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The Rediff Election Interview/Dorab R Sopariwala

April 12, 2004

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

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

In a detailed interview with Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih, he glanced at electoral trends, past and present, and surveyed the coming general election in a four-part interview.

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

Part I: 'I don't think the NDA will get 400 seats' 

What must the BJP guard against so that that it does not slip from its position?

Yes, against losing the cricket match [the India-Pakistan series], for instance. It's very important. In Britain, the Labor government had called an election in June [1970]. England, the reigning champions, were leading 2-0 at half time in the football World Cup in Mexico. They lost the game and in four to five days, Harold Wilson's British government, which was leading by a wide margin in the polls until 2, 3 weeks earlier, lost the election.

Of course, their's is a very much more informed electorate, an electorate that was mad about football. When we say mad about cricket, we really talk about the urban areas, in villages perhaps they don't even get to see television. They don't have three square meals.

But things like cricket can have an influence at the margin. It [a defeat] depresses people. Happy people want things to continue, you can be more easily persuaded -- don't sit at home and have a beer on voting day, go out and vote. If happiness goes down people start looking for alternatives. 10, 15 seats could move because many seats are closely contested.

What is, after all, the purpose of India Shining? To make you feel good and make you feel that the BJP has got you these goodies, to stay with them. Things are going well. Why are they not putting up the price of petrol? They know it's got to go up sometime, around the world it's been the highest in years. They want you not to feel anti-them.

And in rural India?

There has been a good monsoon. They do not want to take a chance on a bad monsoon. They are feeling good. Go to the polls now. The stock markets are up. Things are going well. Normally governments in parliamentary democracies where they have the ability to have an election when they want tend to go to the polls when things are going well.

How many urban constituencies are there in India?

The Election Commission has no such thing as urban and rural. Bombay is urban for sure. If you look at some Delhi constituencies -- there are some villages in that. Since 1972 there is no definition of constituencies between urban and rural. There is no data available. But if 20, 25 percent of the population is urban, it is fair to assume that around 125, 130 constituencies are urban and the rest rural.

And the BJP is known to be strong in urban constituencies?

That was the way the BJP began but today you can't run a government with only urban support. How are they winning in UP which is a very rural state? You cannot win an election today if you are strong only in urban areas. You can win some seats but you have to have rural strength. The BJP may be stronger in urban areas than rural, that's a possibility but they've been trying to strengthen their position in the rural areas.

How important is caste in this election and in how many constituencies is it going to play a decisive role?

Every constituency in this country.

A decisive role?

I don't know. Supposing you are a Yadav and I'm a Kurmi. Supposing you want to vote for the BJP and the BJP puts a Kurmi and the Samajwadi Party puts a Yadav, who would you vote for? Or you haven't decided and there are two parties with Yadavs, who will you vote for? So what many parties do is go with the smaller caste, it is not black and white.

Once you go down to smaller towns, it starts mattering more what the caste of the candidate is but we've asked this question in our poll and 70 percent say caste does not matter. I don't believe it, but that's another matter.

We asked them exactly the question -- if the party that you support did not have a candidate of your caste and if the Opposition party had a candidate of your caste, would that change your vote, most people say no.

Do people still vote for a candidate as opposed to a party?

We don't really know. But there are stars. If you are a star you carry some votes with you. If Mayawati stands, Sonia Gandhi stands, they do get some votes because of who they are. The leaders carry a certain amount of personal baggage with them. A vast majority of people -- unless there's a caste combination that goes wrong -- tend to vote for a party.

When we do a poll, we usually do not go to star constituencies because they are not representative of all the constituencies. There will be perhaps 20, 30 stars but there are 543 constituencies and if we have to give the results of 543, we don't want to select among them a constituency that has a star because that is not a representative as there the man has his own following.

Mr Vajpayee himself has stood from 5 or 6 different constituencies but wherever he goes he carries a certain amount of vote with him.

Could a united Opposition have halted the NDA's march?

The NDA, as per current projections, gets about 40 to 42 percent of the vote. This leaves 60 percent, which is split across various Opposition parties. This kind of split occurs in most parliamentary democracies. Since India became independent, no winning party in Parliament has ever got more than 50 percent of the votes.

This is the 14th general election coming up. From election one, if the Opposition had allied against Mr Nehru, they would have defeated Mr Nehru perhaps for all I know. Because even Mr Nehru didn't get 50 percent of the vote. The highest ever that anybody got was Rajiv Gandhi who got 49 odd percent of the vote.

That's the highest in independent India's history but the question is, in a parliamentary democracy, it is extremely unusual not to have independents, smaller parties. We, of course are the other extreme, we have lots of other parties. Most parliamentary democracies like Britain, Australia, normally have a couple of dominant parties.

But we are not a country, we are a continent. We are 20 countries. It is very difficult to expect that a country like India which is a continent like Europe with different cultures, languages, will only have two dominant parties.

If they unite, of course, the united Opposition wins. But they never unite. That never happens.

Has Sonia Gandhi's presence at the helm of the Congress affected the party's chances?

I don't know but you would have to ask yourself if anybody else could have done better.

In your survey what is the public sentiment about Sonia Gandhi?

She is still clearly seen as the Congress leader ahead of everybody, just as Mr Vajpayee is amongst the BJP. There's nobody else close to her in terms of acceptability.

Is this the last hurrah for Congress? If they slip below 100 Lok Sabha seats they could lose legitimacy as a national party?

It will be hurt certainly. No doubt about it. It's a psychological barrier. There's a possibility that they could go below 100. They might think of changing their leadership; it would be a wake up call for them.

The question is even if they did, 25 percent of the voters of this country still vote for them.

Part III: 'In India, politics is a business'

Image: Uttam Ghosh

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