will Brand Modi survive after COVID?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

/ by mansuralisaha

The News Cover: “As I said, I’m skeptical about giving the vote.” “I might press the NOTA button.” This is Arun Kumar Goyal, a long-time member of BJP, who lost his mother-in-law to COVID in Ghaziabad, UP. He kept searching for a hospital bed desperately. “So you’re a BJP member.” “Yes, I am. My family has four memberships.” Morning Consult, a company that tracks the popularity of political leaders, remarked that PM Modi’s popularity is the lowest in the past 1.5 years. Yashwant Deshmukh, a founder of a polling agency, asserts the same thing. He adds that PM Modi’s satisfaction levels have fallen significantly in one year. That’s why many BJP leaders are worried about Brand Modi. Moreover, not only citizens, but the BJP party members are criticizing the government too. For example, Union Minister Santosh Gangwar wrote a public letter to UP CM, criticizing the COVID mismanagement in Bareilly. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as four BJP MLAs have died in UP due to COVID. 

This isn’t the first time that we’ve come across such criticism. We came across such criticism during demonetization, farmer protest, and the migrant crisis. But it failed to affect PM Modi’s popularity. But there’s something unique about the 2nd wave of COVID-19 which could damage the image and popularity of PM Modi. Asim Ali, a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, talked about this in his recent article. He highlighted three reasons. First, the intentions. Be it 2016’s demonetization or 2017’s GST reforms, the members and supporters of the BJP did admit that the decisions affected their lives but the Prime Minister was at least trying; whereas, the other Prime Ministers didn’t even try to bring a change. We heard this from the PM himself when he talked about his clear intentions. “We’re not tricking anyone.” “We’re working with holy and pure intentions.” “If your intentions are clear, the decisions are clear too.”

 “And the outcomes are positive too.” “Dear citizens, wait until 30th December.” “If after 30th Dec. “If I fall short… “Or if I’m at fault. “Or if my intentions aren’t clear. “Then you can…. But the news from the Bengal election campaigning was conflicting. People started regarding the Prime Minister as a political leader who prioritizes an election over the lives of the citizens. For example, PM Modi said during campaigning… “This is the first time I’ve seen such a massive gathering.” Meanwhile, many were desperately searching for oxygen and hospital beds. "We're receiving news from several cities where..." These things could damage PM Modi’s image. Because right now he’s being hailed as a leader who values the country over political power. The second reason is that the BJP and PM Modi have struggled to stage a narrative during the second wave. This is due to three reasons. 

First, it has become difficult for the BJP to identify an enemy this time. The BJP could’ve simply deemed the critics of the demonetization as the supporters of corruption. But that can’t be done for the pandemic, as the virus neither has a religion nor citizenship. The second reason is that it’s easier to build a narrative when the evidence is ambiguous. For example, during the Balakot airstrike, when the damage caused by the Indian strike wasn’t clear, the government used social media as a weapon to control the narrative. But it’s difficult to do the same during the pandemic as the evidence is in clear sight. “She was admitted here.” “She couldn’t survive due to the shortage of oxygen.” We could argue about the number of deaths and infections, but it’s clear that India is in a grave situation due to the pandemic. Third, the pandemic lacks something that other situations didn’t – an ability to tell people to sacrifice for the greater good of the country. 

“I came here at 7:30 in the morning to withdraw money.” “We need to face these hardships because the country is ultimately developing.” “We’re doing it for the country.” “PM Modi asked us to wait for 50 days. We could wait for 500 days.” “The commoners should adjust a little bit because it’s a big movie to eradicate terrorism, black money…” During the rising prices, the same argument was being reiterated. But the argument of sacrifice doesn’t hold for this time as people are losing their loved ones because of the government’s negligence. “My younger brother died here and the elder brother died there.” “I blame the system (government).” Third reason: the pandemic has greatly affected a segment of our society. A segment that has an influence over our country and the issues covered by the media – the urban middle and upper class. This segment is one of PM Modi’s most passionate supporters. Nagesh Prabhu addressed this in his book. 

He suggests that the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare sparked enthusiasm among the middle class. PM Modi used this energy in the 2014 and 2019 Elections by manipulating social and traditional media. In fact, the middle and upper-middle class accounted for the highest vote share for BJP in these elections. PM Modi’s image allures this segment a lot. For example, a youngster and an active member of BJP told TIME magazine that Narendra Modi is tech-savvy, business-friendly, and forward-looking. Usually, the middle and upper class overcome the difficulties in our country by using a method called Jugaad. A poor person would call this a privilege. Be it issuing a driving license, passport, or getting admission to a school, the people from this segment solve their problems with the help of acquaintances. Meanwhile, a poor individual can’t solve them easily. 

We noticed this privilege during demonetization. For example, many asked their employees to stand in queues. Santosh Garg, who worked for a Mumbai-based insurance company, said he was doing it because his boss asked him to And he can’t simply refuse. Similarly, an app called Book My Chotu was launched, where people could hire someone to stand in queues. Where these solutions didn’t work, corruption came in handy. For example, the government came across many cases during its investigation, where bank accounts were opened without completing the KYC requirements. That’s how 99% of the Indian currency notes were returned. Due to the pandemic, the upper and middle class are facing problems that the poor have to face daily. Due to this, the value of people’s privilege, including mine, dropped drastically. Things will start falling into places when we grasp the economic impact of the pandemic. According to some estimates, the number of Indians with high and middle income will decrease significantly due to the pandemic. This doesn’t mean BJP hasn’t devised a plan in its defense. For example, several BJP leaders shared newspaper articles on Twitter that defended the Modi government’s performance against the pandemic. 

At first sight, this Daily Guardian newspaper would look like its British counterpart. But the owner of this website is an Indian media company called ITV Network, which is registered in Uttar Pradesh. Despite this, the BJP leaders accept that it’s difficult to protect the government under current circumstances. They’ve tried using three different messages. First, they’ve tried attacking the foreign press and some local journalists. This message didn’t gain much popularity because people desperately want to share the shortcomings of the government. The second message is that the center handled the first wave successfully, and the states were responsible for handling the second wave and they failed to do so. The argument is a bit true because the states could’ve prepared well. But blaming the states alone won’t be logical. Because if the center warned the states about the second wave, then why did it organize mass-spreader events like Bengal election campaigns and Kumbh Mela? The third message is that no one could’ve controlled the second wave. 

If the developed countries like the US and the UK couldn’t stop the pandemic, then what chance did India have? And that’s why the government shouldn’t be blamed. It’s a bit true because India could never have countered the second wave even if the government was well-prepared as the Indian variant was more transmissible. But this doesn’t mean that the government couldn’t have improved its response. Apart from circulating such messages on social media, the government is trying very hard to curb public criticism of PM Modi. Several posters were put up in Delhi by the Aam Adami Party workers. “Modiji, why did you export our children’s vaccine?” In response, the police arrested poor and unemployed people. For example, a 19-year-old school dropout was arrested who had no idea about the poster’s meaning. 

Such criticism may soar once we feel the economic impact of the second wave. Many believe that as the elections are three years away, people would forget about the second wave. But that won’t happen if the opposition party doesn’t press on these issues. Because that’s how PM Modi won the 2014 Elections. He accused Congress of corruption, terrorism, and inflation. We shouldn’t forget that PM Modi is a once-in-a-lifetime politician. He’s remained popular despite demonetization, GST, and CAA-NRC. It wouldn’t be surprising if he regains his popularity after the second wave. But the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Would the opposition and Indian media be able to preserve our opinions? This would decide the influence of the pandemic on PM Modi’s popularity. 


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