The Sonia factor

Print edition : February 21, 1998

ONE of the findings of the Frontline-CMS Pre-election Public Opinion Survey is that Sonia Gandhi has played a key role in arresting the advance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. She has not merely emerged as the principal campaigner for the Congress(I) across the country; she is seen by a large proportion of voters as a prime ministerial candidate. Despite her late start and her undeclared status, in terms of the voter preference for Prime Minister, she is within hailing distance of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Sonia Gandhi is viewed as the lead campaigner for the Congress(I) in the elections, not only by those intending to vote for her party. As a vote-getter, she is perceived by voters to be far ahead of the party president, Sitaram Kesri. The results of the survey indicate that hardly 5 per cent of voters in Bihar, Kesri's home State, see him as a leader of any consequence in the elections. This is significant because it implies that for the first time in two decades, the president of the Congress(I) is not seen by the voter as a prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the elections.

Contrary to the predictions, and hopes, of leaders of rival political parties, Sonia Gandhi's popularity among Indian voters has increased strikingly. The two rounds of pre-poll surveys done by CMS before this one - the first in early December 1997 before she announced her decision to campaign and the second in the first week of January but before she began campaigning - confirm this.

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Half the voters did not think there was "anything wrong" in Sonia Gandhi trying to become Prime Minister. About 30 per cent objected to any move to make her Prime Minister. A significantly higher percentage of voters in Gujarat and West Bengal came up with negative responses. About one-fifth of voters had no view to offer on this.

The Frontline-CMS Survey indicates that Sonia Gandhi is winning back traditional Congress voters to an extent. Her popularity among voters from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes more or less matches that of Vajpayee. However, Muslim and Christian voters clearly prefer Sonia Gandhi to Vajpayee as Prime Minister.

Offered a choice of Jyoti Basu, Sonia Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and I.K. Gujral for Prime Minister, the dominant preference was for Vajpayee, followed by Sonia Gandhi. Jyoti Basu was preferred by 10 per cent of the voters.

Sonia Gandhi is the choice of 30 per cent of voters for the prime ministership. Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh a much smaller percentage of respondents favour her. In Kerala, twice as many voters prefer Sonia Gandhi to Vajpayee.

Nearly 30 per cent of respondents who expressed an intention to vote for the BJP's ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, preferred Sonia Gandhi for Prime Minister. Eleven per cent of those intending to vote for the BJP countrywide preferred Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister. (On the other side, 15 per cent of those intending to vote for the Congress(I) preferred Vajpayee.)

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