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Modi’s Popularity Soars as India Weathers the Pandemic

NEW DELHI — Just before the coronavirus arrived in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced serious challenges, perhaps the biggest of his tenure.

Since then, as the world has been walloped by the coronavirus pandemic, many of these problems in India, especially the economic ones, have only gotten worse. But once again, India has rallied around Mr. Modi.

Recent opinion polls show that in the past few months Mr. Modi’s already high approval ratings have soared even higher, touching 80, even 90 percent. Unlike two of the populist leaders to whom he is often compared, President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Modi is weathering this crisis quite well.

The result, some analysts say, is that if India continues to ride out the coronavirus in decent form, he may emerge with an even stronger hand when he and his party press their Hindu-centric policies. Much as the brinkmanship with Pakistan last year helped strengthen his re-election campaign, the deadly pandemic is bringing many Indians to his side despite lingering concerns about his agenda.

Mr. Modi’s success, analysts say, may be more durable. He’s widely seen as a mobilizer, not a despot, which may explain why his nationwide stay-at-home lockdown, which he dropped on the country with four hours’ notice, has been largely obeyed. Even the softer, feel-good exercises he has insisted on, like asking Indians to stand in their doorways and clap at a certain time, or to light candles at another, have been followed by millions.

The result is that the political landscape Mr. Modi, 69, has shaped over the past six years, since a surge in Hindu nationalism brought him to the top job in the world’s largest democracy, has only been shored up. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the B.J.P., dominate the airwaves. They move unchecked when implementing policies. The political opposition is practically invisible.

“Modi is faring better than many peers because he acted decisively, pre-emptively and relatively early by going for the world’s most stringent lockdown when corona cases were few in India,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, outside of New Delhi. “His phrase ‘Jaan Hain to Jahaan Hain,’” which means the world exists only if you are alive, “struck a chord.”

Now comes the hard part.

This coming week, after nearly two months of lockdown, India’s economy is expected to open up. The economic wreckage will emerge more clearly, with countless millions out of work and spilling into the streets.

But for a nation of 1.3 billion, the 82,000 reported coronavirus infections and 2,700 deaths is much lower per capita than many other countries, especially richer ones like the United States, Britain, Italy and Russia.

Though the virus picture here is especially hazy, because India is so big and it has performed fewer tests than many other nations, most independent health experts don’t believe that Mr. Modi’s government is hiding information.

What is clear is that many Indians feel thankful to him.

“Had it not been for this man, hospitals and mortuaries in the country would have run out of space,” said Vrushali Khadse Shet, a human resources manager for a shipbuilding company in Goa. “His skill of delivering a message to the lowest strata of society worked and we have been saved till now.”

Opinion polls indicate that much of India feels the same way. Morning Consult, an American firm that does online surveys in several countries, showed Mr. Modi outperforming other world leaders. His popularity is gauged at 80 percent, far above Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and several others.

Of course, the Indians who have suffered the most under the lockdown — like migrant laborers — were probably not part of these surveys. Many migrants interviewed in the past few days have pleaded for him to end the lockdown and were not so enthusiastic about his decisions.

For this next phase as the lockdown changes, Mr. Modi is relying more on the chief ministers of every state. That might seem consultative and more democratic, but analysts say it’s also a tactic to spread the risk. If things don’t go so smoothly in the coming weeks as the economic pain really begins to bite, well, Mr. Modi’s argument will go, it’s not all my fault.

Scholars expect him and the B.J.P. to keep pushing divisive policies that cater to Hindu nationalists in India’s Hindu majority. Those moves have come at the expense of India’s minority Muslim community, which has already suffered enormous setbacks under Mr. Modi.

“The only constraints on him would have to come from abroad,” said Sumit Ganguly, an Indian studies professor at Indiana University. “The guardrails of most of India’s democratic institutions have been breached with the B.J.P.’s battering rams.”

But Mr. Modi has seen his runaway popularity stalled before, over economic concerns. The nation is lining up behind him right now, but the economic devastation from the coronavirus has yet to be reckoned with.

For years, Mr. Modi has won crucial support from moderates and the middle class by projecting himself as India’s “economic messiah,” said Sumantra Bose, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

And if the economy can’t pull itself out of a nose dive, Mr. Bose added, “the messiah may be hoist with his own petard.”


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