The final round of pre-election surveys, including the much-awaited pre-poll round of National Election Study (NES) by Lokniti-CSDS team, has confirmed what was widely felt by Indian political observers: At the starting point of the race, it’s advantage NDA.
There seems to be a critical shift in public opinion about the Narendra Modi government after the air strikes in Balakot. Survey evidence suggests that there was a shift in favour of Modi as the preferred prime minister, re-election of his government and a positive assessment of the state of the economy. This was accompanied by a significant swing of voters, especially in the Hindi belt, towards the BJP.
These surveys contain some contra-indicators as well. Unemployment is undoubtedly a top-of-the-mind issue. Balakot is nowhere among the top issues. People do blame the Modi government for trying to take advantage of air strikes. And, when quizzed about specifics like corruption, price rise, communal tension and unemployment, people report deterioration under Modi government.
Based on these, various surveys have made different seat projections. The Lokniti team projects 222-232 seats for the BJP (263-283 for the NDA) and 74-84 seats for the Congress (115-135, including existing Congress allies), based on NES pre-poll done for The Hindu-Tiranga TV-Bhaskar. Similarly, The Times Now-VMR poll projects 279 seats for the NDA and 149 for the UPA. ABP Nielsen has made similar projections for key states.
This represents a gain of three percentage points for the BJP and a loss of two points for the Congress in the last one year.
This article is not about refuting or confirming these projections. I believe it is silly to quarrel with numbers, unless there is a good reason to doubt the method by which these numbers were arrived at. So, let us assume for the time being that these numbers capture a snapshot of the election race about 10 days before polling was to begin. The real question is: Will this picture hold about seven weeks later when the last phase of polling takes place? Are these numbers for the BJP likely to travel northwards or southwards? This is critical for government formation. A reduction of 20-30 seats for the BJP seats compared to these projections could open up the game, while the addition of the same number could mean no challenge to Mr Modi.
Here are eight factors to watch out for as we go through the seven phases of polling. For this purpose, I will use the NES data released by Lokniti team, not because of my former association with this excellent team, but because it has placed detailed tables, the entire methodology and question-wording in the public domain.
1. Will the Balakot-effect cool off?
The NES data shows that while Pulwama-Balakot or national security is not by itself an election issue (only two per cent voters mention it as the issue that will determine their vote), it may have helped to shore up the image of PM Modi and his government in a big way. As many as 79 per cent (Table 2) had heard about the Balakot air strikes and nearly half the respondents give Modi government some credit for it. More importantly, those who had heard were much more likely to prefer Modi for PM and give his government another chance. Will this effect persist after a few weeks of the heat and dust of election campaign? As many as 61 per cent people (Table 14) agreed that the BJP was trying to make electoral gains from the air strikes, although half of them were all for giving this government another chance (Table 15). Will PM Modi’s repeated attempt at invoking Balakot be counter-productive?
2. Will NYAY hot up as an electoral issue?
Although the formal announcement of the Congress’ minimum income guarantee scheme took place in the middle of this survey, as many as 48 per cent (Table 23) had already heard about it. This number is bound to go up after the campaign. Besides the late announcement, there are two problems for the Congress here. One, the poorest who might benefit from it know less about it than the better off. Two, awareness of NYAY leads to a small gain for the Congress (reduces the popularity gap between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi by 9 per cent), nothing compared to the way Balakot worked for the BJP.
3. Will young vote favour the BJP despite anxiety on unemployment?
The survey throws two contrary findings. When people were asked to name an issue that will matter most to their vote, unemployment came up at the top (Table 1a). Nearly 46 per cent (Table 16) agreed that job opportunities had decreased during this regime and that finding a job was much more difficult now than it was 3-4 years ago (Table 12). Young and educated were most likely to hold this view. Yet the BJP seems to be getting higher than average support among the young voters. Clearly, many young voters do not blame the government for joblessness. Will this remain so, if the opposition runs an aggressive campaign targeting Modi regime for its record on employment?
4. Will state level pro-incumbency counter central incumbency?
The NES shows that more voters are going to think of the central government’s performance while voting in the Lok Sabha election compared to the previous election. In six opposition-ruled states (West Bengal, Odisha, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) there could be a clash: Modi government, as well as the non-BJP state governments, enjoy pro-incumbency in these places and the voters put some weight on both these. Which of these two considerations will finally trump in these states? This factor could settle the fate of the Congress.
5. Can the BJP neutralise strong anti-incumbency sentiments against its candidates?
In five states (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi), which accounted for a majority of BJP’s MPs in the dissolved house, there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the sitting MPs. Will the BJP replace these MPs? Or will the voters’ anger against them affect the ruling party?
6. How much of a presidential battle will it become?
The BJP has tried very hard to make this race into a Modi vs Rahul Gandhi contest. And with good reasons: Among those who vote on the basis of candidates, the NDA has a mere two percentage point lead. Among those who vote on the basis of the party, the UPA has a three percentage point lead. But among the one-fifth voters who vote on the basis of their preferred PM, the NDA has a 51 percentage point lead (Table 15)! It seems Balakot may have influenced this election by increasing the salience of the PM choice and the advantage Modi enjoys in this respect. Will this accentuate or reduce closer to the elections?
7. How much will the poor coalition damage the opposition?
So far, the mahagathbandhan has proved to be a string of loosely coordinated, imperfect local alliances. All the surveys suggest that this lack of coordination could cost the opposition dozens of seats. The Congress is unlikely to win many seats in Uttar Pradesh, but its votes could hurt the SP-BSP tally seriously. The same is true of the Congress in Odisha, West Bengal or Delhi and the BSP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Partial understanding with the Left could cost the mahagathbandhan some seats in Bihar. Now, would the non-BJP parties work out some last-minute arrangement to avoid division of votes? Or can the voters consolidate behind the strongest anti-BJP candidate?
8. What will there be a lower turnout among anti-Modi voters?
For me, the most significant finding of this round of National Election Study is the phenomenon of “active pro-incumbency” vs “passive anti-incumbency”. Simply put, while Modi backers are enthusiastic about voting, those who are unhappy with Modi regime are less likely to turn out to vote (Table 14). The proportion of reluctant voters is higher among Muslims (Table 14b). So, as a rule of thumb: The lower the voting, the better it is for the BJP. This could make a huge difference. About one-tenth of the respondents said they were unlikely to vote. Of them, there are more UPA than NDA voters. If all of them do not come out to vote on the D-day, this will boost NDA’s vote lead over the UPA by as much as 3 percentage points. This could tilt the scales for NDA in more than 30 seats.
So, watch out for the turnout data.
The author is the National President of Swaraj India.
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