NDA may get more seats than UPA, but parties outside the two fronts will get over 200 seats

The general election, if held now, would throw up a badly hung Parliament with both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance around a 100 seats short of a simple majority of 273.

Indeed, over 200 seats could go to political parties, currently not part of either the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-headed NDA.

The CNN-IBN-The Hindu Election Tracker poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), that paints this unsettling picture, says that though both the major electoral formations will get 29 per cent of the vote share each, the NDA will be ahead with anything between 172 and 180 seats and the UPA behind with 149 to 153 — in short, a gap of 22. The BJP’s score, up from 2009, would be in the range 156 to 164; the Congress’s tally, 131 to 139, down from the last general elections.

These figures for the two principal parties, however, need to be viewed with some caution. One, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, the North-east (barring Assam) and the Union territories (barring Delhi) that account for 32 Lok Sabha seats (of which the Congress currently has 16, the BJP seven) were excluded from the CSDS survey that was conducted across 18 major States.

Two, the Congress that recently tied up with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand is likely to acquire an electoral partner in Bihar — and perhaps, in West Bengal — closer to the elections. Three, the political picture will alter in Andhra Pradesh if the UPA government announces a separate state of Telengana ahead of May 2014.

Meanwhile, on the leadership question, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, not surprisingly, is the most popular choice for Prime Minister.

But it is the current incumbent, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who emerges as the “most liked” leader in the country, despite falling levels of satisfaction with his government, with price rise, corruption, terrorism — in that order — being the chief grouses of the respondents. Yet of 13 Congress, BJP and regional leaders, Mr. Modi stands at number five in the “most liked” category, behind Dr. Singh, Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, Congress activist Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

In a table of potential Prime Ministers, Mr. Modi polls highest with 19 per cent, with Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi second with 12 per cent. But in a direct face-off between the two men — were they to be named as the prime ministerial candidates of their respective parties — the BJP leader would be just two percentage points ahead of his younger Congress adversary, 33 per cent to 31 per cent, with each mopping up the votes of party colleagues.

However, the respondents say that when they will cast their votes, considerations about the party and the local candidate will weigh more than the leader.

Congress battered, BJP in no better shape either

Even as financial scandals, spiralling prices and the exit of two powerful allies, the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have taken their toll of the Congress-led UPA that won a renewed — and enlarged — mandate in 2009, the BJP-headed NDA has not fared so much better in the same period.

After the dramatic parting of ways with the Janata Dal (United) earlier this year, the BJP now has just two partners, the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal, which are ideologically closest to it. The JD (U)’s departure doesn’t merely present a problem for the BJP in Bihar; it also sends out a negative signal to secular regional parties about the dangers of signing up to an NDA regime after the next general election. There has also been the unedifying spectacle of the principal Opposition party’s top leaders at war with each other in public. Corruption’s corroding touch, too, has not spared the BJP, most damagingly in Karnataka.

Not surprising then that the results of the CNN-IBN-The Hindu Election Tracker Survey, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), while suggesting gains for the BJP and losses for the Congress, has predicted a badly hung Parliament. Both the UPA and the NDA, the survey says, would be around 100 seats short of a simple majority of 273, if elections are held now. And with political parties, currently not part of either the UPA or the NDA, likely to win the over 200 remaining seats, a Third Front becomes entirely plausible.

However, one factor needs to be flagged while viewing this rather unsettling picture: Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, the northeast (barring Assam) and the Union Territories (barring Delhi) were not part of the CSDS survey conducted across 18 States. Of the 32 excluded seats, the Congress now has 16; its ally, National Conference, three; the BJP seven; and the CPI (M) two. The remainder is with regional parties.

So, can the two alliances improve their circumstances, ahead of 2014?

The Congress that recently tied up with the JMM in Jharkhand is likely to acquire an electoral partner in Bihar — either the JD (U) or the RJD — and perhaps, in West Bengal — with the Trinamool Congress — closer to the elections. Simultaneously, if the UPA government creates a separate Telangana, the picture will dramatically alter in Andhra Pradesh, and help the Congress increase its tally.

Food Security Bill

Finally, the UPA government is working overtime to enact a law on food security, even as the Direct Benefit Transfer programme has been moved from the Planning Commission to the Union Finance Ministry for more efficient implementation. The survey says that of the 19 per cent (responses only among the poor) who have heard of the Food Security Bill, 71 per cent support it; of the 21 per cent who have heard of DBT (responses only among the poor), 68 per cent approve it, while of the 22 per cent who have heard of the land acquisition bill (responses only among farmers), 49 per cent believe it’s a good idea.

For the BJP, the good news is that it has recovered ground among its traditional supporters in urban India — among the college-educated, upper and middle classes and Hindu upper castes. But while this has given it a push, it is not enough. It has, therefore, placed all its hopes on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Thus far, his magic has mesmerised corporate India and sections of the media, both powerful advocates. But it is only if he casts a similar spell outside Gujarat that the BJP will be in the reckoning to form the next government.

The CSDS survey, predictably, shows Mr. Modi emerging as the most popular choice for prime minister, but the incumbent, Manmohan Singh, pips him at the post as the country’s “most liked” leader, despite falling levels of satisfaction with the Central government. Of 13 Congress, BJP and regional leaders, Mr. Modi stands at number five in the “most liked” category, behind Dr. Singh, Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

If Mr. Modi polls the highest in a table of potential prime ministers with 19 per cent, as against two per cent in 2009, it is nowhere as high that of the BJP’s icon, the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 1999, and again in 2004, Mr. Vajpayee topped the charts — in earlier CSDS surveys — steady at 38 per cent.

Also, in a direct face-off between Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi, the BJP leader would be just two percentage points ahead of his younger Congress adversary: evidently, Mr. Modi will have to work much harder.

Besides, a BJP under Mr. Modi will have to have a far higher score than what the CSDS survey has projected to attract enough allies to form a government. The Congress, seen as more benign, needs a relatively low score to attract others to the UPA. Support for the Congress from the 13 per cent-strong Muslim community stands, according to the survey, at 36 per cent, two percentage points less from 2009. This is a section that remains largely wary of a Modi-led BJP.

If both parties fail to make the grade, there is always the Third Front, by itself, or supported from the outside by the Congress or the BJP. The survey suggests that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would then be the top choice, with 12 per cent rooting for him, followed by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati with nine per cent, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav with eight per cent each. Of course, the seats that each of these leaders brings to the table would determine who would get the top job — provided both the Congress and the BJP fail.

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