Only President Lula of Brazil could claim to have had a popularity level higher than Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of his first term in office. I exclude countries like Russia, where while Vladimir Putin is very popular, the nature of contestation and political freedom for opposition candidates is limited. In India, all the polls conducted by agencies of different hues and preferences, find Modi to be the most popular political leader in the country. The range of popularity may vary but not one survey disputes the fact that he remains the most popular Indian political leader. Nor, in fact, do leaders of the Opposition parties that I meet deny this — they only suggest that it is so because he has managed to fool people.
His popularity has sustained through the many strong decisions across a broad spectrum of issues that he has taken, many of which the intelligentsia has criticised — Aadhaar and its use, demonetisation, GST implementation, military strategy vis a vis Pakistan, the Doklam standoff, etc. Yet every Opposition party has only one theme — Modi is bad for the country and must be removed. Despite all this, he has remained popular with the mainstream of Indian public opinion, even when they have not agreed with him. It’s a phenomenon that requires introspection especially as some of his decisions have gone against the interest of his core supporters, unlike say, a Donald Trump.
I have to confess my analysis has been influenced strongly by the community of hired car drivers across the country. I travel a lot within India (admittedly city travel) and I use the travel time between the airport and the city to talk politics with my drivers. Most times, I find they have a positive opinion on Modi, even if they don’t like the BJP or even if they vote for a different party in the elections (especially true in South India — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala; I have to confess Bengal is a bit complicated to assess because most of the taxi drivers are Bihari).
There are a few things I have distilled through my conversations. Modi has found a way to communicate directly with the people. He is a phenomenal orator and talks on the issues that have not been raised before. He has embraced themes that give people both hope and pride. He has also been able to call upon the latent spirit of sacrifice in Indian’s for a larger good. He has highlighted how other parties have failed India and repeatedly talked of a bigger agenda that he should be given time to complete. He has demonstrated that he is hard-working and shown he has no personal family interest to further. One driver in Calcutta, originally from Bihar, told me he is a welcome change from the family business called Indian politics. It is also interesting that many drivers are aware that he has not delivered on all his promises but they see him as trying hard.
People like the fact that he has raised issues that instil pride in the people. He has talked about an Indian past which is something to look up to. He has talked about a more muscular national policy where India will not take everything lying down. Not just with Pakistan but also against a powerful country like China. He has the ability to stand up to countries and does not appear indecisive. He has underlined India’s scientific progress and believes that we can be great.
He also has the ability to take up issues like cleanliness and hygiene. No political leader put issues like toilets and sanitation on the national mainstream agenda. Only when leaders talk about these issues do we become conscious of their absence, one driver in Bengaluru mentioned. Making the cleaning of the Ganga a priority has connected with people. The Kumbh mela became a show piece and so many foreigners took a dip in the Ganges, with all their concerns about infection and hygiene. I must say that some of my friends living abroad, including the global chairman of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and his wife, came and took a dip in the Ganges. They mentioned the mela was well-organised and that my caution on the quality of the water was perhaps overstated.
Even demonetisation was seen as a strike against the corrupt, even if it hurt the people I spoke to personally. They believe some personal sacrifice to clean up the system for a larger purpose is acceptable. In fact, the relentless talk of corruption against Modi has just not stuck. People just don’t believe “ki chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is a thief). So, whether it is Nirav Modi or the Rafale deal, the attempts by the Opposition to paint Modi as corrupt have not worked. The early strike with “suit boot ki sarkar” (a suited and booted government) has waned.
Finally, Modi has managed to connect with and speak to young India. He challenges the credibility of the Opposition. He is good with social media and manages to convey strength and hope. Whether his personal popularity will be enough to take the BJP over the post is going to be tested, but were this a presidential election, he would be an easy winner. With the way our parliamentary democracy works, the results are always unknown. In a bid to short-circuit the process, I called up God to ask him who is winning. Even he said I don’t know, let’s wait and see.
This article first appeared in print under the headline: Solving the Modi mystery
The writer is chairman, BCG India. Views are personal