On March 24, Narendra Modi announced a lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Even by the standards of other drastic containment measures imposed around the world, India’s restrictions were the harshest. They brought the economy of 1.3 billion people to a juddering halt.
The lockdown was announced at four hour’s notice and with no preparation. Because public transport was shut down, lakhs of stranded Indians were forced to walk or cycle back home, often making superhuman trips across hundreds of kilometres. One commentator described it as the “biggest human migration on foot after Partition”. The harshness of India’s lockdown is estimated to have resulted in more than 400 deaths.
The scale of the restrictions caused the Indian economy to shrink by a never-before 23.9% in the April-June quarter. Covid-19 has afflicted every country in the world, but India’s contraction was the most dramatic of any major economy.
Going scot free
What was the political impact of this unprecedented dislocation? In a word: none. As the Bihar Assembly as well a spate of bye-poll results came in on Tuesday, it was clear that while Indians suffered immensely due to the lockdown, they did not attach much blame to the measure’s author, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The saffron party won 74 seats in Bihar, mopping up nearly 20% of the vote share. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 125 seats in the 243-member assembly. It was a remarkable return to power. Given Bihar’s large migrant-worker population, it was perhaps the state worst hit by the lockdown.
In the Assembly bye-polls for 58 seats across 11 states, the BJP did even better. In Madhya Pradesh, it won 19 of 28 seats. It won all eight seats in Gujarat. In Uttar Pradesh, its score was six out of seven. In Karnataka, the BJP won both seats. Far from shrinking, the saffron party even expanded its geographical footprint, snatching a Telangana Rashtra Samiti seat in Telangana – a state where it is, till now, not a major player.
The message was clear: the Modi government’s lockdown might have caused unprecedented hardship to Indians. But Indians did not blame Modi or the BJP for it.
Suffering without anger
A possible reason for this could be that Indians thought that Modi has actually done well by announcing the lockdown. A survey conducted by the think tank Lokniti-CSDS of 25,300 respondents gives us a picture of the complex ways in which Indians experienced and perceived the lockdown. As many as 43.8% of respondents said that the lockdown was too harsh or should not have happened at all. However, 49.7% also say that it was adequately harsh or should have been even harsher.
However, when the survey asked how many had difficulty accessing food items, an astounding 90% reported either some, quite a lot or extreme difficulty. On the specific question of why migrant workers returned from the cities, 44.9% said they had done so for economic/hunger reasons. This overshadowed the disease, with 35.6% saying they had gone back to their village for fear of contracting Covid-19.
However, to add to the mixed messaging, 72.8% of respondents said that the Modi’s government’s attitude towards migrant workers during the lockdown was either good or very good. And an even larger number – 76% – commended their state government for the same. Even as Indians suffered, they were not angry with the Indian state.
Could that be because the Indian state’s welfare measures worked fairly well? When asked if wheat and rice rations were provided, 63.3% said yes. Does this data point explain the lack of anger against Modi for the lockdown?
That is unlikely since in India, it is the state government that distributes rations. And in fact, one of the most significant take-aways from the Bihar results is the anger against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) even as people were pleased with Modi. So it does not seem there is a very direct link between lockdown welfare and voting behavior in this case.
In general, Indians were highly satisfied both with the state and the Centre. While 74.7% report that they were satisfied with the steps taken by the Modi government to deal with the Coronavirus epidemic, an even higher number – 77.7% – were happy with their state government for the same.
This data tells us two things: one is that even as Indians suffered grievously during the lockdown, they did not choose to blame the Indian state much for it. There thus might be no great link at all between the lockdown and Tuesday’s results. This would of course explain why despite suffering as a result of Modi’s lockdown, Indians said they were happy with his Covid-19 response and eventually went on to vote for his party.
Instead a better way to explain Tuesday’s results might be in what political scientist Neelanjan Sircar calls the “politics of vishwas” – trust or belief in a strong, charismatic leader. Sircar argues that standard models of democratic accountability would be hard pressed to explain BJP’s sweeping 2019 Lok Sabha win, despite a slowing economy and disasters such as demonetisation. Instead, a better explanation for the BJP’s winning streak is the trust Indian voters respose in Modi – built up by Hindu nationalism as well as the party’s control of the media and its strong organisational machinery.
Sircar’s thesis fits even better with Tuesday’s results. In more standard models of democratic accountability, the BJP should have suffered electorally for the harsh, unplanned lockdown it imposed on India. Instead, poor Indians seem to have magnanimously ignored their own distress and voted driven simply by their “vishwas”, belief in Modi.