- Despite a small dent in his popularity, a majority of observers say the Hindu nationalist leader will be able to ride out of this crisis unscathed.
Narendra Modi’s popularity among Indian Americans hasn’t dipped since 2014 after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the center for the first time. Despite the demonetization and GST mess, he has been pardoned by Indian Americans who still feel that the BJP led by him is capable of ushering in the long due economic development India deserves. There have been concerns about the way Kashmir was dealt with, with passing the CAA, and most recently the rushed legislation of the farm bills—but overall, the impression is that Modi as a leader is decisive unlike other Prime Ministers and so he can be trusted to lead India despite the missteps.
Last year an Indian American Attitudes survey was conducted and analyzed by political scientists Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, and Milan Vaishnav to make sense of how Indians in America view their country of origin, the political changes underway in their homeland, and the trajectory of Indian democracy. The findings were not surprising and mirrored what we knew already. Respondents were deeply divided on the macro-perspectives. 36% said that India was on the right track, 39% thought the country is not on the right track. But when asked if they approve of Modi’s performance to date, 49% of Indian Americans favorably rate Modi’s performance while 31% disapprove of Modi’s performance.
But in April this year, a new crisis hit India when an intense second Covid wave gripped the nation. Modi’s pandemic management, which was applauded during the first wave, has come under severe criticism at home and abroad. Despite the rise of infections, Modi allowed the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers to take place and campaigned in state elections with big gatherings. American newspapers like New York Times and Washington Post blamed Modi’s overconfidence as one of the reasons behind the growing distress in his country.
Will this crisis tarnish Modi’s image and change the Indian diaspora’s attitude towards him? Had the survey been carried out today, would we be seeing different results?
Karthik Shankar, a neuroscientist based out of Boston who has been following the Covid surge news from India believes that perhaps the results of the survey would be different but that doesn’t mean much. The Covid surge would only have a temporary effect on how NRIs think of Modi. “For all those who criticize Modi and say that India had one year to prepare for it and Modi did nothing to strengthen the hospitals should know that no amount of new infrastructure could be built and maintained beyond what your economy allows you to. In India, less than 1% of GDP is spent on healthcare. So, the healthcare crisis is a systematic one in India, not one created by Modi.”
Tapas K. Ray, an economist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that the first lockdown in India last year was the right thing to do but Modi critics attacked him for that. “So now on what grounds will they criticize him for not locking down the economy?”
He doesn’t think Modi supporters in the U.S. would change their minds. “They might criticize him lightly but then they will add that we are lucky we don’t have Rahul Gandhi or Mayawati or Mamata Banerjee ruling India for that would have been a bigger calamity.”
Modi’s approval rating has plummeted from 74% to 63% according to the Morning Consult tracker. Though not invulnerable anymore, Modi still appears as the most popular leader of any major democracy. One of the conductors of last year’s survey, Milan Vaishnav at Carnegie Endowment comments, “The palpable sense of outrage, of disgust really, with the government’s handling of the pandemic is very real.” This is especially among middle-class Indians who form a key component of Modi’s support.
According to Suranjan Chakraborty, a professor of Computer Science at Towson University, “It would be interesting to see how the Indian Americans who have bought into the information they get from media that regularly sells BJP’s nationalist propaganda react to the Covid surge in India. Even though the NRIs say that they support BJP for economic reasons deep down the idea of Hindu majoritarianism resonates with them as most Indians settled in the U.S. are upper-caste Hindus. But how will their bias and ideology cover for government’s mismanagement of the second wave?”
Kalyan Ghosh, a research software engineer based in Seattle, a supporter of Modi and BJP, is concerned about the situation back home but still has faith in Modi’s capability. “With the current Covid crisis in India, which honestly, I believe the entire Indian state, both the Center & State governments, could have handled much better, I still believe that Modi is the best person available to bring out the nation from this massive crisis and I still have immense faith in his administrative capabilities & his selfless dedication to the service of the nation.”
I tried to understand the political psychology behind Modi’s fame and their unwavering trust in him even in this dire situation ushered in by the second Covid wave. So, I talked to Mujibur Rehman, a political science professor based in Delhi whose new book “Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims” will drop in a few months. A keen follower of Indian politics, he observes, “The constant secular campaign against Modi by critics have reduced their importance. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. is immune to Modi’s criticism now. They are for him because there is no other choice, no other leader that can match up to his stature. He built his image of a doer over many years away from media attention. The Covid surge will temporarily diminish Modi’s popularity but it will be forgotten in a year as things go back to being normal.”
Physical location matters. Indian Americans are removed from their motherland, though many still have their parents and other relatives living in India. Apart from the news channels, they get their information in the form of anecdotes from family back home. It does have a strong effect on them when personal calamities strike. They get emotional and feel guilty about leaving their dear ones to come to a faraway continent in search of a better future. But it is too early to tell if this feeling of distress will have a lasting impact on the NRI’s perception of Modi.
Sreya Sarkar is a public policy analyst based out of Boston, who has previously worked as a poverty alleviation specialist in U.S. think tanks. She is a keen observer of Indian politics and presently, writes non-fiction articles and op-eds for Indian policy blogs and magazines.