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January 27, 1998


Dr N Bhaskara Rao

A five-year government is what's sought by voters

It is more than a month now since the countdown for the 1998 Lok Sabha poll started. And it will be another fortnight before the electoral process gets underway. Nevertheless, the scene has already warmed up to provide enough insights into the way things will unfold.

This is my 8th or 9th national election, including a couple of rounds of polls for state assemblies, in the last 28 years since I ventured into conducting surveys. I have been a close observer of campaign trends. Two decades ago polls surveys were hardly taken seriously. It is only now, with the increased 'use' of pre-poll surveys as a part of poll campaigns, that these have acquired seriousness, now to the extent of being questioned for their very validity.

This is because of the increased evidence of the relevance of such surveys in campaigns and their influence on the poll outcome. As a consequence, there has been an increased use of pre-poll and even 'exit poll' surveys by political parties.

Today there are all kinds of people in the 'poll survey business' -- from social scientists with motivation and group dynamic concepts to those with no background except that they are interested political activists, belong to some advertising agency, or are on assignment.

Having completed the first round of systematic field study (consisting of sample surveys as well as focus group discussions) among voters in 10 states, I sum up here certain observations of the poll '98 campaign:

1. This time it is the law and order issue which is uppermost in voters's minds. This apparently is suiting all political parties. Last time, it was the issue of corruption which occupied the electorate and campaign.

2. As never seen before in our surveys, a third or more voters want a new face. This very clearly brings out the urge for new politics in India and certain aversion for the present set of politicians.

3. A 'five-year government' is what's sought by voters. Alliances between parties are viewed as 'opportunistic', hence 'not desirable' in the present context. And this time we have nothing but alliances!

4. Anti-incumbency is often a factor in the polls. It was very evident with P V Narasimha Rao, who had been the prime minister for almost five years. But this time, the United Front doesn't face it. However, anti-incumbency can be seen to some extent in Tamil Nadu.

5. Certain sympathy or a 'fairness complex' is evident among some voters towards Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Many feel he should be given a chance, now that the others have had theirs. Also, he is viewed as the oldest and perhaps the longest racer. This feeling prevails even outside the Hindu belt.

STRONG>6. The distinction made between a state assembly poll and Lok Sabha poll is even more now. That is, voters view the two differently and tend to vote differently. They have become discerning.

7. The party system is on the decline as never before. There is no ideology, no issue and nothing but splits -- splits in every state, in every party. Earlier the support base of major political parties was up to 30 per cent of voters. Today it has declined to 20 per cent.

8. Caste-wise break up among parties is also as never before. The Congress has not regained the support of Muslims to the pre-1991 level. Only a quarter of Muslims are now with it in the states -- a decade ago, they commanded over 50 per cent. The undecided percentage is high.

9. It is the 'Bharatiya Janata Party vs Rest' this time, instead of the 'Congress vs Rest' as in earlier polls. Today, there is no state where the BJP's electoral presence has not improved.

10. The current poll scene, despite all kind of alliances and break-ups, is the least complex in recent years for a pre-poll analysis. And hence, easy to forecast, contrary to the popular belief.

11. Regional parties, like the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Asom Gana Parishad and Telugu Desam Party, will continue to play a determining role in government formation.

12. Sonia Gandhi's campaign could get the Congress 20 seats. But in the process, she herself will become a campaign issue. Losses may offset the gains.

As I said, more than 15 years ago it was desirable for the Election Commission to intervene to ensure certain discipline not only on the part of the agency involved in conducting a pre-poll survey but also on the part of the media which covered it. In this context, the Press Council of India's initiative should be welcomed. Transparency in the process is essential for the credibility of these surveys. Surveys should make certain qualitative difference to the process of electioneering and campaign.

Banning pre-poll surveys is certainly no answer in today's world. Sensitising the public and the media as to the good, bad and desirable aspects of survey research is more sensible than that.

Tell us what you think of this point of view