It is an accepted cliché that when journalists predict an election, they are usually wrong. And when all journalists call it the same way, precisely the opposite result is guaranteed.
Opinion polls are dodgy too, but better than us journalists. So, what occurs when all of them agree on the same broad outcome?
This has been a week of many opinion polls. One thing they completely agree on is that if elections were held today, we are guaranteed a hung Parliament, with the BJP as the largest party, the Congress as the next but with just half its size, and a genuine coalition government once more.
There are still 3 months to the elections and nothing in politics remains static. We can, nevertheless, track some significant trends and safely draw the following broad conclusions from these polls. Which one is good or bad, I leave to you to estimate based on your own voting preferences.
1) The most noticeable indicator is that while the BJP will fall far short of its 2014 majority, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity is by and large intact. The India Today survey shows the BJP vote share falling just 1% from 31 in 2014.
This is extraordinary. I believe that while there is significant disillusionment among his original voters, it is offset by the unquestioning devotion of the close to 13 crores first-time Lok Sabha voters, born generally 1996 onwards. The difference among them and the rest is they haven’t been out in the job market yet.
2) The political mood isn’t so much about the modern reality, as the momentum. If you plot the numbers of each poll from what was Modi’s peak in post-demonetization January 2017, when India Today gave the BJP 305 and the NDA 360 seats, the momentum is downhill. It isn’t hurtling down but isn’t too gradual either, a “loss” of 1/3rd in 2 years. If it continues that way, the BJP number could logically fall by another 25-40.
Imagine Indian public opinion, with all its difference and complexity, like a juggernaut: Massive, primitively engineered, creaking. It takes magnitudes of people to make it move slowly. But once it is cranked, it is tough to change. Remember, momentum is mass compounded by velocity. Shifting it is near-impossible, and Modi knows it.
That is why the flurry of radical, unlikely populist actions, from reservations for upper castes, quotas for all in private institutions, to a last-minute avalanche of CBI raids on the “corrupt and the powerful”, and whatever next week brings, with the Budget etc. Modi and Amit Shah recognize any tally below 180 is curtains. If they can change the path of this juggernaut in the next 100 days, it will be a most unusual feat. So, fully expect more desperate and extreme announcements in the coming days. Learn again, their bulwark will still be the 13 crore first-time voters, with their still-uncluttered minds.
3) If you take out UP and the SP-BSP gathbandhan there, it is extraordinary how the BJP’s numbers in the rest of India are about the same as before. Several polls show the BJP losing 45-55 seats in UP. That’s exactly what it’s losing in its overall 282 tallies. It appears to be holding sway, if not a clean sweep, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat despite the recent assembly elections setbacks. Some losses in the north will be compensated in the east and northeast. UP, therefore, is the one factor keeping it away from a majority. Can it find a trick to counter that? Something of such emotional appeal that it combines the Hindu vote, cutting through caste.
4) The Congress is renewing. In terms of %age over the base, its gains are much bigger than the BJP’s losses. The dispute is, its base is low. So even a 200% increase would keep it to under 140. Modern opinion polls put it just over 100. Even if you extrapolate these most profusely, presuming that Modi is not able to reverse the momentum, you do not see a spectacular surge.
Its best hope lies in denying Modi more of the seats in the three heartland states it has just won. The key number for it is 150. Either take its own tally there or keep Modi below it. A third way would be to widen the UPA tent and persuade more regional or caste-based parties to come under it. All 3 look is improbable at this point. But a 2nd pole is back in Indian politics.
5) In the previous week’s National Interest, we had talked about the 3rd, and our notional 4th and 5th fronts. If about 150 seats go to leaders not aligned to either the Congress or the BJP, many will expect to become prime minister in a grand compromise. It is highly doubtful.
None of the parties other than the BJP and the Congress can reach 50, in fact even 40. The only way such a grand-bargain fantasy would come true is if the Congress and the BJP together are somehow kept below 272. That has never happened and is most doubtful this May. But anyone with 15 seats or more will have the power to strike other big bargains, from getting certificates of good conduct from the CBI and the ED on the Ballari Brothers’ pattern, special packages for their states and key portfolios.
6) This is where we return to Mayawati. If Modi is refused a 2nd term, it will be mainly because of the unique power she commands in our politics: A transferable vote. She has happily bonded with the BJP in the past. She is fully non-ideological in Left-Right terms. If anti-Manuwaad is her only ideology, the NDA and the UPA are equally evil and she can swallow that poison from either chalice. Modi and Shah know that the key-card to their 2nd term sits in her fancy handbag. She is the one plank they want to pull away from their rivals, through charm, threat or both, before the elections or after. Unlikely, but you can never rule that out, even if it means the hatchet being buried later in Yogi Adityanath’s back.
To sum up: Modi’s personal reputation and vote bank is largely intact, but momentum is negative, the UP alliance is all that threatens his 2nd term, the Congress is rising but not enough, any party with 15 or more MPs will be a kingmaker but not the king, 100 seats will go to parties that can go with any winner.