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The Rediff Election Interview/Dorab Sopariwala

April 08, 2004

Later this 
month and the next, India, the world's largest democracy, will face its 14th general election and elect a new government.

Political parties and candidates have plunged into electioneering with a never-seen-before aggressiveness. Opinion polls suggest a win for the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Dorab R Sopariwala, one of the country's leading election analysts, has watched the electoral process for over 20 years and without whose sharp analysis many recent Indian elections would be incomplete.

Educated at the London School of Economics and the Imperial College of Science & Technology, Sopariwala specialises in India's electoral system and is a consultant with NDTV, one of India's television news channels.

In a detailed interview with Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih -- which we will publish today and over next week -- he said there was nothing to suggest a wave for the BJP but the NDTV-Indian Express opinion poll conducted last fortnight indicated that the NDA should return to power.  

A part of this interview appeared in the April 9 issue of India Abroad, the newspaper for the Indian-American community, which is owned by

In your assessment, is there a wave in favor of the BJP?

What you are asking for is the results. As of now, there is nothing to suggest a wave. But things in politics can change in a day, a week. In Spain there was a bomb blast and within a day the results changed. As of now, there is nothing to suggest a wave.

There could be a likely upset -- like what happened in Spain?

No, no, I am saying anything could happen. There could be a wave or there could be a disaster for the BJP. I do not know. It's my job to look at what people say. Opinions are a dime and dozen and my opinion is not worth anything. My opinion may be worth something when I have the data. If you look at the NDTV-Indian Express poll -- it says the NDA should repeat its performance of the current Parliament.

Assuming there is no dramatic change and the mood in the country remains unchanged till next month?

That's not fair to say that. When the poll was carried out, candidates had not been selected, nominations had not opened, alliances had not been firmed up. So obviously there could be a change, now whether the results of the change still bring you back to the same number as in the poll is something we will only know when the election results are announced.

If there is no change, are there any chances of an upset?

It's too difficult to say. If nothing were to happen, why should there be any change? How can you expect me to say something definitive about an event so far into the future? No one in his right mind who is in this business where things can change in a day, a week, will say with certainty what will happen then.

An opinion poll measures the opinion of the electorate at a point in time; it is valid only for that point in time. When I look at the future I know as much as the next person.

What are the factors in this election -- Vajpayee as prime minister, India Shining or Sonia's foreign origin?

What you are asking are questions that are not capable of an easy answer. In each elector's mind, there are all these questions but he places a certain degree of importance on each of these and the level of importance differs among voters.

In the recent poll, we've asked voters what matters -- there were things like employment, jobs, poverty, these are much more important issues in the current election; Ayodhya, Hindu-Muslim tension, Indo-Pak are rated much lower.

You mustn't forget that more than 70 percent of the electorate is rural. You think they are interested in high-powered diplomacy? I don't know if they know Sonia Gandhi is Italian. People in rural India have different things on their mind, like making a living, than people in urban areas.

Some people vote 'historically' -- the way their parents have voted. Many women vote according to the way their husbands vote. When you ask me what is the role of Vajpayee, what do I say, when the woman says to me that I vote the way my husband votes. So where is Vajpayee and where is the foreign policy?

Unless there is a cataclysmic event, it is very difficult to say this is what makes a person vote. It's a package and certain things like Kargil stand out in the package. Voting, on the face of it, is a simple process but what goes in the minds of the people is something that's very complex.

Do you think the BJP could have got a majority on its own?

The BJP only stands in 350 seats. So to get 275 out of 350...

200 odd?

They've already got 183. The forecast that we've given is 190 to 210. No poll can forecast seats that precisely. If there is one per cent drop it can shift 10 to 15 seats in Parliament. Now if you get 10 seats more and I get 10 seats less, the difference is 20. Whether they get a 180 or 230 even today is difficult to tell.

I think I heard Mr Mahajan (BJP General Secretary Pramod Mahajan) or Venkaiah Naidu say a couple of months ago that the BJP will get more than 300 seats. That does not appear to be possible, unless something very dramatic happens.

You reckon 200 is a possibility?

Oh yes, should be a possibility. I mean everything is a possibility. 300 is a very remote possibility, 200 is a more likely possibility. Though it is true that since 1980, no individual party, except on the back of an assassination, has got more than 200 seats. But that doesn't mean it's written in stone, somebody could change that.

Is this going to be a close election?

Doesn't look like it at the moment. But for the ruling party there is no majority of votes because the votes are split between the two large groups and a Third Front like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, CPI-M. So all the anti-BJP votes are being split -- which is what used to happen in the old days with the Congress being the beneficiary. Unless something dramatic happens there will be no enormous variation in numbers.

I don't think the NDA will get 400 seats instead of 300 and I don't think the Congress will form the government unless something dramatic happens. It's too early now, some say Mayawati may tie up with the Congress even now or the Samajwadi Party may. I don't know. But all these things make a difference at the margin -- but today it appears that the NDA is likely to return to power.

Part II: What the BJP needs to guard against 

Image: Uday Kuckian


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