9 Apr 2019

Does Modi want to call himself a Field Marshall?

His speeches seem to suggest so, and there may be a good reason guiding this choice.

Narendra Nag

At a rally in Latur today, Narendra Modi said:

"I want to ask first-time voters, can your first vote be cast in honour of those brave Air Force pilots who led the air strike in Balakot? Can your first vote be cast to honour those brave soldiers who died in Pulwama?"

Why, you might ask, is Modi throwing tradition to the wind, and risking censure from the Election Commission by repeatedly asking for votes by suggesting a vote for him is a vote for the Indian Army?

Since the Pulwama Attack we have been tracking narratives, hopes, fears and attitudes amongst a panel of people posting on public forums (Twitter, blogs and elsewhere) — all of whom have been mapped with a fair degree of accuracy to the assembly constituency they most likely belong to. This is at scale — we are ingesting about 400,000 - 500,000 data points a day.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks there was a rising tide of nationalistic fervour which definitely swung voter sentiment towards Mr Modi — this has been captured by almost all of the polls conducted during this period.

What was interesting was the sharp drop of fervour/interest amongst a large section of the audience we were studying immediately after the Balakote Air Strike. As the media cycle shifted from the air-strike to the capture and release of the Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, we saw sentiment start to shift amongst a very large group of people. Mr Modi’s silence during this period didn’t help.

After Wing Commander Abhinandan’s return, it was as if the strike had satisfied the expressed need for vengeance/revenge — especially amongst people who didn’t obviously belong to the upper castes, or the upper/middle classes. Attention returned to more keenly felt issues — unemployment, anger with local leaders, dissatisfaction with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and so on.

But, what remained constant was a heightened empathy and pride in the Indian Armed Forces. Cutting across gender lines (while keeping in mind our data set is skewed towards men), we repeatedly saw respect and affection being expressed for the Armed Forces, and a need to defend them against real and imagined slights.

As empathetic cynics we would like to believe that Mr Modi’s research team saw this as well.

And it quickly became apparent that the only way to re-capture the post-Pulwama voter sentiment amongst people who aren’t ardent BJP supporters, was to suggest a vote for Mr Modi was a vote for the Army.

We believe this is a deeply irresponsible move — and one fraught with risk. Since this election is being conducted over seven phases the only way to keep the “josh” up using this kind of rhetoric for this length of time is by constantly escalating the size and nature of the threat the opposition poses to the Armed Forces.

We think it is safe to conclude that Mr Modi and his team believe the only way for the NDA to win a majority in this election against a combined opposition is by converting this general election into an election for a Field Marshall.

In UP, where their base vote share hovers at about 25%, gaining an additional 15-20% is critical to winning the 40-odd seats where they are competitive against the Gathbandhan. We do not believe this 15-20% is available to them even with this heightened rhetoric.

Well, the last season of Game of Thrones drops soon enough. It’s timing suddenly seems so much more apt.

These notes are an experiment in data-driven points of view. We are immersing ourselves in information screens and data patterns and allowing ourselves to connect dots. We emerge to write a note — like the one you’re reading — which is our best understanding at a given moment in time. We believe ourselves to be correct in the moment, but are happy to be proven wrong. In either case we learn and improve.

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