Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has been a political phenomenon in India, despite it being one of the most fragmented and competitive democratic environments in the world. His first national election victory in 2014 gave his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the first single-party parliamentary majority the country had seen since 1984. His even larger electoral victory in 2019 strengthened the view that Modi was not only larger than his own party but a head and shoulders above any other Indian political leader.
While he has suffered the odd policy setback, nothing has challenged Modi’s political standing more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Given India’s generally parlous healthcare system and massive population, the pandemic was always going to be a challenge. The Modi government has had at best a mixed record over the past two years though the Prime Minister has not shirked from making politically painful decisions to tackle the virus. He has emerged from India’s third COVID-19 wave battered, his approval rating slightly down and his capacity to carry out radical economic reforms under a question mark.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in January 2019, India responded quickly by cutting off flights with China. However, what little time it earned was lost by a sluggish administrative response in stocking up on gowns and gloves, respirators and drugs. Contact tracing and quarantining proved unsustainable given the country’s 1.4 billion people. The limited vaccines were given to health workers and the elderly. When community transmission was confirmed, the Modi government concluded it had only one response: one of the most stringent and most sudden economic lockdowns in the world. The entire economy went into a tailspin with millions thrown out of work and much of the urban population under some form of lock and key. The lockdown helped break the back of the wave which peaked at about 100,000 cases a day in mid-October. The economic costs of handling the first wave proved enormous – the government’s Economic Survey estimates that gross output fell by about 30% — but the political costs were surprisingly minimal. Indians are no strangers to epidemics, so there seems to have been a broad popular acceptance that these were circumstances beyond any government’s control.
When the first COVID-19 wave began to ease by November, New Delhi assumed the storm had passed. The Modi government had set up 11 expert committees and their various models all predicted a mild increase in infections in the first quarter of 2021. The policy focus was on reviving the economy. The Indian government rolled out a relatively leisurely vaccine program, even announcing its intention to export millions of doses to other countries, and failed to expand its genomic sequencing program. When the Delta variant appeared on the scene in March 2021 it caught the system unprepared. The sheer numbers of Delta cases, which reached 400,000 a day by mid-May, quickly overwhelmed the Indian health system, particularly exposing a shortage of oxygen and ICU beds. A breakdown in central and state government coordination exacerbated already existing capacity problems. It was impossible for Modi to claim he could not have been better prepared and there were times the government seemed at a loss for a coherent response.
This time, while the economic costs were less as the lockdown was only partial, the political damage was extensive. Modi’s approval rating plummeted. Morning Consult’s global leaders rating showed Modi’s domestic approval rating fall to 63% in May-June 2021 from 84% a year earlier. The India Today Mood of the Nation poll showed his rating falling from 78% in August 2020 to 53% a year later. Modi still had numbers that most other world leaders would have dreamt of, but the second COVID-19 wave robbed him of a larger-than-life image. His party subsequently lost a few key state elections, despite extensive campaigning by the Prime Minister. The opposition parties, many of which had concluded that resisting Modi was futile, have since become far more vocal and active.
The Prime Minister has fought back. For example, he has taken the lead in fast tracking vaccinations and vaccine production. As of the end of January, 75% of India’s adult population are fully vaccinated and jabs for children are being rolled out by the millions every day. The government stockpiled thousands of tons of equipment and medicine in preparation for the Omicron variant. The combination of a high percentage of vaccinated and naturally immunized and the variant’s milder characteristics has meant that while the third wave probably peaked in January at about 300,000 cases a day, it is leaving fewer fatalities and hospitalized cases in its wake. Modi has already begun to see his numbers rise again. Morning Consult put his approval rating at up to 72% in January, while India Today put his performance approval at 62.8%.
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The real damage is to the Prime Minister’s economic reform agenda. While his political ideology has been infused with religious nationalism, Modi’s economic policies have been largely market friendly. He has carried out reforms long seen as politically suicidal for a ruling government. These included regulating the corrupt but entrenched real estate sector, introducing a formal corporate bankruptcy procedure and a nationwide general sales tax. He has combined this with a sweeping digital economic push and, though this is the most problematic reform, demonetizing the currency to force the economy’s formalization. Modi skillfully rode out the opposition to these reforms, holding his social coalition together with a revamped and better targeted welfare system and his nationalistic ideology. All of this was a key reason he was able to sustain such high levels of popular support despite the shocks his reforms imposed on the economy.
In the wake of the pandemic, however, Modi has pulled back or postponed many of the remaining reforms he has on his agenda. This included three farm reform bills designed to break up an unsustainable agricultural subsidy structure for grain farmers. The reforms resulted in a year of protests by thousands of farmers, but following the second wave the Prime Minister threw in the towel and repealed the laws – only the second time he has done so since he came to power. (6) For all his recovery in the polls, it is noticeable that the numbers with a negative view of Modi have doubled.
Modi does not face the electorate again until 2024, which gives him plenty time to revive his agenda. In addition, he has declared his intention to continue with selective privatization and the introduction of market-based power pricing. He surprised many by announcing a net zero carbon emissions target year in Glasgow despite the disruptions this would cause for India’s coal-based economy . But his farm rollback and postponement of a new labor code are indications he knows he is in a fragile political position, at least by his standards. If the pandemic is genuinely over by the spring, while the BJP has been able to win the elections in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state, there will be a sense Modi is past the worst. The Prime Minister has long said he wants to marginalize what he sees as an entrenched and out-of-touch New Delhi establishment and create a “new India”.
The pandemic has lost him two years of this campaign and Modi will have to go slow for much of 2022. One result: buzz that Modi might step down after his second term has disappeared. It is now almost certain he will seek the prime ministership for a third time and finish what COVID-19 prevented him from doing.