Pandemic and sluggish growth take a hit on Modi

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Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 27, 2019 in New York City. World leaders from across the globe are gathered at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, amid crises ranging from climate change to possible conflict between Iran and the United States
Mr Modi has led his BJP to two consecutive election victories

Narendra Modi has enjoyed a long honeymoon with India's voters.

Backed by a prodigiously funded and well-oiled Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Modi has pulled off two consecutive election wins. He has forged a vigorous Hindu nationalist base and displayed abundant charisma and guile to woo voters and outfox his opponents.

Luck has also been on his side. His supporters have forgiven him for rash missteps such as the scrapping of high-value currency notes - or demonetisation - in 2016. An under-performing economy - more severely so, after the pandemic - doesn't appear to have eroded support. The absence of a strong opposition has also helped.

Yet, is Mr Modi's indisputable popularity beginning to fray?

A new poll by the India Today magazine involving 14,600 people and conducted in July found that only 24% of respondents considered the 70-year-old leader "best-suited" to be India's next prime minister. The next general elections are due in 2024.

This is a steep drop of 42 points since a similar poll last year. "In my 20-plus years of opinion polling, I cannot recall such an instance of nosedive in any prime minister's popularity," noted Yogendra Yadav, a pollster-turned-politician and a critic of Mr Modi.

Mr Modi has had a rough year so far. His carefully crafted image took a global battering after his government mishandled the catastrophic second Covid wave where tens of thousands of people died. The economy is struggling: inflation is high, fuel prices have surged and there's a squeeze on jobs and consumption.

Delhi and Mumbai have some of the best healthcare facilities in India, but have been overwhelmed
Mr Modi was blamed for not doing enough to prevent a brutal second Covid wave

Some of the distress and distrust are reflected in the poll. Around 70% of the respondents said their incomes had fallen during the pandemic; and an equal number believed the real death toll was higher than the official 430,000.

But 36% of the poll's respondents rated Mr Modi's handling of the pandemic as "good". Only 13% felt that his government alone should shoulder the blame for the suffering of the people; and 44% felt both the federal and states governments had bungled their Covid response.

Pandemic aside, the poll provides other clues as to why Mr Modi's popularity might be dropping. Inflation and lack of jobs emerged as the two most worrying concerns - nearly a third of respondents said failure to rein in prices was his government's biggest failure.

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"Mr Modi's decline in popularity is not surprising," said Rahul Verma, a fellow with the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

Mr Modi has been a polarising leader. During his rule, critics say, media freedom has diminished considerably - the prime minister hasn't held a press conference since he came to power in 2014 - and dissent is being muzzled. Mr Modi himself and his party have been accused of using dog-whistle politics - coded, divisive messages - to stoke sectarian tensions.

Fierce protests over a controversial citizenship law and proposed farm reforms appear to have dented the prime minister's image as an invincible leader. His party's crushing defeat in West Bengal in May has also emboldened his opponents.

Many believe that for a leader whose face is everywhere - billboards, vaccine certificates, newspaper and TV adverts - a sharp drop in ratings could signal the beginning of a decline of the cult of personality.

But do such polls - which employ different ways to sample voters - faithfully mirror the mood of a nation?

According to Morning Consult, which tracks national ratings of the elected leaders of 13 countries, Mr Modi's approval rating has suffered a 25-point slide since May last year. Yet, at 47% in mid-August, Mr Modi is way ahead of others.

In June, another survey by Indian polling agency Prashnam, found Mr Modi enjoyed a rating of nearly 33% as the preferred prime ministerial candidate in 2024.

Rahul Gandhi
A weak opposition led by Rahul Gandhi has helped Mr Modi

Delhi-based polling agency CVoter, which conducts 10,000 interviews in 543 parliamentary constituencies all over India every week, found that Mr Modi's approval ratings stood at 37% in May - a drop of 22 points from August last year. In May his party lost the West Bengal election and the second wave was ripping through the country.

Since then, Mr Modi's ratings have recovered and now stand at 44%, CVoter's Yashwant Deshmukh said. "I believe the worst is over. His ratings have never dipped below 37% because of a committed voter base."

Regular polling, Mr Deshmukh believes, is the key to capturing the public mood on leaders and their performance accurately. Interestingly, even as chief ministers belonging to Mr Modi's party continue to fare badly in the polls - nine out of the 10 most popular chief ministers belonged to non-BJP parties in the latest CVoter poll - Mr Modi manages to hold his ground. "Many people still trust him and think his intent is good," Mr Deshmukh said.

A dip in the ratings will not be enough to unseat Mr Modi. And even at their lowest, Mr Modi's ratings are usually double and more that of Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress. So the prime minister could be picking up extra approval points because of a lack of credible opposition.

"Mr Modi still leads the race. But the drop in ratings should worry him a bit," Mr Verma said.

Follow Soutik on Twitter at @soutikBBC

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