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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Will Indians forget pre-COVID problems as Modi’s approval ratings reach a record high?

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings keep reaching new heights amid the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the question a lot of us should now ask ourselves is — will Indians forget the numerous political and economic problems lingering in the pre-COVID era?

Coronavirus lockdown in India
A scene from Guwahati amid the COVID-19 lockdown that began from March 25 (Photo: shutterstock.com/Talukdar David)

The sky definitely seems to be the limit for our dear Prime Minister

Modi’s popularity just skyrocketed to a whopping 82 per cent as of April 28 compared to a 76 per cent till January 7, 2020, according to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, a US-based market research company. The survey results showed that PM Modi was ahead of the United States President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and France President Emmanuel Macron, all for his upfront approach in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the findings, the Indian prime minister has an approval rating of 68 points.

Several Union ministers like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Party President JP Nadda and the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman voiced their support for the PM and lauded him for his efforts in fighting the pandemic. “Our Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the world in combating COVID-19. Ensuring safety and security for the Indian people on one hand and lending all necessary support to other nations on the other, he has been ranked number one amongst world leaders in the fight against the pandemic,” Nadda had told several news outlets. While Sitharaman in one of her tweets had said: “Public opinion based approval ratings of world leaders shown in the charts. PMO leads #IndiaFightsCorona from the front. Consistent high approval ratings for Narendra Modi. Nation has confidence in its leadership in an extraordinary situation due to a pandemic.”
Even after all this, will Indians forget pre-COVID problems with Modi’s increasing popularity?

However, will this soaring popularity will last post-Covid period?

Currently, this lockdown will last till May 17 with numerous restrictions being eased based on zones, however, it has already done maximum damage to the backbone of the economy — consumption. But what still comes as a surprise is that Modi has gradually made a place for himself as the face of the fight against the virus in India, without attending a single press conference. The prime minister has, however, made several televised appearances asking citizens to follow the government guidelines and thanking them for their support.
Despite this, his problems are far from over. Once the pandemic begins to subside he will have to face the heat. There are specifically three problems that will come back to haunt Modi:

Indian Economy
Photo: shutterstock.com/xtock

The first pre-COVID problem: An already faltering economy

The backbone of our economy is the consumption demand, which is being drastically affected by the lockdown. Which in turn means that this lockdown might also have an impact on the supply by the end of it. Following which, we can assume that the huge decrease in production and also distribution will soon lead to all kinds of shortages. All of this leads to a number of rising concerns — demand falls due to downsized incomes thus making private investors quite uncertain, small-scale entrepreneurs might be out of the scene completely, service sector, construction, finance all of it might be in deep trouble. We do not have to point out that banking is already in a bad state with loans crisis — take the recent Yes bank fiasco into consideration here. The Yes ban crisis has a number of effects on the already faltering Indian economy. Yes Bank has been one among the many private banks to offer interest rates as high as 7 per cent on its savings accounts. However, in the current scenario that is not feasible. They might be thinking of a completely different business model to carry on their operations. Another major area that is most likely to get affected because of this crisis, is the digital payments network in India. Yes Bank was credited with having the most widespread one with sites like PhonePe, 5Paisa, and Flipkart for their transactions. The sudden restrictions on its operations following the crisis, leading to more limited usage and functional capability of its cards, will result in merchants’ money getting frozen — which can be quite a concern. Keeping in mind all of these issues, a complete lockdown for a longer/extended period of time is, therefore, a matter of concern, at certain points quite harmful and, as a matter of fact quite unsustainable.

Rise in unemployment in India (Photo: shutterstock.com/max dallocco)

Second pre-COVID problem: The rise in unemployment

Following more than five weeks of the Coronavirus lockdown, India’s unemployment rate shot up 14.8 per cent to reach 23.5 per cent in the month of April, way higher than the 8.7 per cent reported in March, according to official data released by think-tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). The CMIE survey had begun in 2016 and since then the April 2020’s unemployment rate of 23.5 per cent is the highest ever in these four years. In urban India, the unemployment rate stood at 24.95 per cent, while in rural India it was 22.89 per cent. State-wise unemployment rate differed on a large-scale. The highest unemployment rate of 75.8 per cent was recorded in Puducherry followed by 49.8 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 47.1 per cent in Jharkhand, 46.6 per cent in Bihar and finally 43.2 per cent in Haryana. The lowest unemployment rate was that of Himachal Pradesh standing at 2.2 per cent, which was then followed by Sikkim (2.3%), Punjab (2.9%), Chhattisgarh (3.4%), Telangana (6.2%) and Uttrakhand (6.5%) in the ascending order.

According to the CMIE data, during the last week of March and in the first two weeks of April this year, the unemployment rate was roughly balancing between 23-24 per cent. In the first week, it was 23.8 per cent, in the second week it dropped a bit to 23.4 per cent but in the third week again it bounced back to 24 per cent. The country’s unemployment rate rose to 26.2 per cent in the third week of April, according to the CMIE data. CMIE’s survey covers about 43,600 households per month to enable estimation of the monthly unemployment rate. “The national lockdown did not just throw 72 million out of the labour force but it also drove another 85 million to some kind of desperation to look for jobs in the midst of a national lockdown when none were available. This desperation suggests that people were highly vulnerable to a loss of livelihood caused by the national lockdown,” Mahesh Vyas, Managing Director and CEO, CMIE, had recently said in a report.

Anti-CAA, NRC protests
A scene from the Anti-CAA, NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi before the COVID-19 lockdown (Photo: shutterstock.com/stockpexel)

Third pre-COVID problem: The still simmering protests

The protests are not likely to die down after the pandemic is over and the country gradually grinds back to normalcy. The demonstrations against the government’s new citizenship law since the end of 2019 and the following Delhi riots in February this year are not simply events to be forgotten, say a lot of experts. Just before the nationwide lockdown was announced from March 25, the Delhi Police had cleared out the Shaheen Bagh protest site — the heart of the anti- CAA demonstrations across India as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The police had also cleared protest sites in Jaffrabad, Jamia Millia Ismalia and Turkman Gate amid the stringent lockdown. There have been rising concerns about the arrests of Jamia students and former JNU students’ union president Umar Khalid under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 for connection to the Delhi violence in February. The two Jamia students who were arrested amid the lockdown, Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar were active members of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) and stood firm in peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Police, however, have said that the investigations have been impartial and these people were taken into custody after looking at proper evidence which includes forensic evidence, videos among other things. The JCC completely disagrees and has said that it is a conspiracy devised by the Delhi Police to target activists and protestors while the actual perpetrators are left untouched.

The protests, the slump that the economy is currently in, the unprecedented rise in unemployment across the country — all of these could turn out to be a matter of grave concern for the government even if it almost smoothly tides over the COVID-19 pandemic. But will people forget so easily? Will the government and the prime minister be spared because of their smart handling of a health crisis? I guess, we just have to wait and watch.

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