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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

The opinion polls and what they mean

Three major nationwide polls have predicted a clear majority for the NDA. But, despite a narrowing of the possibilities, it is too early to declare the race over, says Yogendra Yadav.

A fortnight ago, this series of articles began by arguing that the electoral race was still open to three possible outcomes. One, a clear but not overwhelming majority for the National Democratic Aliance; two, the NDA short of a majority but better placed than the others to form the Government; and three, the NDA so short of a majority that all the major non-NDA formations can come together to form the Government. It is time to return to that assessment in the light of recent political developments and fresh evidence.

The third possibility, a real one even if not the most likely, hinged on the possibility of a Congress-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh and in many other States of north India. That alliance could have caused a loss of about 20 seats to the Bharatiya Janata Party, while bringing about 40 additional seats to the tally of the Congress and its allies including, in that eventuality, the BSP. A changeover of 60 seats or so could have titled the scales against the NDA and in favour of the combined Opposition. That possibility can be ruled out now.

The other alternative, a Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh, may have brought lesser gains to the Congress but could have boosted the combined Opposition strength by about 40 seats or so. The latest statement by Mulayam Singh Yadav rules that out as well. In other words, unless we see some dramatic political realignment or the assessment offered in this series is quite mistaken, the possibility of the Congress, its allies and the Left overtaking the NDA and forming the Government appears rather dim.

That leaves the other two possibilities open, namely that of a clear majority for the NDA or that of the NDA falling short of the majority mark, and in need of support from a non-NDA party. This is certainly a more limited range than what this election promised in the beginning. But the difference between these two possibilities is not trivial. Which of the two comes about will affect the composition, the agenda and indeed the longevity of the next Government at the Centre. It is worth examining the available evidence to see how probable are these different scenarios.

We have three nationwide pre-election opinion polls that have been carried out by professionally reputed polling agencies and made public by the media. The India Today-MARG survey was based on an interview with 17,649 voters in 98 parliamentary constituencies between January 9 and 17. The next was the Outlook-CMS poll on the basis of interviews with 12,249 voters in 102 parliamentary constituencies, held during February 19 and 25. The latest in this series is the NDTV-Indian Express-AC Nielsen poll among 45,478 respondents in 207 parliamentary constituencies across 18 States of the country between March 5 and 18. Thereafter, Zee-Taleem came out with another national poll, but it is difficult to comment on that in the absence of sufficient information on the methodology and the break-up of the projections. The author of this article was a part of the team that interpreted the survey evidence for the NDTV poll. This poll had the advantage of a larger and better spread out sample, besides being the latest. But the purpose of this essay is not to pit one poll against another or to pass judgment on their comparative merits or otherwise. Put together, these three nationwide surveys provide a valuable source of information for an informed judgment on the poll prospects.

In terms of their overall figures, all the three surveys project an overall majority for the NDA, clearly above the majority mark of 272. The range varies from below 300 projected by the Outlook and the NDTV surveys to 330-plus projected by India Today. While the polls do not give a precise figure for individual parties, it is clear that all the three agree that the BJP on its own is nowhere close to a majority mark. The most generous estimate puts the BJP around 200. The Congress is generally projected to go a little below its current tally of 114. The lowest estimates suggest the possibility of the Congress falling to double digits. But that is not a firm projection yet.

It is not unusual for election projections to agree with one another on the totals but give very divergent break-ups for different components. A look at the region-wise break-up for all these three poll-based projections shows something of that, but the divergence is not very sharp. There is a general consensus that the NDA will dominate the West, emerge the front-runner in the North and the East and split the South with the Congress and its allies. But there are major differences behind this overall agreement. We are dealing with very different estimates of the extent of the dominance of the NDA in the West. The NDTV poll offers the most extreme figure of 113 seats out of 143 for the NDA, while the other two polls offer a more modest figure.

In the North, the India Today poll offers the highest figure, around 100 seats, for the NDA. The divergence at the State-level is of greater interest, though it is difficult to comment on these with precision as two of the three polls do not offer a State-by-State projection. Their sample size is too small to allow State-level projection. Yet it is possible to identify some areas of disagreement. The NDTV poll suggests a sweep for the DMK alliance in Tamil Nadu; the other two polls are more circumspect about it. The India Today poll shows a big swing in favour of the NDA in Kerala and West Bengal, while others don't. There are divergent readings of the situation in Delhi. The polls do not diverge in reading some of the key States. Everyone agrees that the BJP is on the upswing in the Karnataka Lok Sabha elections, but not necessarily in the Assembly elections, that the BJP and the SP are leading in Uttar Pradesh and that the Congress is likely to be the gainer in Haryana.

All in all, then, the advantage rests with the NDA. The question is how would this advantage translate in terms of seats. It is still three to five weeks to the final polling in different States. And this is a long time in politics. Besides, all depends on how the final outcome turns out in some key States where the picture is still not clear. Andhra Pradesh continues to be perhaps the key State that will determine the final outcome. The polls show only mild reverses for Chandrababu Naidu. But these could be mistaken, for the polls always tend to underestimate a new political party like the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). None of the polls had foreseen the famous victory of NTR in the 1983 Assembly elections. If that happens, or if the polls have erred in estimating the TDP, it could make a big difference to the national picture. Similarly, the polls seem to suggest a big victory for the NDA in Orissa and Gujarat, something that goes against prevailing political wisdom.

The problem may be more serious in a State like Gujarat where the NDTV poll finds some evidence of systematic lying by the respondents in favour of the BJP. In Bihar, none of the polls can ever be very confident of what they project, unless the candidates have been announced. Besides, the polls cannot be trusted to estimate the strength of Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti, the latest partner of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance, of which the Congress is a partner. In Delhi too, one has to wait for the announcement of candidates to foresee the final outcome. And then there is Maharashtra. One has to wait to see how much of the advantage of the Congress-NCP alliance may be wiped out by the unpopularity of the Sushilkumar Shinde Government.

The crucial point is that in all these tricky States, except Delhi, the current projection, especially the latest one by NDTV, gives the NDA an overwhelming majority. If these projections change in the next round of polls, or turn out to be mistaken, the NDA will be on the receiving end. If there is a major discrepancy between the current projections and the final outcome in any two of these six tricky States, the NDA could easily lose 20 to 30 seats from what it is projected to get now.

Everything else remaining what it is, the NDA could fall well below the majority mark to something around 250 seats. Since the Congress will be the principal beneficiary in that eventuality, it is possible that the current projection of the Congress falling below its current tally may not finally happen. We are not speaking about a dramatic reversal of the currently projected picture of the final outcome. But there is a substantial difference between this scenario and the one with a clear majority for the NDA. The electoral race may not be completely open to all kinds of possibilities, but it is too early to declare it over.

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