Sonia effect checks BJP advance

Print edition : February 21, 1998
VENKATESH ATHREYA

THE general elections to the twelfth Lok Sabha will almost certainly result in a hung Parliament. Contrary to early impressions - bolstered by media hype - that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine was way ahead and racing to a victory on the slogan of "stability", the BJP and its allies will end up significantly short of a majority.

Table 1

The key factor responsible for a hung Parliament is the entry of Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the Congress(I) campaign. It would not at all be inaccurate to say that the Sonia effect has checked the advance of the BJP combine. While "stability" appears to be an important concern of the Indian voter, the BJP's hope of riding to power on the slogan of stability is all set to be belied.

The emerging picture suggests not only that the BJP combine will end up short of a majority by around 40 to 45 seats, but also that the combined tally of the Congress(I) and its allies including the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the United Front (U.F.) may well be in excess of the 272 seats required for a majority in the Lok Sabha. Clearly, this establishes that the BJP combine is by no means the only contender for forming a government at the Centre. This is possibly the most important result of the pre-election public opinion survey commissioned by Frontline and conducted by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS).

The Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey sampled 8,900 registered voters distributed over 61 Lok Sabha constituencies drawn from 15 States - Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana - and Delhi. The carefully designed survey was conducted between January 27 and 30, 1998. The data from the survey was analysed by a team of experts at Frontline. While the sample size is adequate and the sample design robust enough to enable a reasonably accurate forecast, the estimates are subject to a margin of error not exceeding three per cent in either direction.

Let us now turn to the details:

Despite its successful crafting of an extraordinarily heterogeneous set of electoral alliances across the country, BJP & Friends will end up significantly short of a majority in the twelfth Lok Sabha. The BJP front is predicted to win 225-235 seats. The entry of Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the Congress(I) campaign has definitely helped restrict the trend in favour of the BJP front. The Congress(I) front is predicted to get 145-155 seats in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Despite the serious difficulties facing the Janata Dal in the States of Karnataka, Orissa and Bihar, and the disunity among the United Front (U.F.) constituents in Uttar Pradesh, the U.F. is likely to end up with 120-130 seats. The United Front contingent in the twelfth Lok Sabha will be essentially made up of the Left Front and the key regional parties of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), with the Samajwadi Party also contributing modestly. Notwithstanding the finding that the BJP front will be short of a majority by some distance, its allies have definitely helped BJP extend its sphere of influence significantly. From its earlier phase of intensive development in the core Hindi-speaking States, the BJP - through its alliances - appears to have entered a phase of extensive development. Most important, the key Sonia effect makes a hung Parliament a near certain outcome. With Sonia's campaign reviving the Congress(I) to a significant extent, it may not be easy for the front-running BJP formation to cobble together a majority after the elections by luring Congress(I) MPs.

Frontline

The data clearly establish the BJP and its allies as the front runner, and the BJP itself is set to emerge as the single largest party in the twelfth Lok Sabha. The BJP formation's largest gains are contributed, in the main, by the saffron party's electoral allies: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, the Lok Shakti in Karnataka and the Samata Party in Bihar. Thus the gain of the BJP front reflects primarily accretion from new allies, and the 'swing' as such - in terms of a shift of voter loyalties from other parties to the BJP - does not appear to be substantial. For instance, the opinion poll indicates that in Karnataka the Lok Shakti may take away as much as a quarter of the Janata Dal's vote share, and this could result in a significant net gain for the BJP front. While the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal(RJD) understanding in Bihar may check the BJP's gains in that State, the gains would still not be insubstantial to the BJP combine from the BJP-Samata Party alliance. The point is that what is frequently referred to in the media as a "BJP surge" is really an advance of the BJP combine as a whole.

The point is that increases in vote share do not automatically yield seats in significant measure. The actual outcome in terms of seats depends critically on many other factors, including the degree of fragmentation/unity of some of the contending parties vis-a-vis a perceived dominant player. If a party has already reached a critical threshold of popular support, then a small incremental support from an ally or a small swing in its favour can propel it to victory ahead of the rivals in the first-past-the-post electoral system.

As far as the BJP is concerned, however, while its allies in Karnataka, Orissa and Bihar bring substantial gains for the combine as a whole, the saffron party's real goal in States like Tamil Nadu is to establish a beachhead for further penetration and expansion. The Frontline-CMS opinion poll corroborates the impression that, with its new allies, the BJP now has a not insignificant presence in all the regions of the country. While the party thus gains through the patchwork of alliances that it has sewn, the flip side is a considerable dilution of its identity and agenda, at least tactically and for public consumption.

The Sonia factor could be especially important in States where the Congress(I) is locked in close contests. Thus, it would be critical in deciding electoral outcomes in States such as Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka Orissa and Andhra Pradesh - but possibly not so significant in the States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In West Bengal, on the other hand, the Sonia factor is likely to erode the support for the Trinamul Congress and the BJP, and may even possibly contribute to the victory of the Left Front candidates. The strength of support for Sonia in Uttar Pradesh seems to be less than one might expect. Gujarat is also an exception to the general trend of a robust Sonia effect despite the Congress(I) being a major force, and the BJP's principal rival, in the State.

Frontline

A survey finding is that the United Front loses substantially in both the South and the East. Primarily, this reflects the serious crisis that the Janata Dal, once the core constituent of the U.F., faces in Karnataka, Orissa and Bihar. Within the overall picture of the erosion of electoral support for the U.F. as a whole, the Left parties appear to be more than holding their own. The Left is expected to make some gains in West Bengal. The Left Front could well account for half of 120-130 seats forecast for the U.F. in the Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey. The regional parties - the DMK, the TDP, the TMC and the AGP - seem set to retain their strength, and the Samajwadi Party in U.P. is also reasonably placed. The major losers in this election would appear to be the Janata Dal and the BSP.

The emerging poll scenario holds interesting possibilities. The results of the Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey, which are broadly consistent with a couple of other serious opinion polls conducted most recently, show a hung Parliament with no political formation in a position to form a stable, majority government. The Sonia effect, by checking the BJP front's advance significantly, opens up a new avenue. It makes a Congress(I)-U.F. coalition a distinct possibility. Such a combination will, going by the Frontline-CMS projections, have a combined Lok Sabha strength of around 270-280 seats.

The new scenario also implies that the 'winning' threshold, which was earlier by common analytical consent reckoned to be in the region of 220 Lok Sabha seats, has gone up for the BJP. Given the robust Sonia effect, making inroads into other camps, especially the Congress(I), will be a tough proposition. The winning threshold for the BJP may well turn out to be 250 to 260 seats.

Account must further be taken of the tenuous nature of several of the BJP's alliances formed in a great hurry, essentially on the eve of the elections, and based primarily on opportunistic regional considerations. In the event of the BJP not being perceived as able to form a government at the Centre in a post-poll situation, it is not inconceivable that some of BJP's electoral allies may switch loyalties. Clearly, for the saffron party trying to turn multicolour, it seems that celebration time has not yet arrived. Projections of 300 Lok Sabha seats, made on behalf of the BJP combine by its spokespersons, can perhaps be forgiven as typical election propaganda weaponry. But at a more serious level of analysis, such projections can only be considered fanciful.

The central result of the Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey - a hung Parliament with the BJP combine significantly short of a majority - alerts one to alternative political possibilities which have not so far been seriously considered.

Clearly, India is in a period of political instability and a process of limited realignment of political forces after the elections may well be the route for a parliamentary majority to emerge.

With inputs from V. Sridhar, Asha Krishnakumar and N. Ram.

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