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March 5, 1998


Pritish Nandy

Altering the Mandate

Last Saturday we ran a five hour long exit poll on Doordarshan. It started exactly a minute after the polling ended at 5 in the evening and ended half an hour before midnight. Over 26,000 voters exiting from 1,450 selected polling booths in 120 representative constituencies formed the core sample of this mammoth poll and their responses (sent over Nicnet) were analysed by psephologists attached to DRS to estimate the swing in voting percentage points for different parties and alliances.

The seat forecast was then made taking into account the shift in voters's alignments. The margin of error for the voting percentages is one percentage point at the national level and this could mean a variation of up to 10 seats from the actual results. G V L Narasimha Rao, who conducted and directed the poll for me and The Times of India -- co-producers of the show -- was absolutely confident that the figures offered a correct and reasonable insight into what might be the final outcome of the polls.

But it is not the outcome that worried me. Even though it should have. It should have because exit polls, unlike opinion polls, are a dangerous and scary business. You can be proved wrong within days -- in fact, hours -- and there are enough people prepared to insinuate motives to what can quite easily be described as systems failure, to quote Dr Manmohan Singh's famous definition of the securities scam. What worried me was actually something quite different. The way we rearrange the mandate after it is obtained.

But, before that, let us look at the facts and forecasts.

The forecasts were breathtakingly simple.

One: The BJP and allies are expected to win 244 seats out of the 540 being contested. That is 104 seats more than their nearest rival, the Congress (likely tally 140 seats) and 126 more than the United Front (likely tally 118 seats).

Two: This is the result of a massive 10 per cent swing in favour of the BJP, taking their share of the total vote to 33.5 per cent. The Congress share has dropped by 2.5 per cent to 26.5 whereas the Front's share is expected to drop by 6.7 per cent to 22.

Three: The nation wants Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister -- exactly as all the opinion polls predicted -- and Sonia G, despite her star appeal, has actually made no impact on the fortunes of the Congress. The exit poll was conducted in 16 constituencies where she campaigned. Of these, the Congress vote went up in only 5. In 11, it declined.

Four: The BJP gained 4 per cent of the Muslim vote compared to 1996, to reach 16. The Congress, by comparison, gained only 2 per cent to reach 40. This, despite its apology for the desecration of the Babri Masjid. Despite its breastbeating for secularism.

Apart from these four clear exit poll-based indicators, there are some others as well.

For example, during the last weekend, punters were painting Dalal Street red and, this week, the bulls are expected to spear ahead the Sensex and Nifty. Almost all the blue chips shares have shown a remarkable rise on the premise that the BJP will try to offer India a strong, stable government.

Yet, despite the fact that the BJP appears to have got such a clear, unequivocal mandate, there is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty that it can form the next government. Why? Simply because it seems too pat, too easy.

We all know -- or, at least, believe -- that Indian politics thrives on chaos, confusion and uncertainty. That is why such a simple, obvious solution -- that the BJP will form the next government at the Centre because the people of India have shown overwhelmingly support for it -- seems far too naive to be credible. In fact, that is exactly why, if you read the newspaper editorials carefully, you will find that no one believes this could easily happen. In fact, surprise surprise, everyone believes exactly the opposite. That something peculiar will happen at the last moment to ensure that the BJP loses yet another opportunity to form the government at the Centre.

Let us look at what could happen.

To begin with, the Congress and the UF can get together to keep the BJP out and form the next government with a wafer thin majority. Will such a government be stable? No. But, then, who cares for stability? Certainly not our leaders. They are more interested in other slogans. Slogans that address their constituencies.

An alternative scenario could be one in which the BJP either breaks away a part of the Congress or woos into its fold some of the current UF constituents. The obvious target is Chandrababu Naidu's TDP. Whether the TDP joins or not is another matter, but BJP leaders are already talking to it.

A third possible scenario is where the Congress and the UF get together to break the BJP and take away a sizeable number of MPs, to form a stable secular alternative. Of course, this would mean a large ministry where every crook and carpetbagger will get a portfolio to settle his or her personal scores and make some money as well, on the side. Somewhat like what happened in UP recently. The only difference being the fact that the UP government belongs to the BJP. But when has morality stood in the way of government formation?

In other words, what we are all anticipating is chicanery and corruption, immoral compromises and shameless deal making.

The excuses are many. Stability. Secularism. Social justice. Freedom of choice. The importance of coalition values in this new era of ideological options and political fragmentation. The search for a new moral alternative.

It sounds a bit like Kissinger who claimed that he was firing the canons of justice to preserve the pillars of peace. Our leaders are also ready to stoop to any level -- bribery, crime, intimidation - to ensure that those whom we overwhelmingly vote to power are always stopped just short of reaching there.

After all, a party that has been voted to power by an overwhelming number of Indians must be stopped at any cost from grabbing the government. The others must shed their ideology, sacrifice their principles, bribe, compromise, terrorise. Do everything they can to stop India from having the kind of government it wants, in fact deserves.

Why? The answer is simple. No one, certainly not any political party, is keen to give us the government we want, we crave for. That would be too easy, too pat. That is why they want to give us the kind of government they think we deserve. That explains the fraud, the chicanery, the desperate desire to rearrange the mandate and give us a government that is condemned, by its very contradictions, to fail.

What does this mean? Well, from the look of it, another election 18 months later.

Pritish Nandy

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