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Towards a hung Lok Sabha?

April 12, 2004

Is India headed for an election in which neither the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance nor the Congress-led coalition emerges a clear winner? The prevalent wisdom is that the second possibility is remote. But going by successive major opinion polls, even the first outcome increasingly looks unlikely. We could have a truly indecisive verdict and a hung Parliament. The earliest large-sized poll, by India Today-ORG-Marg (conducted in January) gave the NDA an emphatic 330 to 340 seat majority, while forecasting that the Congress and its allies would win a mere 105-115 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha.

Two subsequent polls by Outlook (late February) and Indian Express-NDTV (mid-March) put the NDA's tally much lower (respectively 280 to 290 and 287 to 307), while still giving it a clear majority. The Congress and allies improved their forecast tally to 159 to 169 and 143 to 163 seats. The unambiguous trend was a narrowing of the gap between the two coalitions.

And now two new polls, by Zee TV and Star News both suggest that the NDA might pass the half-way mark just by a whisker. It might even fall short of it. Zee's lower-end estimate gives the NDA 265 seats and the Congress-led alliance
196. The Star News-C-Voter poll predicts 271 to 283 for the NDA, while giving the Congress-led alliance 164 seats. The lower end of the NDA range falls just below the magic mark of 273. The results will discomfit the NDA's strategists. They can no longer feel safe or secure about its prospects. The BJP cannot drive much comfort from the Star forecast that its own tally might exceed 200. But the poll should leave the Congress even more worried. Its tally could fall below 100 seats.

At this point, we must pause and review India's experience with opinion polls and note the incompatibility of different polls, which use wholly diverse samples and methods and ask different questions. Matters are not helped by the fact that most polls went wrong in the latest round of assembly elections, or by the fact that the Indian Express-NDTV forecasts for Maharashtra are contradicted by the same polling agency it hired (AC Nielsen). The forecast was that the Congress-NCP would win only 20 of Maharashtra's 48 seats. But Nielsen's own survey gave the combine 31 seats, with an impressive 49 percent of the vote, as against the BJP-Shiv Sena's 44%. The truth is that psephology isn't a precise science. Rather, it's a difficult art, or more accurately, business. Its predictive value is limited in a complex, diverse society like India's where voters may not reveal their true intentions for many reasons.

However, not just opinion polls, but more substantive ground trends, suggest that the outcome of the election is not all sewn up as the BJP's spin-masters would have us believe. Despite all its arrogant self-confidence, the BJP's top leadership knows it'll be difficult for it to reach, leave alone exceed, the 1999 tally of 182. Some of its existing allies, especially the JD(U) and Nationalist Trinamool Congress, are likely to do badly. And what its remains of its former partners, after 10 parties' desertion from the NDA, ranging from the National Conference in Kashmir to the DMK-MDMK-PMK in Tamil Nadu, will give it a hard time.

Far from being a favourable, relatively safe, gamble on which the BJP wisely decided after its victories in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assemblies, this election is likely to prove a hard slog. There are several indications that BJP leaders recognise this and have drawn up multiple contingency strategies. Consider a few:

  • The BJP has decided to foment and tap crude xenophobia by making the 'foreign origin' issue a central campaign plank. This, as a widely reported briefing (March 27) by a 'senior leader,' put it, is a purely opportunist, insincere electoral strategy, and won't be followed by a law banning Indian citizens of foreign origin from holding high office.
  • The BJP isn't sure that 'normal' campaigning would mobilise and energise its cadres and ensure its victory. So it launched the Advani rath yatra. But this has largely drawn a pathetic response.
  • It drafted the 'Vision 2004' document mainly to reassure Sangh Parivar hardliners that it still remains wedded to the core agendas of the RSS and Hindu communalism.
  • The BJP knows Mr Vajpayee's acceptance rating is twice as high as its own: less than a quarter of the people vote for the party. So, it's concocting and milking his 'soft' image. It's trying to give the election campaign a 'presidential' spin in the hope that people would favour Mr Vajpayee over Ms Sonia Gandhi. In reality, the electoral game in a parliamentary system, with complex alliances and multiple national, local and caste factors influencing the voter's choice, is qualitatively different.
  • The party hasn't fielded any of its senior leaders as candidates other than the Vajpayee-Advani-Joshi trio. It doesn't feel assured of their victory. Some key leaders are changing their seats -- including Mr Vinay Katiyar in Faizabad. This wouldn't happen if they were confident of their home constituency popularity. Nor would NDA leaders like Mr George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar shift base or contest from two seats in Bihar.
  • The BJP did its utmost to persuade Ms Mayawati (vulnerable because of the 'Taj Corridor' case) into spurning an alliance with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. That alliance would have resulted in about 20 fewer seats for the BJP and 40 more seats for the Congress-allies, nationally tilting the scales against the NDA.
  • BJP leaders increasingly resort to personal attacks, especially against Ms Sonia Gandhi and her family -- to capitalise on rank prejudice prevalent within the VHP, RSS and other Sangh outfits. This is necessary because the outfits' support isn't automatic.
  • The party's second-generation leaders are furiously commissioning survey after 'private survey,' with huge samples such as 200,000 for Uttar Pradesh. Their typical results are not mutually compatible and often not reassuring.

The BJP's 'overkill' campaigns have boomeranged. The party itself admitted (April 1) that 'India Shining' hasn't found favour with the middle class, its main target. This class doesn't like the cost of the campaign to be borne by the public exchequer. As for the majority, Zee reveals that 73 percent of the people haven't even heard of the 'feel good' campaign. The adverse comment attracted by the 54 pictures of Mr Vajpayee in the 48-page 'Vision' album has prompted a second edition, with only two pictures. Mr Modi's abuse of Ms Gandhi as a 'Jersey cow' and someone unfit to become a shop clerk has put off people. This may happen to 'feel good' too.

The BJP knows it's especially vulnerable in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 25 seats in 1999 (present total strength, 80). Going by the 2002 assembly, it trails behind the SP and BSP. More important, its Thakur vote is fast eroding because of the SP's espousal of the 'Raja Bhaiyya victimhood' cause. Some Brahmin BJP supporters too may vote for the Congress. If the BJP cannot do well in UP, it's unlikely to reach the 180-seat mark nationally.

None of this in itself gives the Congress a decisive edge over its adversary. It has to create that edge by offering an attractive, radical new vision to the masses, and by broad-basing alliances. The Congress has suffered setbacks in building a coalition in the North, barring Jharkhand. It was forced to become a bit player in Bihar, contesting just four seats. It can make up for these deficiencies by both strengthening its alliances in the rest of the country, especially in the West and the South, and by infusing enthusiasm into its cadre through imaginative people-oriented programmes and good campaigning.

These are only ambiguous signs that this is happening. The Congress is hesitant to take bold steps because it's afraid of being branded 'populist.' But there is nothing wrong with populism. The Congress will only gain if it promises to revive and universalise the Public Distribution System and subsidise food for the poor (and not fertiliser for rich farmers, as at present). The people will welcome the Congress if it guarantees free primary healthcare and decent-quality elementary education.

Ms Priyanka Gandhi's campaign entry, despite its 'dynastic' pitfalls, will definitely energise the Congress. She can certainly put some icing on its electoral cake. But the base of the cake can only be made with bold, imaginative 'populist' schemes and slogans. That's still waiting to happen.

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