I read a news article today about large protests in multiple cities by Indian farmers. The protesters are responding to a recent law that they view as providing handouts to large agricultural corporations at the expense of small-scale farmers. That article was about protesters storming the historic Red Fort, once a palace of the Mughal emperors, on a national holiday (Republic Day). But the law was passed in September and protests have been going on at least since November. That article says outright that these protests present a huge problem for Modi. I wanted to find out the degree to which this might be reflected in opinion polls, so I found the Morning Consult's global leader approval tracker. To my surprise, the percentage of the population with a favorable view of Modi hasn't dropped below 70%.

I realize that COVID is a massive compounding factor but something about this doesn't add up. How can there be massive popular protests against the policies of Modi's government and yet very little change in his favorability? To clarify, I'm not asking about whether the agriculture reforms are good policy or not or whether the protesters are justified, it just seems like there's a weird discrepancy between what the news and opinion polls are showing.

The AP article seems to suggest there is some support among the general public for the farmers' position -- "[the protesters] were showered with flower petals by residents". Seeing as these are residents of New Delhi they're presumably urbanites and thus not farm laborers themselves. On top of that, something like 40% of India's population is employed in farm labor. So I'd naively guess that his approval rating would plummet to at most 60%. What gives?

A few hypotheses:

  1. Bad reporting. The protests are not as widespread or as popular as that article makes them out to be and in fact most Indian farmers have no problem with this new law.
  2. Insufficient labor statistics research by me. While a large part of the population of India is employed in agriculture, it's possible that relatively few of them are independent small-scale farmers; maybe most are employed by exactly the large agribusiness corporations that this law supposedly favors.
  3. Bad opinion polling. The Morning Consult is wrong and, if you were to get a more representative sample, Modi's favorability would be much lower.
  4. A large part of the Indian populace are genuinely displeased with Modi about the agriculture bill but perceive the government as having handled the pandemic fairly well and this is more important. See for example this research article.
  5. The new law is deeply unpopular and protesters blame parliament as a whole, but Modi is so popular that nothing can tarnish his image.

I find it hard to believe that the Indian government's response to COVID can completely offset any negative feeling from a really unpopular policy; Modi's popularity hit a high water mark in May but declined through June to August, right as the number of cases there started to climb. I also think the Morning Consult is a pretty well-regarded pollster -- 538 gives them the same score as the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University in their pollster ratings.

  • It doesn't require that many people to give the impression of protest. What makes you think the policy is generally unpopular with the non-farming population? People in many countries wouldn't mind their farming subsidies being walked back. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 27 at 7:20
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    FiveThirtyEight appears to list the polling as entirely online. If so, and if farmers are significantly under-represented online, then it might potentially be an issue of a biased sampling methodology. – Nat Jan 27 at 7:36
  • This is an interesting article about some of the farmers' grievances: yogesh-upadhyaya.medium.com/… – tgdavies Jan 28 at 6:28

The non-farming community in India supports the farmers or is at least sympathetic towards the farmers' cause. It has been always like that. Lal Bahadur Shastri, former PM said "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan" (Long live the army, long live the farmer). However, that doesn't mean a majority of the people would dislike/oppose Modi. A vast majority of the people just want a peaceful resolution of these protests.

Opponent parties are very weak in India. This can be verified from the articles titled If not Modi, then who?. Sometimes called a populist leader, Modi took steps that made every person in India know his name. They might not know about politics at all. But they know about Modi and the BJP. Every BJP leader talks about Modi's vision in his/her speeches. And people in lakhs (1 lakh = 0.1 mn) attend Modi's meetings. Same goes for Amit Shah. The local BJP units arrange those people. Last Sunday, there was one in my place, and I had great problem finding a vehicle back to home, as they booked every vehicle for those events.

The State BJP governments too bring policies which one would consider populist. Free bikes to girls getting 75% in high school, money to girls attending school (₹100 per day), "start up loans", and others. One should know, people of this state would send their girls to schools, colleges and higher educational institutes even if the government doesn't pay these "scholarships". And the "start ups" are not what you would say a start-up is. Lots of similar examples are there. That is the general idea.

There have been some good works done. I think most of the people knows those already (Cleaning campaign, clean rivers campaign, digitisation, efforts towards self reliance, housing for all, etc.). These things do contribute as well.

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