State polls 2016: Is it the end of road for Congress if it loses all 4 states?

By: | Updated: May 17, 2016 9:40 AM

If Congress+ loses in all four states, then the political dialogue will shift towards discussing the end of the Congress era

election-reu-LState Polls 2016: The results for these major state elections will be announced on May 19. (Reuters)

State Polls 2016: Sometimes, it is a curse to be spot-on right. Scoring a bulls-eye with the Bihar election (my forecast was 175 seats for JDU+ and 60 seats for NDA; actual result was 178 seats for JDU+ and 58 seats for NDA) raises expectations from all, but the only way to go is down. Further, the international environment is not very conducive to psephologists. Most pollsters have bitten the dust in forecasting the American election. Everyone had counted Donald Trump out of the race, and look, he is the presumptive Republican candidate for president of the US. Most did not give Bernie Sanders a chance, and he is continuing to give Hillary Clinton a strong fight. As it happens, ex-post and 20-20 vision, Trump and Sanders are, in my opinion, very similar in their appeal, and their demagoguery. So, perhaps we should have seen it coming! “The immigrant did the damage to the US”, “the foreigner was responsible”, “the banker did it”. Well…

India, too, has four big states that have just finished polling (or will by today)—Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The results for these major state elections will be announced on May 19. There are very few opinion polls around, and there is considerably less excitement than at the time of the November-2015 Bihar election. But, there should be substantial interest, because there is a not-so-small probability that this election could be just as momentous for the BJP as the Bihar election, possibly even more.

This is where informed analysis (also known as speculation) begins, and obviously, there is very little to go on, except for historical trends and scattered opinion polls. But both of them are telling the same story. Before explaining what the story is, I present some facts.

In each of the 4 states, the BJP made strong inroads in the 2014 General Election, compared to the 2011 Assembly results. In 2011, in the 4 states put together, the BJP had a minuscule fraction of the seats (0.6%), and an average vote-share of just 5%. In the 2014 national elections, the BJP obtained a large increase in its weighted vote-share in these four states (an average of 20.5%), with the largest increase in Assam, where it “obtained” a majority in terms of leads (69 out of 126 seats), and a vote-share of 36.9%.

As the BJP did exceedingly well (relative to its own performance in 2011) in the national election in these four states, the main question is, not who will win, but who will the BJP 2014 voter vote for (in all states, except Assam)? In states other than Assam, the party the BJP voters switch to will very likely be the winner. Let us do a spot-check on the BJP voters in three states.

West Bengal: Likely to switch to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), if at all. If the voter stays with BJP, this will result in a split vote which is likely to help the TMC (as happened in the 2014 election when the TMC romped and sailed home with leads in 214 out of 294 assembly constituencies). In both scenarios, TMC gains. Banerjee should send a thank-you card to the BJP.

Tamil Nadu: Almost an identical case to West Bengal’s. Note that the BJP obtained 5.5% of the vote in 2014, compared to only 2.2% in the 2011 Assembly elections. Some of the “BJP shift” voters might be Muslim, and could gravitate to the DMK-Congress coalition or AIADMK. However, the formation of the DMDK-MDMK alliance (the BJP wanted to be part of this) is likely to cut into the DMK and BJP vote-share more than AIADMK’s; thereby, paving the way for an Amma victory—and possibly, the first time in 40 years when Tamil Nadu votes back the incumbent party.

Kerala: This, traditionally, is the most difficult state for predictions, and so it is on this occasion as well. The primary reason is the fact that unlike most states in India, Kerala operates according to a two-party system; small swings in vote-shares causes a large swing in seat shares. The historical record of the swing in vote-shares for one-time incumbency (i.e., the party won the previous election but lost the one before that) is that the incumbent is likely to lose about 1.5% of vote-share. In 2011, the LDF obtained 36.9% of the vote to a 40.6% share for the UDF, a coalition with Congress as the senior partner. A 1.5% swing will yield 38.4% for the LDF and 39.1% for the UDF. A close fight, as usual.

But note the increase in the share of BJP between 2011 and 2014—from 6% to 10.5%! Which way will some of the BJP voters go—towards their sworn enemy, the Congress, or towards a less-than-equal enemy, the Communists? If the Congress can tie up with the Left in West Bengal, why can’t the BJP voter tilt towards the Left to ensure the defeat of the Congress in Kerala? However, it is likely that the anti-incumbency factor as well works against the Congress-led UDF and results in a victory for the LDF.

Assam: This is the one state where the BJP and its allies (AGP and BOPF), are given a chance by pundits and opinion polls to win. At play here is the large increase in the BJP+ vote-share, from 33.9% in 2011 to 42.9% in 2014; the corresponding numbers for the BJP alone are 11.5% to 36.9% ; and for the Congress—a 10 percentage-point decline, from 39.4% to only 29.9%. If the Lok Sabha pattern was to repeat, BJP+ would have an easy win. The opinion polls suggest that BJP+ has a narrow 2 percentage point lead over the Congress, a lead big enough to yield 65 seats to BJP+, and only 36 seats to INC. There is an important third party in play here—the Muslim supported AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), a party which obtained 15% in 2014 compared to 12.6% in 2011. If the vote share of AIUDF increases, it is likely to be at the expense of the Congress. A loss for the BJP+ in Assam will be a surprise.

State elections are, no doubt, different than the national elections, and no one (including us) is expecting a repeat of May 2014. But we do think that when the results are announced on May 19, the tilt will very likely be towards the BJP. Not because they will win, but because their vote-share will determine the magnitude of Congress’s loss. It is the case of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my very good friend’. The following table documents the results of the vote-share in 2011 and 2014 elections, an aggregate assessment of recent opinion polls, and our own forecasts.

All of the opinion polls indicate a Congress loss (or the loss of its senior partner in TN and WB). We reach a similar conclusion, but with a larger loss for INC+. If these predictions turn out to be true, then the political dialogue in India is likely to undergo a significant change. The janata will start talking about more than the beginning of the end of the Congress party, with no respite in sight (this is the story-line we had hinted at earlier).

However, if the actual results are at significant variance with us (and the opinion polls), then May 19 would mark the beginning of Congress’s revival. Will the Congress kiss be the kiss of political death, or be like Snow White’s? We think the former, but the aam aadmi will have the final say.

The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express,and chairman, Oxus Investments. Twitter: @surjitbhalla


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