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No proof required: End of the road for Congress?

If the party and its allies lose in all four state elections, as opinion polls predict, the political dialogue will shift towards discussing the end of the Congress era

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: May 16, 2016 8:55:21 am
bjp, congress, 2016 elections, kerala elections, kerala polls, tamil nadu elections, tamil nadu polls, assam elections, west bengal elections, bharatiya janata party, indian national congress, congress kerala polls, congress bengal polls, congress assam elections, bjp 2016 state elections, congress 2016 state elections, elections news, india news, latest news In 2011, in the four states put together, the BJP had a minuscule fraction of seats (0.6 per cent), and an average voteshare of just 5 per cent. In the 2014 general election, the BJP saw a large increase in its weighted voteshare in these four states.

Sometimes it is a curse to be spot on. Scoring a bull’s eye with the Bihar election (my forecast was 175 seats for the JDU+ and 60 seats for the NDA; the actual result was 178 seats for JDU+ and 58 for the NDA) raises expectations, but the only way to go is down. Further, the international environment is not very conducive to psephologists. Most pollsters have bitten the dust in forecasting the US presidential election. Everyone had counted Donald Trump out of the race, and he’s the presumptive Republican candidate. Most didn’t give Bernie Sanders a chance, and he’s continuing to give Hillary Clinton a strong fright. As it happens, Trump and Sanders are, in my opinion, very similar in their appeal and their demagoguery. So, perhaps we should have seen it coming!

India, too, has four big states that have just finished polling (or will by today) — Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The results will be announced on May 19. There are very few opinion polls, and there’s considerably less excitement than at the time of the November 2015 Bihar election. But there should be substantial interest because there’s a not-so-small probability that this election could be just as momentous for the BJP as the Bihar election, possibly more.

This is where informed analysis (also known as speculation) begins, and obviously there’s very little to go on except for historical trends and scattered opinion polls. Both tell the same story. Before explaining what the story is, I present some facts.

In each of the four states, the BJP made strong inroads in the 2014 general election compared to the 2011 assembly results. In 2011, in the four states put together, the BJP had a minuscule fraction of seats (0.6 per cent), and an average voteshare of just 5 per cent. In the 2014 general election, the BJP saw a large increase in its weighted voteshare in these four states (an average of 20.5 per cent) with the largest increase in Assam, where they “obtained” a majority, in terms of leads (69 out of 126 seats), and a voteshare of 36.9 per cent.

As the BJP did exceedingly well (relative to its own 2011 performance) in the general election, the main question is not who will win, but who will the BJP 2014 voter vote for (except in Assam)? In states other than Assam, the party BJP voters switch to will very likely be the winner. Let’s do a spot check on BJP voters in three states.

West Bengal: Likely to switch to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, if at all. If the voter stays with the BJP, this will result in a split vote likely to help the TMC (as happened in 2014 when the TMC sailed home with leads in 214 out of 294 assembly constituencies). In both scenarios, the TMC gains. Mamata should send a thank you card to the BJP.

Tamil Nadu: Almost identical with West Bengal. The BJP obtained 5.5 per cent of the vote in 2014, compared to only 2.2 per cent in 2011. Some of the “BJP shift” voters might be Muslim, and could gravitate to the DMK-Congress coalition or the AIADMK. However, the formation of the DMDK-MDMK alliance (an alliance the BJP wanted to be part of) is likely to cut into the DMK and BJP voteshare much more than the AIADMK, thereby paving the way for an Amma victory — and possibly the first time in 40 years when Tamil Nadu votes back the incumbent party.

Kerala: This, traditionally, is the most difficult state for predictions, and so it is on this occasion as well. The primary reason is the fact that, unlike most states, Kerala operates according to a two-party system; small swings in voteshares cause a large swing in seat-shares. The historical record of the swing in voteshare for one-time incumbency (that is, the party won the previous election but lost the one before) is that the fresh incumbent is likely to lose about 1.5 per cent of voteshare. In 2011, the LDF obtained 36.9 per cent against the UDF’s 40.6 per cent. A 1.5 per cent swing will yield 38.4 per cent for the LDF and 39.1 per cent for the UDF. A close fight, as usual.

But note the increase in the BJP’s share between 2011 and 2014 — from 6 per cent to 10.5 per cent. Which way will some of the BJP voters go — towards their sworn enemy, the Congress, or towards a less than equal enemy, the communists? If the Congress can tie up with the Left in West Bengal, why can’t the BJP voter tilt towards the Left to ensure the defeat of the Congress in Kerala? However, it’s likely the anti-incumbency factor as well works against the Congress-led UDF and results in a victory for the LDF.

Assam: This is the one state where the BJP and its allies (AGP and BOPF) are given a chance by the pundits, and opinion polls, to win. What’s at play is the large increase in the BJP+ voteshare from 33.9 per cent in 2011 to 42.9 per cent in 2014; the corresponding numbers for the BJP alone are 11.5 per cent to 36.9 per cent; and for the Congress — a 10 percentage point decline from 39.4 per cent to only 29.9 per cent. If the Lok Sabha pattern repeats, the BJP+ would have an easy win. Opinion polls suggest that the BJP+ has a narrow 2 percentage point lead over the Congress, a lead big enough to yield 65 seats to the BJP+, and only 36 to the INC. There’s an important third party here — the Muslim-supported AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), a party which obtained 15 per cent in 2014 compared to 12.6 per cent in 2011. If the AIUDF voteshare increases, it’s likely to be at the expense of the Congress. A loss for the BJP+ in Assam will be a surprise.

editState elections are, no doubt, different from national elections, and no one (including us) is expecting a repeat of May 2014. But we do think when the results are announced on May 19, the tilt will very likely be towards the BJP. Not because they will win, but because their voteshare will determine the magnitude of the Congress’s loss. It’s the case of “enemy of my enemy is my very good friend”. The table documents the results of the voteshares in the 2011 and 2014 elections, an aggregate assessment of recent opinion polls, and our own forecasts.

All of the opinion polls indicate a Congress loss (or its senior partner’s loss in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal). We reach a similar conclusion, but with a larger loss for the INC+. If these predictions turn out to be true, the political dialogue in India is likely to undergo a significant change. The janata will start talking more about the beginning of the end of the Congress party, with no respite in sight (this is the story line we had hinted at).

However, if the actual results are at significant variance with us (and the opinion polls), then May 19 would mark the beginning of the Congress’s revival. Will the Congress kiss be the kiss of political death, or like Snow White’s? We think the former, but the aam aurat will have the final say.


The writer is contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’, and chairman, Oxus Investments

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