Decoding the Opinion Polls

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The Indian election schedule provides multiple opportunities for nuanced speculation and analysis of likely outcomes. The long gap between the day of voting and the moment of counting ensures the building up of a heightened suspense on the electoral outcomes.

A woman supporter at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election campaign rally in favour of BJP candidates in Mirzapur

Ever since the opinion/exit poll results were projected, analysts have had a field day dissecting the different and at times varied electoral projections. The thirty - six hour window between announcement of the exit poll projections and the actual start of counting, is witness to many an explanation, spirited repudiation and vehement criticism of anticipated outcomes. Let me add my own little bit to this animated debate.

The fact that there is a keen contest in the five states going to the polls is clearly demonstrated by the different exit polls. Save for Uttarakhand and Manipur where there seems to be a near unanimity on the electoral trend, there are important and significant variations in what is being projected as the likely outcome in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa.

Uttarakhand is in all probability going to witness a change in the ruling party with the Congress making way for the BJP. This is in consonance with past electoral trends since the formation of the state. Voters of Uttarakhand have preferred to rotate power between the BJP and the Congress. It must be emphasized that there are a few distinct differences this time around. Opinion polls are projecting a landslide victory for the BJP.

In earlier elections, the vote share of the two major players did not see the huge difference that is being projected this time around. This possibly accounts for the electoral landslide that is being projected in favour of the BJP. Five years of Congress rule has not just seen change of Chief Ministers and mishandling of relief work linked to natural calamities but also a mass switch over of legislators from the ruling party to the BJP. In spite of the relatively popular image of Chief Minister Harish Rawat, the Congress is likely to face an electoral defeat. It is interesting that the BJP preferred not to project a Chief Ministerial face, more with view to maintain party unity, and went into the polls relying heavily on the central leadership of the party. If the Uttarakhandresults are on the lines projected by the opinion polls, it would primarily be a mandate against the incumbent party and secondarily an endorsement of the BJP national leadership.

In this electoral season, Manipur has not been given the visibility and attention it deserves. There are two major opinion polls done on Manipur and both project the Congress retaining power. This would mean that the ruling party has managed to offset any adverse impact of fifteen years in power. Chief Minister Ibobi Singh seems all set for a fourth term in office. What is remarkable in Manipur is the rise of the BJP which is likely to be the principal opposition. The emergence of the two national parties as principal contestants in this north-eastern state that has faced serious law and order challenges, is by itself a significant development. In the last Assembly elections, the BJP did not win a single seat (though it did win a few by-elections subsequently) and to emerge as a key player in the politics of the state, is by itself a creditable achievement. Clearly, this is part of the BJP's look North-East policy that has already paid rich political dividends in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

The coastal state of Goa has seen a key contest between the Congress and the BJP with the AAP and the MGP led alliance also in the electoral fray. Opinion polls indicate that the AAP could been damaging the electoral prospects of the Congress by eating into its Catholic vote. The absence of the AAP may well have resulted in a Congress victory. On the other hand, the BJP is being adversely impacted by the presence of the MGP led alliance which includes a break way faction that had traditionally supported it. Like in some other parts of India, regional parties like the MGP, which had a significant presence are conceding political ground to national parties. One noticed a similar trend earlier in Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra. In its desire to go it alone, the BJP may well just manage a majority or come close to the half way mark and retain power. Here again it has very little to do with the incumbent Chief Minister but more to do with developments at the national level and the active involvement of Manohar Parrikar a former (and popular) Chief Minister who has moved to Delhi as the Defence Minister.

Punjab has seen a real epic battle of sorts with a clear three way contest between the Akali- BJP alliance, the Congress and the AAP. While there is near unanimity that the ruling alliance with be voted out, opinion polls differ on the likely winner. While some have projected a Congress victory, others have shown the AAP as ahead and yet others have predicted an Assembly with no party/alliance securing a majority. The critical question that the results would answer is which party has benefitted from the strong anti-incumbency / ruling family sentiment - the Congress or the AAP. What complicates the analysis is the clearly divergent patterns in the three regions of the state: Majha, Malwa and Doaba. While the AAP seems to be doing well in the Doaba region, the Congress seems to be better placed in Majhaand the battle is more even in Malwa. Late into the campaign it formally announced Amarinder Singh at its Chief Ministerial candidate, which could have put an end to party factionalism. The AAP on the other hand, did not project a Chief Ministerial face and was seen as running a campaign led by those from outside the state. What the Punjab poll results would show is that AAP is no longer an alternative to mainstream politics but an alternative in mainstream politics.

Now to the mother of all battles - Uttar Pradesh. Pollsters have had different takes on this most populous state of India that accounts for one sixth of our population. All have projected the BJP as being ahead, though most have conceded that at best it could be the single largest party. Only two opinion polls have given the BJP an outright majority. The difference in this projection is linked to one critical factor. Those who have given the BJP a clear majority believe that there is a huge gap between the vote share of the BJP on the one hand and the SP led alliance on the other. Further, the polls which have given BJP a majority have projected the BSP to be a very distant third. On the other hand, those who project an Assembly with no clear winner , but the BJP as the single largest party, have indicated a much smaller vote share gap between the BJP and the SP led alliance on the one hand and a close third position for the BSP. The arguments favouring a smaller vote share gap between the BJP and the SP led alliance seem to be more persuasive. Social arithmetic will clearly define electoral outcomes. The BJP's efforts to consolidate Upper Caste, Non Yadav OBC and Non Jatav SC votes may pay it dividends. The consolidation of the Muslim vote behind the SP could result in a Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP.

Finally, how effectively has the vote transfer happened between the SP and Congress is crucial. If in SP dominated seats, traditional Congress supporters have preferred to vote for the BJP and in Congress contested seats if traditional SP vote has not gone to the Congress candidate, the BJP is bound to gain a decisive advantage. The trend in Uttar Pradesh will be keenly watched as the counting of votes beginon Saturday morning.

North India has suddenly seen a return of the cold weather in early March with a splash of rain in the national capital. Does the chill in the air reflect the emerging political mood? The eleventh of March will provide all the answers.

(Dr. Sandeep Shastri is leading political scientist.)

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