On a recent five-day trip to rural Bihar — full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of the “Limousine Liberal” group that has been making these fact-finding treks since 1998 — caste-based voting is all I heard from political leaders, journalists and self-proclaimed savvy analysts. This concept is currently in vogue among all those trying to decipher the outcome of the all-important Bihar assembly election.
I have never understood the concept of caste-based voting, primarily because it contains zero information about election trends or outcomes. That some people vote on the basis of caste is a cast-iron truth. In the US, almost 90 per cent of the black population votes Democrat, and it is likely that 90 per cent of the rednecks (politically reactionary working-class Americans) vote Republican. How does this “fact” affect one’s analysis or forecast? It does not.
Equivalently, assume for a moment that X per cent of Yadavs have voted for former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad in the past. How do we come to the conclusion that people are voting according to their caste? Because Lalu is a Yadav? Or because the political candidate is a Yadav? If the latter, then what stops the BJP coalition from putting up a Yadav candidate? If the former, then by that logic, all Dalits should vote for the NDA since Jitan Ram Manjhi is a senior leader there, and Nitish, Lalu and Sonia aren’t Dalits.
And all the OBCs (except Yadavs and Kurmis) should vote for the NDA because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an OBC. So regardless of what happens in the Bihar election, can we please not pursue lazy journalism and even lazier analysis by pursuing this theme of caste-based voting?
Interestingly enough, very few of the voters interviewed on my Bihar trip said they would vote on the basis of caste. What do they say they are voting for? Either the development (vikas) agenda of the BJP or the development agenda of Nitish (roads, rural electrification and girls’ education). So who is going to win given that caste-based voting provides zero information?
Unfortunately, there is very little hard information on which to make a forecast. There are no polls, opinion or otherwise, because our Supreme Court believes that opinion/ exit polls can materially affect voting behaviour. Just asking — will internet polls be banned next?
A possible forecast method is to analyse opinion polls conducted before voting started on October 12. There were 11 such polls, and they went both ways: Four said the BJP would win, two said the JDU+ would win, and five predicted a hung assembly. Another forecast can be based on the odds in the satta bazaar. The odds have been shifting towards a too-close-to-call result, with a slight edge for the JDU+. The break-even betting point today is 110 seats for the NDA, a marginal loss it (the winning number of seats is 122). Finally, an ankhon-dekha-haal forecast can be made, but for most, and especially a wannabe statistician, that is not a reliable method.
From all the methods mentioned, caste cannot be used to make a forecast, opinion polls suggest a tie, and the satta bazaar suggests a close fight. The only remaining basis for a forecast is historical trends. The first historical trend is that anytime a political race is too-close-to-call, it usually ends up as a convincing victory for one party. Two recent examples are the elections in the UK and Canada.
The second historical trend is that of the ruling party losing vote shares/ seats in the first two years after a national election. This is a standard result in the US, where midterm elections are generally a loss for the national election-winner. The trend in India (since 1980) is that in the first two years post a Lok Sabha election, the winning party loses about 6 per cent of the vote share.
But elections are not determined on the basis of vote shares alone. It also matters how many major parties are contesting. There is a radical transformation in the Bihar election of 2015. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, there was a multiparty fight, with the BJP united, and the opposition (the JDU, RJD and Congress, equal to the JDU+) hopelessly split. The results at the assembly constituency level were: BJP/ NDA won 172 of the 243 segments. If the opposition had been united in 2014, as they are today, the NDA would have only won 92 seats, and the JDU+ would have won 145.
In other words, the “opposition-united” effect is to subtract 80 (172 minus 92) seats from the NDA. Each 1 per cent swing against the NDA adds about eight seats to the JDU+ kitty. If the historical average negative swing for the ruling party occurs, the NDA tally would likely be reduced to less than 50 seats.
What has to happen for the NDA to win this election? A four-plus per cent swing in its favour, though the intolerant atmosphere is not conducive for this to happen. A large fraction of voters who voted against the NDA in the Lok Sabha election will now have to vote for it in the assembly election. Lalu’s party won 20.5 per cent of the vote in 2014, the Congress obtained 8.6 per cent. Neither the RJD-voter nor the Congress-voter is likely to vote for the NDA. A disgruntled JDU voter (and disgruntled not because of Nitish’s bad performance but because of his association with Lalu!) may vote for the NDA, but this number is unlikely to account for much. All in all, the NDA is likely to lose the election.
One final point on a two-party versus a three-plus-party election. If our forecast of a reasonable loss for the NDA is correct, it is likely that the media buzz will be “Bihar looks like Delhi!” Just look at the data in the table for the Delhi assembly elections of December 2013 and February 2015. Note that the BJP retained its 32-33 per cent vote share on both occasions. In 2013, it was a three-way fight with the incumbent Congress pulling in a respectable 24.6 per cent vote share. In 2015, a three-party fight effectively became a two-party affair. The NDA, which had won 31 seats in 2013, won only three seats with the same vote share!
Here comes the forecast: First, the caveats, no information except historical analysis and a visit to Bihar. Both (data and visit) indicate that the people of Bihar seem to be happy with Nitish on at least three counts: The building of roads, electrification of villages, and enhancement and encouragement of gender equality (free bicycles for girls entering high school etc). But good governance is in short supply on the NDA side these days. All things considered, the NDA should find it difficult to top 80 seats with a reasonable probability of obtaining seats in the 50-70 range. If forced to make a point estimate, I would say 175 seats for the JDU+ and 60 seats for the NDA.
The writer is chairman, Oxus Investments, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’