There are several intertwined stories that are likely to make this Indian election the most historical ever. My forecasts, based on various opinion polls that have come out over the last three months, are presented below. But as the saying goes, none of them is responsible for my errors.
There are five major results disguised as forecasts. First, that there is a Modi wave, an explosion that will take the NDA comfortably above the 272 mark. On its own, the BJP is likely to cross 250 seats (see table for details) and the Congress, with a tally of 81, will be important in no more than three major states (Assam, Karnataka and Kerala). The extent of the Congress debacle can be garnered from the fact that this number is almost half the number of seats gained by the Congress in the Emergency election of 1977 (154 seats then).
Result one: Is the large BJP victory the outcome of an anti-Congress sentiment or is it a pro-Modi phenomenon? While it will not make any difference to the eventual result, the answer to this important question is relevant for history.
In many ways, this is a chicken or egg, or batsman-bowler-pitch question. In other words, there is an identification problem. When several influences impact the same result, it is conceptually difficult to isolate the true individual contributions. Only by recourse to counter-factuals can one hope to unravel the truth. Let me provide one such counter. Answer the following question — if Narendra Modi had not been the face of the party, but L.K. Advani was, what would be your best guess about the BJP phenomenon? Would we be talking about 150 seats for the BJP, just 34 seats above the 2009 level, or would we be talking about, as at present, more than double the 2009 level? Note that the economy remains the same in the two scenarios, disgruntlement with the Congress remains the same, and all other political parameters remain the same. Whether you think there is a Modi wave or not depends on your answer to the above question.
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Result two: The impending demise of the Left. An important story, being missed in the excitement about waves and tsunamis and impending change at the Centre, is a result that will indicate that India has joined the late-20th-century collection of nations. The Left, comprising the communist parties, CPI and CPM (and sympathisers like the AAP), has been an important player in most Indian elections, either at the state or national level or both. Until the 2009 election, the lowest number of seats this “intellectually popular” party obtained was 28 in 1984; in 2009, the bloc dropped to a new low of 20 seats. This bloc has operated primarily out of two areas — the east (West Bengal and Tripura) and the deep south (Kerala). The latest, March 2014, CSDS opinion poll indicates an 18 percentage point (ppt) decline in vote share from 43 per cent actual vote share in 2009. The same poll has Mamata Banerjee’s party at 38 per cent (up 7 ppt) and the Congress at 14 per cent (down 2 ppt). This is likely to lead to the Left obtaining only three seats in 2014 in West Bengal, down from 11 in 2009.
In Kerala, a knife-edge state, the vote gap between the Left and the Congress-led front stays at the same 9 per cent level as in 2009, but now with a third party, the BJP, garnering about 11 per cent of the vote. It is likely, therefore, that the Left’s tally will decline by one from the meagre four seats they obtained in 2009. So when you watch the returns on May 16, do not forget to note history in the making, with the Left seats in the low teens if not at a single-digit level.
Result three: I thought this election was about growth and governance, so what happened to Nitish Kumar? Both the CNN-IBN and the NDTV polls are predicting a rout for Nitish, with no poll willing to give him more than six seats. Since 1999, Nitish and his party, the JD(U), have been in an alliance with the BJP but “somehow” Nitish was convinced to break away about a year ago. Some argue that it was on the basis of “principle” that Nitish made this near (political) suicidal move. This does not sound plausible; a more likely explanation is that the Congress set him up as an alternative Third Front leader to combat Modi, and then unceremoniously stabbed him in the back by aligning with Lalu Yadav. By all accounts, Nitish has delivered growth, and “good governance”. Whether the voter punishes Nitish for betraying the BJP, or punishes the Congress for doing the dirty, is something to be watched. My own guess is that the polls are right, Nitish obtains seven, and if BJP exceeds 29 seats in Bihar, it will be at the expense of Congress-RJD.
Result four: The impact of the Muzaffarnagar riots on voting in UP. The polls suggest not much impact, at least relative to the BSP. Both parties are expected to win the same number of seats — around 10 to 17. However, there appear to be some anomalies in the CNN-IBN survey. On the question of “who is most responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots?”, 40 per cent said the SP, which is more than two-thirds of those responding to the question. Only 13 per cent mentioned the BJP, the BSP, 3 per cent, and the Congress, 4 per cent. Half the respondents (and 39 per cent of Muslims) were dissatisfied with the SP’s handling of the riots. Yet on the voting question, 22 per cent said they would vote for the SP, compared to 24 per cent in 2009. Mayawati’s BSP, not blamed for the riots at all, registers a much larger decline of 9 percentage points in the vote share, 18 versus 27 per cent in 2009. Many have suggested that opinion polls tend to underestimate Mayawati. I haven’t seen the statistical evidence, but I am inclined to agree, especially given the evidence pertaining to Muzaffarnagar. My forecast is for the BSP to obtain more seats than the SP, 12 versus 8.
Result five: The CNN-IBN survey reveals some interesting insights into election 2014. There are three contenders for the most important election issues: development, inflation and corruption. The (weighted by seats) average is as follows: development is most important for 23 per cent of the voters, inflation for 17 per cent and corruption for only 11 per cent. Even adjusting for don’t knows, one obtains the result that only a fifth of the voters consider corruption an important issue. A politically incorrect conclusion that corruption is not that important a voter issue is obtained by noting the low support for corruption’s flag bearer, the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal — in the PM preference sweepstakes, he obtains only 2 per cent of the national vote. In terms of seats, the AAP is likely to get around five seats nationally — at least according to the often faulty opinion polls.
How accurate is the big result of the CNN-IBN opinion poll — the rout of the Congress — likely to be? On the question of PM preferences, Narendra Modi leads Rahul Gandhi by 32 to 13 per cent. Historical data on voting preferences are not available, but it is likely that this 19 point gap is another record — and one consistent with a Modi wave, a BJP sweep, and the decimation of the oldest political party in India.
The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’