Column: There is a Modi wave

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: Mar 12 2014, 20:54pm hrs
The results of several opinion polls, large and small, reliable and questionable, all point to one conclusion: a Modi wave. Of course, they can be wrong, and we all know how such polls missed the emergence of a new party on the Delhi scene. But several, indeed all, opinion polls pointed to a Modi wave in the three other states that went into elections in November-

December 2013the large states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. The poll forecasts were spot on, albeit with a slight miss on the Modi wave in each of the three states. Overall, the track record of these polls in India is pretty good, and if there werent occasional surprises along the waylike the 2004 Lok Sabha electionone would be forced to conclude that opinion polls actually did affect the vote!

So, with these opening caveats, let me assume that the opinion polls (about 10 of them, including one by a respected foreign polling agency, Pew) have got it right. What do the results mean

Since elections are fought on a coalition basis, most opinion polls report vote-shares for the two major parties: the BJP+ and the (Congress) INC+. One back-of-the-envelope calculation is to subtract about 3 percentage points from the BJP+ to obtain the result for BJP, and about 4 percentage points from the INC+ to obtain the result for the INC. Doing this, the median poll result is 31% and 19% for BJP and INC alone, respectively. The joint vote-share of the BJP and the INC will be close to 50%, a level that all election results since 1984 have centred on (average of 51.5%)

The accompanying table reports the average of seat-results emerging from individual state-level vote-shares. These, in turn, are derived from considerations about the economy, e.g., it is the economy which determines voting, a model reported repeatedly in these columns and a Headlines Today TV programme in December 2013; considerations about age, caste, religion and urbanisation at a parliamentary constituency level, as well as historical vote-shares and opinion poll estimates. As is well known, there are a variety of models to convert from votes to seats in a first-past-the-post system, and three very different methods were employed.

This will be an election for the record books. It will record the largest vote-share decline for Congress in its entire history; matching, if not exceeding, the 9.2 percentage point decline in 1977. The gain for the BJP, some 13 percentage points, will be the largest-ever swing for any major national party in Indian history. Now, for the more difficult, but likely, implications of these vote-shares: the third record set will be the lowest-ever Congress seat tally (79) and the fourth will be a BJP-alone win of 245 seats, exceeding by 13 seats the 232 seat total of Congress in the May-June 1991 election (post the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991). The pre-poll alliance share of the BJP will easily exceed the 272 seats required for a majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. The Congress alliance seat total is likely to be significantly lower than the lowest-ever seats acquired by Congress alone114 in 1999.

What is happening Just look at the election debate and you will find out. Secularism and the great communal divide Steadily diminishing as a talking point, and by the time the first vote is cast, it would have gone the way of casteyes, caste. While important for sociologists and intellectuals and the Yadavs, and TV commentators, there is precious little evidence that caste affects voting behaviour at any serious aggregate level. If changes in caste voting patterns do occur in 2014, then they will favour the first lower caste prime ministerial candidate, OBC Modi. And Hindutvagone from the TV screens, gone from discourse, and gone from thinking. Certainly, something to be proud of, amidst the gloom and doom that is India today.

If actual results are broadly in line with the forecast made here, then politics and economics in India will be changed forever, and surely for the better. Here is why and how.

First, the results will herald the end of the Congress party as we know it. It would spell the end of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and along with it have a spill-over impact on other political dynasties. They will be forewarned about the end of dynastic politics, whether they are from the winning NDA alliance or the losing UPA formation. The foundation for a meritocratic politician, exemplified by Modis rise, will be laid. If the meritorious among the Congress, e.g., Nandan Nilekani also win, then we can look forward to a healthy two-party political framework in India. This does not mean that regional parties will end, but it does imply that their days as a major coalition force would be numbered.

In most democracies, the electoral fight is between two parties, and invariably, the two parties are defined around economic beliefs. Occasionally, a third party emerges with a specific issue or agenda and gains popularity; for example, the Green parties in Europe. These parties have a lot of value-add, so much so that their ideas soon become mainstream, i.e., the one-issue based parties get co-opted into the policy and political framework, provided, of course, that they are not anarchist. There is every reason to expect that this record-setting 2014 election will mean a radical shift towards the norm, i.e., basically, a two-party system.

The new left of centre party would comprise of the left faction of the existing Congress (sans dynastic leaders) and disgruntled Congress voters who voted elsewhere. Regional caste-based parties, e.g., Lalu, Mulayam, quasi-socialist in views, plus the intellectual left, will join forces with this configuration.

If dynasty ends in the Congress, a parallel development would be a reduction in the influence of the RSS, and outdated religiously symbolic concepts like Hindutva. Growth, development, federalism, and equality of opportunity (not reservations) will likely be the new agenda of the economic right.

If Modi obtains a reasonably comfortable mandate, as the data suggest, then important questions arisewill he be a strong leader intolerant of divergent views Unlikely, since today there are enormous checks and balances in place for any leader, anarchist, authoritarian or otherwise. And what about the Godhra riots Modi has been cleared of all involvement by the Supreme Court; nevertheless, the riots did happen under his watch, and as such, it is a permanent blot on his record. However, Modis clean, strong, and consistent development performance speaks for itself and with no riots post-2002. Perhaps, by aiming to deliver development and welfare improvement for all, Modi is seeking redemption for what happened in 2002 The opinion polls, the wave, suggest that there is chemistry at work; the voters of India are bonding with Modi, are willing to move past Godhra, and move forward to a new and better future under his leadership.

The author is chairman, Oxus Investments and contributing editor, The Indian Express.

Twitter: @surjitbhalla