The second half of August has seen 2 major nationwide “opinion” polls, one urban Indian poll and at least one major Arun Nehru style punditry to come up with state-wise LS seat projections for various parties and coalitions. At the outset it might seem like an academic exercise in wilderness, with no practical possibility of an outcome whatsoever, dwell deeper and it is easy to discern what everybody is attempting to do. Apart from these dip-test samples, there have been innumerable op-eds, newspaper columns, television studio discussions, blog posts and most importantly street-side tea-shop debates about the prospects of various political formations in the electoral arena. Then of course there is the parliamentary logjam and the talk of a possible en masse resignation of opposition MPs. There is a prevailing atmosphere in the country that is pointing towards an impending mid-term poll, which has been considerably enhanced by the chaotic economy of the country and mammoth corruption scandals coupled with headline inflation. 15th Lok Sabha, for all practical purposes, is a dead horse.

The Game of Sixes – Six Months & Six Factors

Atmospherics alone can acquire political mass over a period of time to influence the shape of future political course. Yet there are quite a few “real” factors too in the present political muddle of India that can independently and in tandem force an election in the very near future.

  1. It’s the economy silly: With Indian economy collapsing on its own weight of social spending and fiscal imprudence, there is an increasing restlessness amongst various large business houses of India who are fed up with the UPA. Benefits from crony capitalism can only go thus far and no further; take the case of top 20 business houses of India and the one visible change is in their market cap, all of them have lost market capitalization in the range of 8 to 65% in the last 4-5 years. Market cap to GDP ratio grew exponentially between 2002-03 & 2007-08 from a modest 23% to a grand 109%, since then it has been very sluggish and in the last 6 months it has even fallen below 100% and to sub-trillion dollar levels. With most political activity being funded by business houses in India, it was just a matter of time before they would all come together to finance the collapse of UPA.
  2. UPA allies from UP to Bengal: Both Mulayam & Mamata, the two key allies of UPA2, know that they are racing against time. Every passing month from now on could mean a drop of 1 percentage point in vote-share for them in their states. It is quite clear even to the simplest of political observers that the sooner the LS elections are held, the better their tally would be in the parliament and consequently higher their influence in government formation and policy regulations. This is of course far truer in case of the ageing samajwadi from UP than the irascible didi from Bengal. Contrary to popular perceptions, even Mayawati, another UPA ally and a SP rival in UP, could be raring to have a go at the elections for there is a great amount of polarization in her state and the goondaraj of Akhilesh might actually benefit her electorally.
  3. Opposition forces to benefit: Every major opposition party in India stand to benefit in the ensuing LS elections, right from J Jayalalita and Naveen Patnaik to Achyutananda and Jagan Reddy. Even minor regional players, who had little hope just 6 months ago, now see a better prospect in the electoral battle; TDP, TRS, INLD, AGP, MNS etc. Thus a combined opposition force is realising that it is in their joint interests to face a poll sooner rather than at UPA’s convenience.
  4. Internal NDA/BJP dynamics: It is undeniable that there are elements within the BJP and the larger parivaar who sense a great opportunity to go to polls now and enjoy a victory by default, without really having to work hard for it. This sense is shared by almost the entire NDA. To add to the milieu is of course the leadership factor. If elections are held within the next 6 months; either along with the Gujarat assembly elections or immediately following that; then Narendra Modi could be virtually ruled out as the NDA prime-ministerial candidate for all practical purposes.
  5. The anti-corruption movements: Political pundits know that the anti-corruption mass movements in India have peaked and despite the BRD success show in bringing Delhi to its knees, it is a well-known fact that these are clearly going to fetch diminishing returns in the coming years. This also is the main reason why the opposition is making a big hue and cry about the “Coalgate” scam, for they sense that this is their last opportunity to make corruption an electoral issue. After a new report every other day involving mammoth figures of lakhs of crores of rupees, it is but natural that people will become numb to these corruption numbers. One Bofors scandal is sensational, but a Bofors a month is nothing but a statistic. It is now or never for the anti-congress forces to make corruption an issue of electoral consequences
  6. The imminent death of judicial activism: There is an expiry date for all the Supreme Court interventions and observations against the UPA government and it reads “September 29th 2012″. Even before that expiry date, PC has been given a great reprieve through what is widely accepted as a “bad judgement”; just imagine what would be the plight of judicial activism post the expiry-date scenario. India’s judiciary system is preparing itself for a revisit of the KGB days and before everything goes upside down to favour the ruling establishment, it is of paramount importance to go to polls and salvage the situation, opposition forces feel.

The tale of two opinion polls

To be fair, Living Media & India Today group in collaboration with AC Nielsen have been conducting a biannual/annual mood of the nation survey for many years now, so their latest bout of electoral crystal-ball gazing has not exactly come out of the blue. On the other hand NDTV, which was India’s original Television psephology evangelist, has had a scratchy record in the post-liberalisation era. Interestingly, there is also a battle for the market research pie in India which is being fought between Nielsen (India Today partner) & Ipsos (NDTV partner) that could well have a bearing on their reputations while they judge the mood of the nation. Let us analyse both the polls and look at various parameters to get a clearer picture by reading between the lines.

The Divergence

Since both the polls claim that they were conducted before the Assam troubles began, let us assume that they were conducted during the same period of time. Yet there are some glaring differences that can simply punch gaping holes into each other’s findings.

Issues: Price rise is at the top of the heap with a 53% rating in the India Today-AC Nielsen survey, where as it is at the bottom in the NDTV-Ipsos exercise; with no percentage points indicated (this opaque closed box approach is the defining feature of the entire NDTV poll, which makes it difficult to believe at times). Now this is absolutely humungous; either NDTV & India Today have done their surveys in two different countries or they have managed to interview completely antithetic set of people with diametrically opposite opinions in the same demographic & geographic conditions on similar timeframes (a statistical impossibility?).

Prime Ministerial Choice: The one aspect on which there seems to be an almost complete unanimity is that of the choice of Prime Ministership of India. But of course the NDTV-Ipsos survey conveniently forgot to present us with this one important finding of the popular choice for PM of India. Instead it went on to indulge in some useless data points on who is the Congress voters’ choice or the BJP voters’ choice etc., maybe it was too freighting for them to discover the popularity of NAMO (whether Synovate, which has been taken over by Ipsos last year, had anything to do with this is anybody’s guess, but it was widely speculated in the past that Synovate did have a working relationship with a couple of Delhi based consultancies who had alleged links with both RG & Robert). Every opinion poll, dip-test survey, online/SMS campaign is likely to come out with one unequivocal result these days (despite NDTV missing it completely), that of Modi being by far the most popular choice for the post of Prime Minister of India. The only other parallel, in the recent political history of India, of such Himalayan popularity is that of Vajpayee at his peak in the mid/late 90’s.

The Concurrence

Despite those glaring differences, thankfully both polls do concur broadly on a few basic truths. Mostly these basic elements are about Congress having lost a lot of ground and continuing to lose ground.

Congress is down and out: Congress party is not only losing nationally, but also in every state that it is in power. All Congress Chief Ministers and state governments are hugely unpopular; Sheila Dixit, B.S. Hooda, K.K Reddy, Ashok Gehlot etc. This kind of an overwhelming pan-national anti-Congress mood has been seen only once in the past, in 1975-77; and history was a mute spectator of how the opposition managed to throw away that golden chance, which should act as a detriment for any third-front type of formation occupying the governance space, lest Congress be given another chance later on.

Advantage BJP/Opposition: Trend line is clearly in favour of the BJP and the opposition, both nationally as well as in each of the states. Almost all BP/NDA and future NDA chief ministers are hugely popular. As Swapan da pointed out in the television debate on NDTV, this simply is a still photograph of the prevailing mood in the country and once the actual campaigning begins, this trend will only get stronger in favour of the BJP/NDA and a few opposition parties. Interestingly, the two non UPA parties who are unlikely to ever join NDA; SP & the Left; are also likely to underperform in the polls (Is that a message of Indian voter having decisively gone in favour of the right once again?).

Seat Projections

Ultimately the goal of any electoral crystal-ball gazing exercise of all kinds; opinion polls, mood of the nation surveys, political punditry or even armchair analysis; would be to project the likely outcome scenarios in terms of LS seats for each political party/formation/coalition.     Here again there seems to be a convergence of sorts in agreeing unanimously that BJP & NDA are ahead of the race over Congress & UPA, yet the underlying assertion amongst all the polls is that the next elections will likely produce a hung parliament and possibly a unstable coalition. This finding is contrarian to the behaviour of the Indian electorate. Over the last decade or so, the Indian voter has almost always tended to vote decisively in both assembly as well as national elections to usually favour the frontrunner. This decisive voting pattern in Indian elections is primarily because of a desire for stable governments and sustainable, unhindered governance. The reasons why most pollsters today are predicting a close race between Congress/UPA and BJP/NDA are more ideological and preferential rather than based on hard data, because the overwhelming mood of the nation is anti-Congress. The gap between BJP (NDA) & Congress (UPA) is likely to be around 50, as suggested by Minhaz Merchant in his very balanced analysis, rather than 20 or 30 as the two opinion poll numbers are throwing up. This gap will decide who will be heading the next government in Delhi.

The missing elements of poll charts

  1. Since both the major polls were conducted before the events of Assam and the resulting incidents, they have both been unable to capture the extent of polarization in the country. Although the ABP News-AC Nielsen survey was conducted between August 22nd & 24th it has also only partially captured the Hindu-Muslim polarization reality, because it was a limited exercise in about 28 cities. Today, from Assam to UP to Mumbai to Bangalore, India is increasingly getting polarized along religious lines, which was only seen last time in the early 90’s at the height of the Ram Janam Bhoomi andolan and the eventual destruction of the Babri mosque. Hopefully this feature will be covered in any opinion poll in the near future
  2. Another similarity between the 90’s and the present day scenario is the widespread Muslim disenchantment with the Congress party. In the 90’s this Muslim anger on Congress led to the rise of many “secular” regional parties, can the Muslim vote achieve a national Muslim coalition this time around? This is another aspect that most surveys seem to have missed
  3. If one goes through these polls and surveys, the one striking feature that hits you in your face is the overwhelmingly “urban” nature of these exercises. If these surveys do give equal representation to rural voters (as they invariably claim), then it is impossible to miss the elephant in the room! How on earth can your fieldwork miss the overwhelming presence of drought in the villages of India? This author has in the very recent past demonstrated that drought is possibly the single biggest factor impacting electoral outcomes in India. To suggest that drought or associated conditions are not an issue that are impacting Indian voters is simply preposterous
    1. Delimitation: the process of Delimitation has adversely affected BJP electorally and has been a gainful tool for the Congress. Delimitation might still end up spoiling BJP’s party despite of all the helpful ground realities. Remember, till now, BJP on its own has lost every election in the post delimitation era, except for Karnataka – Bihar & Punjab have been coalitions, while Jharkhand has been a post-poll adjustment and Goa too small a state.

Epilogue: The electorally fascinating state of Uttar Pradesh has become a part of this tailpiece by default for the second week running. UP is always in a state of flux, the political currents that run through the veins of UP are so volatile that even a seasoned political observer is forced to catch his breath in trying to analyse the undercurrents. Almost all pollsters are predicting a minor revival for BJP in the state and a not-so-good seat tally for the SP, which had literally swept the assembly polls less than six months ago. Polarization had been an undercurrent in UP even during the assembly polls, it is just that the BJP did not even put up a fight in 40 odd seats where it could have done well (if deal makers are allowed power over ticket distribution in this important state, then the party’s fate won’t be any different even in the LS polls). This polarization potted-plant is now increasingly resembling a full grown tree under the nourishing care of the blatantly communal Samajwadi regime. These ground realities present BJP with a golden opportunity to come up with a decent performance, in fact, UP could well be the harbinger of BJP’s new rise in the national political stage. But there is already talk of a regrouping and realignment of Brahmins & Dalits against SP, which might favour the BSP, thus rendering another wasted opportunity into the BJP’s kitty.

[Side Note: Any opinion poll or nationwide survey that attempts to create a list of top movie stars of India, but fails to include Rajnikant in that list (to accommodate 4 Khans) is not only blatantly incompetent but also out rightly blasphemous. For starters, take a look at the box-office collections of his last all India release in Delhi-UP, CP-Berar-Rajasthan and East Punjab territories, those collections will put many mainstream Bollywood stars to shame]

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.