Five years ago, during the peak of Anna Hazare & Baba Ramdev led agitations against corruption, public anger across India was palpable. Literally millions of people in all cities and towns of India would throng local protest destinations with many of them joining in the evening after finishing their day jobs. ‘Celebrated’ (pun unintended) news anchors like Barkha Dutt of NDTV who had then recently covered civil unrest in far off countries like Egypt were unable to even visit these protest sites because public anger was also directed towards them. Majority of the media narrative of that time was more stooped in disbelief laced with skepticism about the impact of these agitations on “real India” (pun intended).
Today, 5 years later, once again there are crowds thronging to banks and ATMs in millions every day mostly in an orderly fashion. Most Indians have been heavily inconvenienced due to government’s demonetization, yet there are no mass protests in the cities and towns of India. Today, the media narrative though is the exact opposite to what it was some 5 years ago. Media, news anchors and columnists are working overtime to build a narrative of a manufactured anger of the masses but with little or no impact on the ground.
The contrast from 2011 to 2016 in the interplay between 3 primary players – media, public and government – couldn’t have been starker. While public and govt. were at loggerheads in 2011, media was by and large with the govt. whereas in 2016, public and govt. seem to be in harmony while media is seen to be against the government (media here mostly refers to the dominant mainstream English language version). These are interesting inflection points which suggest demographic pattern shifts in tandem with a media created dystopia.
The global attitude survey by PEW research shows a clear pattern of Indian public anger of 2013 turning into contentment of 2016 which has been consistent with our own polls and data over the last 3 years. Prime Minister Modi has consistently brought about an attitudinal shift in public’s perception of the government. Globally, one of the biggest cause of public anger today has been because of the building distrust in institutions – we have seen just this month how voters in the US, the lone surviving superpower, have shown their massive distrust in institutions by electing a complete outsider to challenge the establishment.
“Yeh Modi kissi ka sagga nahi hai” averred a card carrying Youth Congress worker over a cup of tea near Meerut when he was explaining to us about how possibly the trader community which was supposed to be the core BJP-RSS support base would react adversely to the central government’s demonetization move. That same Youth Congressi then added as an afterthought, “yeh (PM Modi) shayad desh ke liye kuch bhi kar sakta hai”. His broader analysis was basically that Modi could have hurt his own party by doing the “right thing” due to the resultant anger among BJP’s core voters.
In this reaction of even ideologically opposed sections of the populace towards the Prime Minister, we find that quantum leap that Modi has taken over other politicians. In an environment of cynicism where the best of intentions by a politician are met with doubts and conspiracy theories by ordinary people whose default perception mode is to simply disbelieve a political leader, Modi is slowly bringing back that much needed trust. At a fundamental level, the demonetization of 500 and 1000 rupee notes is about bringing back faith in the institutions to ordinary Indians who simply believed everybody is corrupt.
“Very quickly all the pain of standing in queues would be forgotten, but these new 500 and 2000 rupee notes would keep reminding this generation every day about Modi’s fight against black money” was how a retired government teacher standing in a long queue of an ATM in Mohali summed up the situation to me. Essentially, the reason why vast majority of ordinary Indians are willing to bear this short term pain of sudden cash crunch despite no tangible gains is because they have taken that leap of faith with Modi who is trying to restore trust in institutions once again.
In fact, that same PEW research data (survey conducted before demonetization) reveals a subplot of the larger Modi story. Among various positive aspects of Modi’s prime ministership, there was one possible sore note – only 49% people believed that the PM had shown an ability to “get things done” while 33% felt he had failed in that aspect. A perception was gaining ground that despite his best intentions, the PM was being bogged down by the system around him. We believe that Modi understood this much better than anybody else and in a matter of 1 month he has probably completely changed that perception by first conducting a surgical strike against Pakistan and then boldly going ahead with demonetization.
Yesterday, results of by-polls held across 14 seats including 4 parliamentary constituencies spread across north, south and eastern India were announced which is possibly the first real gauge of public opinion after the demonetization drive by the central government. Generally, by-polls on their own are not good measures of electoral trends simply because of heavily localized format. In fact, even in these elections, all the local governments performed as per expectations. Thus in order to understand the underlying message of these results we took the cumulative total of all the elections and analyzed them in comparison with previous corresponding elections – minus Tamil Nadu where elections were not previously held.
If we consider this round of by-polls as a sort of crude opinion poll with a whopping sample size of 5338586, the result tells the opposition that there is a tsunami brewing in India in favor of Narendra Modi as of today! In a sample size of over 50 lakh voters across India excluding BJP strongholds of western states (where the party swept nearly 100% seats in 2014), BJP has gained a huge 4% from its peak of 30% in 2013-14! In absolute terms, BJP has jumped from roughly 16 lakh votes in the previous election cycle to over 18 lakh votes in 2016. What is more, this is the first time that BJP is actually reversing the trend of falling from its 2014 peak (as seen in all assembly elections in last 2 years).
When we ran simulations for these numbers in correspondence with western Indian states using our regressive statistical models and combined those results with our latest pre-poll surveys in UP and Punjab, the result was stunning to say the least. If elections are held today in India, BJP may actually win 38% vote-share on its own while Congress would be stuck around 16%. This is a quantum leap from the 2014 peak of Modi and it has begun to take shape even before the full impact of demonetization can be internalized by the voting populace in the midst of a cash crunch in the banks. For instance, once the temporary cash crunch issues are solved and the economy begins to reshape along with lakhs of crores of rupees of black money coming back into the system as a windfall for the government, real public opinion shift will happen. What would be the Modi peak after that shift is a data-thought that should send a shiver down the spine of opposition and media universe.