P(h)ew: The “Nonpartisan” Embrace of Narendra Modi by the Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center released a new survey that reveals a very favorable perspective of Narendra Modi among Indians.  In fact, the header for the report reads: “The Modi Bounce: Indians Give Their Prime Minister and Economy High Marks, Worry about Crime, Jobs, Prices, Corruption.”1  According to the results 87% of Indians have a “favorable view” of Modi, as opposed to 52% for former prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2013.  Furthermore, the report’s authors claim that the positive views extend not only to Modi but also to his economic policies and the overall direction of his government’s rule.  This support apparently also crosses party lines, with Congress supporters expressing high regards for Modi’s governance on a range of issues.  It would seem that the only areas that Modi scored low were on communal relations, with 47% of Congress supporters as opposed to 57% of BJP supporters expressing a positive view.  The overall message of this report is that Indians by and large love their prime minister and view his government very positively.

To see how Pew came up with these rather striking claims and glowing conclusions about Modi and his government, let’s take a quick look at its survey’s sample size and methodology.2  First, the survey interviewed a grand total of 2,452 respondents spread across urban and rural areas, though Pew admits that the survey is disproportionately urban.  This disproportionate urban bias in the sample is “weighted” to “reflect the actual urban/rural distribution in India.”  The question arises then as to what effects this disproportionate distribution of the sample may have on the results.  We cannot know for sure because Pew does not provide specific data as to which urban and rural districts were surveyed and also how weighting was utilized to overcome urban bias in the sample.  According to Pew’s brief methods statement the interviews were conducted “face to face” with adults over 18 years of age, spread across “15 of the 17 most populous states and the Union Territory of Delhi.”  Curiously, the survey did not include the states of Kerala and Assam (no explanation given) and excluded “a district in Chhattisgarh” due to insecurity.

The more deeply problematic side to the methodology used in the survey is its weighting criteria.  Weighting is a term used in statistics to refer to adjustments made in order to accommodate one or more factors that might distort results.  So for example if fewer women were interviewed than men, we may end up with results that disproportionately reflect the views of men, so the solution would be to increase the “weight” assigned to women respondents in order to make up for the distortion.  Pew’s weighting variables for this survey included “[g]ender, age, education, region, urbanity and probability of selection of respondent.”  Curiously absent are variables such as religious identity, class, and caste.  To highlight how these variables may well have produced very different results, consider the use of the category “urban.”  “Urban” is a catch-all term referring to city dwellers that could include everybody living in a city.  However, “urban” does not tell us anything about who these city dwellers are.  For instance Mumbai counts among its urban population somebody like Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, as well as somebody like Shaikh Mobin, a carpenter who resides in Dharavi, the largest informal housing cluster (slum) in Asia.  What would “urban” mean then without reference to caste, class, or religious identity?  The word “urban” treated thus as a homogeneous category has little explanatory value unless informed by reference to stratifications within the urban population.

Pew could well have sought to conduct this survey with attentiveness to where in urban India respondents live, work, struggle, survive, and so on.  Or it could have been more curious about the role of religion, caste, and class in shaping perceptions and anxieties especially given the present government’s wholehearted embrace of Hindu supremacy as a core governance goal; attacks on religious minorities and suppression of Dalit and secular intellectuals; and neoliberal economic policies that call for widespread assaults on rural landholdings and natural resource-dependent populations.

This is an India that is being furiously contested as evidenced in the recent general strike that brought millions of workers to the streets, but Pew’s claims here suggest that the country is simply marching behind Modi.

A few samples from the survey questionnaire3 raise several questions regarding the purpose of this survey.  For one, it is very interesting that respondents were asked the following question: “Q120.  Of all these threats I have named, which of these is the greatest threat to our country?”

The responses are tabulated below:

Q. 120
Source: Bruce Stokes, “The Modi Bounce: Indians Give Their Prime Minister and Economy High Marks, Worry about Crime, Jobs, Prices, Corruption,” Pew Research Center, September 2015

There are several facets to this question that deserve scrutiny.  First, the framing of the question itself.  The respondents are asked to assume that “Lashkar-e-Taiba,” “Pakistan,” “Naxalites,” and “China” constitute the four major threats to “our country” and to assess which of these is the “greatest threat.”  Before I work through the implications of this framing, let it be noted that not a single one of the questions in the survey pertains to Hindutva organizations — no mention of the RSS, VHP, or Bajrang Dal.  There is no mention of the threat posed to minorities by these organizations, the violent attacks on institutions and intellectuals, and so on.  Presumably, these do not qualify as threats to “our country.”  In contrast Lashkar-e-Taiba, Pakistan, Naxalites, and China are listed multiple times, with the first three exclusively in the context of threats to “our country.”  Interestingly, the entities noted in the above question rather conveniently coincide with what Hindu nationalists of the BJP, RSS, and so on claim threaten India’s security: Muslim extremists and communist guerrillas, alongside their alleged backers — Pakistan and China respectively.

What this framing tells us is that the Pew Research Center’s research design team perhaps unwittingly reproduced the conceits of the Hindu right in framing an extremely important question that speaks to the very contentious and highly contested issue of national security.  This is shabby surveying at best, cowardly kowtowing to the present rightwing government at worst.

The rest of the survey’s questions further highlight its absurdly pro-government tilt.  For example there are a series of questions about Modi’s “handling” of “unemployment,” “terrorism,” “corruption,” “rising prices,” “helping the poor,” “communal relations,” and “access to clean toilets.”  For each of these questions Modi received high ratings.  The implication therefore is that Indians are happy with the Modi government’s efforts on all these fronts.  Elsewhere respondents are asked how seriously they view these and similar issues.  What is telling is that the questionnaire does not ask a single question that has to do with the Modi government’s own record on any of these issues, despite the furious debates in India itself about precisely this question on all of these fronts.  Framing questions in terms of “handling” suggests at the outset that what we have are two distinct domains: government; and issues that require “handling.”  This framing disallows consideration of the government’s own corruption, its own active and tacit support for communal violence targeting minorities, its own aggressive pursuit of policies that assault the wellbeing of India’s poor while favoring the interests of corporations and the affluent, and so on.  In effect, Pew’s survey cleverly avoided shedding any light at all on Modi’s own sordid record of communalism and anti-minority bigotry, his pro-rich dispensation, and the massive corruption scandals rocking his party, as in the case of the Vyaapam medical admissions scandal in Madhya Pradesh.

In closing, it would be apt to consider why Pew is mounting such a shoddy and propagandistic defense of the Modi government.  Is it just a coincidence that the prime minister is expected to arrive at the end of September in the United States and engage in a set of high-profile meetings in Silicon Valley in order to seek investments by some big names in the digital economy?  Hundreds of U.S.-based academics have expressed their critical opposition to such coddling of a leader and government that by all accounts is hell bent on waging war on the very idea of secular, pluralistic, and democratic India.4  One does not have to take a giant leap to connect the dots: Pew’s survey is designed to create a favorable view of Modi and thereby to assure potential investors that his government has the backing of the Indian people (or at least 2,452 of them). The report summary begins with a celebratory pronouncement: “What a difference a couple of years can make.  With a rising economic tide, a new captain at the helm and a buoyant public mood, the Indian ship of state has the wind at its back.”

Such breathless sycophancy aside, the report tacitly signals to U.S. businesses that they may ignore the appeals of critics, who, in demanding adherence to capitalism’s highly touted standards of corporate social responsibility, remind the bosses that human rights and democracy should not be sacrificed on the altar of corporate investments.  What Pew has done with this awfully conducted survey is tantamount to what many PR firms excel in doing: providing propagandistic support for unsavory autocratic figures instead of shedding light on the real spread of views that people harbor, share, and differ on — especially when it comes to critical issues such as democracy, pluralism, human and civil rights, all of which the Modi government is busy assaulting.


1  “The Modi Bounce: Indians Give Their Prime Minister and Economy High Marks, Worry about Crime, Jobs, Prices, Corruption,” Pew Research Center, September 2015, <www.pewglobal.org/2015/09/17/the-modi-bounce/>.

2  Bruce Stokes, “Methodology,” Pew Research Center, September 17, 2015 <www.pewglobal.org/2015/09/17/methodology-14/>.

3 “The Topline Questionnaire” from Pew Research Center’s Spring 2015 Survey September 17, 2015 Release, <www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/09/Pew-Research-Center-India-TOPLINE-FOR-RELEASE-September-17-2015.pdf>.

4  “Faculty Statement on Narendra Modi Visit to Silicon Valley,” The Academe Blog, <academeblog.org/2015/08/27/faculty-statement-on-modi-visit-to-silicon-valley/>.

Raja Swamy is an anthropologist at the University of Tennessee.