As the country prepares to hold the world’s biggest election next month, the spotlight is once again on Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking a second term and remains the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) primary vote-catcher. Unlike 2014, the upcoming general elections will not be about the economy or development, but voter verdict on Modi’s leadership.
Even though Modi remains the country’s most popular politician, it is the change in narrative post Balakot that puts national security at the front and centre of the political discourse that works to the Modi government’s advantage in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP, which banked heavily on Modi in 2014, is once again launching an election campaign centred on his larger-than-life presence. That Modi has already done more poll-related rallies and events than all his principal rivals put together, says a thing or two about his boundless energy and combative spirit.
Despite criticism over the ill-conceived demonetisation drive or public anger against the lack of jobs along with the agrarian crisis, Modi has stayed ahead of his opponents by virtue of his decisive leadership. He is seen as someone who is unafraid to take risks, inspiring the BJP’s tagline of “Modi hai toh mumkin hai” for his re-election.
Opinion polls indicate a surge in Modi’s popularity following the air strike by Indian Air Force fighter jets on terror camps in Pakistan's Balakot.
According to the findings of CVOTER-IANS State of the Nation Opinion Poll, fifty-one per cent of the respondents interviewed on March 7 said they were very satisfied with the working of the Central government compared to 36 per cent on January 1. The net approval rating (which calculates the number of approvers minus the disapprovers) has risen to an all-time high of 62 per cent on March 7, almost doubling from 32 per cent at the start of the year.
Psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh of CVOTER explained the trend, saying that two significant events took place between January 1 and March 7. The first was the Union budget and the second being post-Pulwama Balakot air strikes.
"Post-Budget we observed only a marginal twitch in the needle with respect to net approval ratings, therefore, one may conclude that Budget doles were not gaining support for the National Democratic Aalliance [NDA]," he said, adding the decisive rising trend was seen after the Pulwama attack and it got further consolidated post-Balakot air strikes.
The approval rating of the Prime Minister matched the satisfaction level with his government. His net approval ratings have risen sharply in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack.
The decisive response by the Prime Minister to the Pulwama attack was in stark contrast to Manmohan Singh's inaction after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
"Simply put, security is one area where PM Modi has outdone UPA-I and II decisively. Even if some commentators and media sources are questioning the efficacy of raids, it cannot be denied that PM Modi is first PM after Indira Gandhi to order attack on sovereign Pakistan soil," he said.
In stark contrast, Congress president Rahul Gandhi started the year on a high with the net approval rating of 23 per cent. But after Pulwama and the aerial strikes, his approval rating dropped sharply to 8 per cent.
"The probable reason could be that security as an issue is post-2004 Congress's Achilles heel. The record of post-2004 Congress against terror and Pakistan is one of the most uninspiring of post-independence governments, perhaps matched only by the one year I.K. Gujral administration of United Front," said Deshmukh.
While Modi remains the most popular leader in the country in two successive CVOTER-IANS Tracker 2019 opinion polls leaving all his rivals far behind, a state-wise breakdown of the satisfaction level of people with him show that in at least 13 states, more than 50 per cent of the respondents approved of his work.
A majority of the respondents (over 40 per cent) continue to believe that Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) can run better coalition.
Even though opposition parties have joined hands to oust the Modi government, the issue of who would be the prime ministerial candidate of the anti-BJP political parties continues to remain a big question mark.
At a rally to show opposition unity, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee called for a "collective leadership". She said everyone is a leader in the proposed alliance, and a "collective decision" will be taken after the polls once the BJP was defeated.
The Trinamool Congress leaders had been unabashedly stating in the run up to the rally that it would propel Banerjee to the centre-stage of Indian politics so that she could emerge as the face of the opposition if the Modi-led BJP was defeated at the hustings and there was a hung parliament.
Samajwadi Party Chief Akhilesh Yadav said: "Whoever people decide, will become prime minister."
Meanwhile, Telugu Desam chief and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu said the entire country's mood is to have a new Prime Minister in 2019, but shied away from going into the issue further.
Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Admi Party (AAP) national convenor Arvind Kejriwal came up with a comment that the focus of the coming elections was removal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rather than electing a prime minister.
The opposition’s focus on Modi’s ouster without a consensus on an alternate leader does not have many takers. Their campaigns have focused mainly on the ills of the Modi government and the BJP, instead of talking about their merits.
There were several leaders in the anti-saffron camp who skipped Mamata’s rally in Kolkata. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, BSP supremo Mayawati and TRS chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao fall in that category.
After the rally, the issue of the prime ministerial candidate became the main weapon for the BJP to attack the opposition parties.
"The issue of 'mahagathbandhan' is a bogey and it cannot defeat the BJP because those who are on the dais have dreams to be the Prime Minister. Those dreams will be left unfulfilled," BJP national spokesperson Syed Shahnawaz Hussain said.
While the BJP banks on Modi’s charisma, opposition parties can only hope that regional leaders may be able to sway votes in their favour. Winning elections may require good numbers and arithmetic but also needs good chemistry.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the election in 2014 was to fulfil the needs of the country and the 2019 battle will be to meet the expectations of every citizen. Whether he has met them will be for all to see next month.