For a Government besieged with a midlife crisis and controversy — the Volcker disclosures, Mandal-II, farmer suicides and rising prices — here is some good news. Had a Lok Sabha election been held in the first week of August, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would have won a comfortable majority on its own.
The ruling coalition's tally could have crossed 300 seats, substantially more than the 222 the Congress and its allies won in the 2004 elections. This gain is mainly at the expense of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). An election in August would have seen the NDA's tally reduced from 189 seats in the last elections to only 120.
These are the main findings of The Hindu -CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The poll, conducted between August 1 and 6, is based on interviews with 14,680 respondents, spread across 883 villages and urban areas in 19 States, including Delhi.
The UPA owes its gains almost entirely to the Congress. The party is projected to get 240 seats, some distance away from a simple majority, but more than what it secured in any Lok Sabha election since 1991.
The survey shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party would have registered its worst performance in 17 years. It is projected to get 82 seats, four short of its tally in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. The Left parties are likely to retain their current tally of about 60 seats.
A similar survey, conducted by the CSDS in January 2006, found that the UPA and the Congress had registered major gains since the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. This survey projected 274 seats for the UPA and 150 for the NDA. Since then, the UPA's total vote share has increased by another two percentage points (a total gain of about eight percentage points since 2004).
While the NDA shed about one-and-a-half percentage points (a loss of about five percentage points since 2004), the vote share of the Left has remained stable. There is a small decline in comparison with 2004, but this is confined to areas outside West Bengal and Kerala.
The Hindu -CNN-IBN survey provides an insight into the reasons for the UPA's rise. The overall level of satisfaction with the Central Government is higher than it was for its NDA predecessor. At the same time, the number of people who think that the Government has performed worse than expected exceeds the number who think it has performed better than expected. Voters also feel that the situation has worsened in key areas such as corruption, national security, prices and the condition of farmers.
Three factors seem to be working for the Congress. First, the popularity ratings of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are robust and only getting better. The leadership crisis within the BJP has left no one in a position to occupy the space vacated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Secondly, there is a subtle but clear nationwide shift from regional parties to national parties. The Congress, and to a lesser extent the BJP, are beneficiaries of this in many States.
Finally, the cycle of incumbency favours the Congress at this juncture as it is not in power in many States. In Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the Governments have not completed the first half of their five-year term. As a result, anti-incumbency is less of a factor. On the other hand, the NDA is at the receiving end in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which went to the polls in 2003.
Factional fights in Jharkhand and an incongruous alliance in Karnataka have swung things further against the NDA. It is only in Bihar, Orissa and, to an extent, in Gujarat that the NDA has escaped voter fury.
The survey suggests that a long-term political trend may be at work here. Since the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, which signalled the end of the Congress dominance, the space vacated by the party had been occupied by regional formations. The 2004 Lok Sabha election results indicated that this trend had been halted. The findings of The Hindu -CNN-IBN survey show that the Congress is beginning to regain some of the social ground it lost in the 1990s.
The projections made by The Hindu -CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey invite two obvious questions: where exactly is the UPA gaining votes and seats? Why? What explains this rise of the UPA, especially the Congress?
A survey of this size does not permit a precise forecast of seats at the State level, particularly for the smaller ones. However, it is a good indicator of the drift in public opinion in the major States. Perceptions of the incumbent State Government are crucial in shaping voting patterns in Lok Sabha elections. In many States, incumbent governments are still new and popular. Usually, incumbents gain in popularity in the first one or two years after the election. This is the case with the following governments: the DPA in Tamil Nadu, the Congress in Assam, the UPA in Maharashtra, the Left Front in West Bengal, the NDA in Bihar and, to a lesser degree, the Congress in Andhra Pradesh and Haryana and the LDF in Kerala. In all these States, the ruling parties or alliances would have done very well had a Lok Sabha election been held in the first week of August. In Kerala the contest would have been keen between the LDF and the UDF; the latter invariably performs better in Lok Sabha elections than in Assembly elections.
BJP facing the heat
Anti-incumbency seems to have set in some of the BJP-ruled states, which the party swept at the time of the last Lok Sabha elections. The Governments of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh seem to be facing the heat. Ashok Gehlot and Ajit Jogi of the Congress and Uma Bharti are more popular in these States than the incumbent Chief Ministers.
In Karnataka, the ruling party's popularity has taken a nosedive and also damaged its partner, the BJP. The Congress' stock has gone up considerably here. In Gujarat too, the Congress has made gains, though the BJP continues to be a position to stage a stiff contest. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party is at the receiving end of voter anger; the BSP is ahead in the electoral race that will be staged next year. However, if a Lok Sabha election were to be held next year, the Congress could surprise itself with an impressive showing.
Congress behind in Orissa
In Orissa, Naveen Patnaik continues to buck the anti-incumbency trend and the Congress is simply no match for the BJP-BJD combine. The Congress is well placed in Punjab but this reflects more the soft spot voters have for Manmohan Singh than approval for the State Government.
While voting decisions are still principally determined by State issues, there are some signs that voting behaviour has begun to change in this respect. The national context appears more important now than it was in the 1990s. The Congress is the main beneficiary of this trend. The survey indicates that the Congress may have made major gains at the expense of regional parties (sometimes its own allies) in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Although the trend is nascent, it has a long-term political significance.
Any attempt to explain the UPA's rise in the middle of a not-so-distinguished term in office must begin with a popular evaluation of the performance of the Central Government. In this regard, the survey provides mixed results. The overall perception of the Government's performance is more positive than newspaper headlines might suggest. Three times more people are satisfied than dissatisfied with the Government's record of work. Asked to compare the UPA Government with its NDA predecessor, the majority preferred the present Government.
However, it is a mistake to conclude that the UPA's gains are principally due to its record of governance. A careful comparison of the satisfaction ratings in January and now shows a small decline. Asked to evaluate the Government's performance against their expectations, the response is lukewarm.
There is a negative perception of some key issues. People think that corruption has increased, national security has deteriorated, the condition of farmers has worsened, and prices have gone up. Clearly this is not a mid-term scorecard that any Prime Minister can be proud of.
On the leadership issue, the results are much less ambiguous. Sonia Gandhi is far ahead as the popular choice as Prime Minister. She is 10 percentage points ahead of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who dominated the popularity chart for nearly a decade. While Mr. Vajpayee's announcement of retirement has led to a sharp erosion in his ratings, none of the BJP's national leaders has managed to fill the vacuum. Since 2004, Mr. Vajpayee's rating has fallen by nearly 20 points; L.K. Advani's rating has gone up by less than two points in this period. Manmohan Singh has made quiet but significant gains during this period. Although voters prefer Ms. Gandhi to Dr. Singh, there is little support for the idea of replacing the latter.
The return of the `national' voter is linked to a changing social profile of the Congress party. An analysis of the social profile of the potential Congress voters shows that the party has made big gains among the OBCs and Muslims, while partly recovering its base among Dalits. This is the base the regional parties had taken away from the Congress. If this trend persists, we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era that could transform the face of the Congress as well as that of Indian politics.
Speech by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times....
"When we were young kids growing up in America, we were told to eat our
vegetables at dinner and not leave them. Mothers said, 'think of the
starving children in India and finish the dinner.' And now I tell my
children: 'Finish your maths homework. Think of the children in India
who would make you starve, if you don't.'"
Last edited by: shankaracharya on 13-08-06 14:04:59