Column: Election 2014—What’s happening?

Apr 05 2014, 02:54 IST
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SummaryA record-setter, with BJP replacing Congress as the only national party & the Left-AAP near-eclipsed

There are several intertwined stories that are likely to make this Indian election the most historical ever. My forecasts based on various opinion polls that have come out over the last three months are presented below; but as the saying goes, none of them are responsible for my errors!

There are five major results disguised as forecasts. First, that there is a Modi wave, an explosion that will take the NDA comfortably above the 272 mark. On its own, the BJP is likely to cross 250 seats (as the accompanying table shows) and the Congress, with a tally of 81, will be important in no more than 3 major states (Assam, Karnataka and Kerala). The extent of the Congress debacle can be garnered from the fact that this number is almost half the number of seats gained by the Congress in the Emergency Election of 1977 (154 seats then).

Result 1: Is the large BJP victory the outcome of an anti-Congress sentiment or is it a pro-Modi phenomenon? While it will not make any difference to the eventual result, the answer to this important question is relevant for history.

In many ways, this is a chicken or egg, or batsman-bowler-pitch question. In other words, there is an identification problem. When several influences impact the same result, it is conceptually difficult to isolate the true individual contributions. Only by recourse to counter-factuals can one hope to unravel the truth. Let me provide one such counter. Answer the following question—if Modi had not been the face of the party, but Advani was, what would be your best guess of the BJP phenomenon? Would we be talking about 150 seats for the BJP, just 34 seats above the 2009 level, or would we be talking about, as at present, more than double the 2009 level? Note that the economy remains the same in the two scenarios, disgruntlement with the Congress remains the same, and all other political parameters remain the same. Whether you think there is a Modi wave or not depends on your answer to the above question.

Result 2: The impending demise of the Left Front. An important story, being missed in the excitement about waves and tsunamis and impending change at the Centre, is a result that will indicate that India has joined the late-20th century collection of nations. The Left Front comprising of the communist parties, the CPI and the CPM (and sympathisers like the AAP), have been an important player in most Indian elections, either at the state or national level or both. Until the 2009 election, the lowest number of seats this “intellectually popular” party obtained was 28 in 1984; in 2009, the bloc dropped to a new low of 20 seats. This bloc has operated primarily out of two areas—the east (West Bengal and Tripura) and the deep south (Kerala). The latest March 2014

CSDS opinion poll indicates a 18 percentage point (ppt) decline in vote share from the 43% actual vote share in 2009. The same poll has Mamata Banerjee’s party at 38% (up 7 ppt) and the Congress at 14% (down 2 ppt). This is likely to lead to the Left Front obtaining only 3 seats in 2014 in West Bengal, down from 11 in 2009.

In Kerala, a knife-edge state, the vote gap between the Left and Congress led front stays at the same 9% level as in 2009, but with a third party, the BJP, garnering about 11% of the vote. It is likely, therefore, that the Left Front tally will decline by 1 from the meagre 4 seats they obtained in 2009. So, when you watch the returns on May 16, do not forget to note history in the making with the Left seats in the low teens, if not at a single digit level.

Result 3: I thought this election was about growth and governance, so what happened to Nitish

Kumar? Both the CNN-IBN and the NDTV polls are predicting a rout for Kumar, with no poll willing to give him more than 6 seats. Since 1999, Kumar and his party, the JD(U), have been in an alliance with the BJP but “somehow” Kumar was convinced to break away about a year ago. Some argue that it was on the basis of “principles” that he made this near (political) suicidal move. This does not sound plausible; a more likely explanation is that the Congress set him up as an alternative Third Front leader to combat Modi, and then unceremoniously stabbed him in the back by aligning with Lalu Prasad. By all accounts, Kumar has delivered growth, and “good governance”. Whether the voter punishes him for betraying the BJP, or punishes the Congress for doing the dirty, is something to be watched. My own guess is that the polls are right, Kumar obtains 7 seats, and if BJP exceeds 29 seats in Bihar, it will be at the expense of Congress-RJD.

Result 4: Impact of Muzaffarnagar riots on voting in UP. The polls suggest not much impact, at least relative to the SP and the BSP. Both parties are expected to win the same number of seats—around 10 to 17 seats. However, there appear to be some anomalies in the CNN-IBN survey. On the question “Who is most responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots?”, 40% said the SP, which is more than two-thirds of those responding to the question. Only 13% mentioned the BJP, 3 % saying BSP and 4% blaming the Congress. Half the respondents (and 39% of Muslims) were dis-satisfied with the SP’s handling of the riots. Yet on the voting question, 22% said they would vote for the SP, compared to 24% in 2009. Mayawati’s BSP, not blamed for the riots at all, registers a much larger decline of 9 percentage points in the vote share, 18%, compared to 27% in 2009. Many have suggested that opinion polls tend to under-estimate Mayawati. I haven’t seen the statistical evidence, but I am inclined to agree, especially given the evidence pertaining to Muzaffarnagar. My forecast is for the BSP to obtain more seats than SP, 12 versus 8.

Result 5: The CNN-IBN survey reveals some interesting insights into Election 2014. There are three contenders for the most important election issue: development, inflation and corruption. The (weighted by seats) average is as follows: development is most important for 23% of the voters, inflation for 17% and corruption for only 11% . Even adjusting for the “don’t knows”, one obtains the result that only a fifth of the voters consider corruption an important issue. A politically incorrect conclusion that corruption is not that important a voter issue is obtained by noting the low support for anti-corruption’s flag bearer, the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal—in the PM preference sweepstakes, he obtains only 2% of the national vote. In terms of seats, the AAP is likely to get around 5 seats nationally—at least according to the often faulty opinion polls!

How accurate is the big result of the CNN-IBN opinion poll—the rout of the Congress—likely to be? On the question of PM preferences, Narendra Modi leads Rahul Gandhi by 32% to 13%. Historical data on voting preferences are not available, but it is likely that this 19 percentage point gap is another record—and one consistent with a Modi wave, a BJP sweep, and decimation of the oldest political party in India.

The author is chairman, Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and contributing editor, Indian Express. Twitter: @surjitbhalla

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