The party might still be able to steal a march on a resurgent BJP by appealing to the beneficiaries of its many welfare schemes

Survey findings, particularly so early from election time, basically capture the trends and help build likely scenarios. We can consider three scenarios: the Congress retaining the advantage to attract new partners and reshape the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to reach the magic figure of 272; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reaching or crossing the 200-mark and forcing smaller parties to gravitate towards it, and finally, both the Congress and the BJP getting stranded at around 160 seats and opening up post-election competition once again after 15 years. Looking at the vote shares emerging from CNN-IBN-The Hindu-Election Tracker survey 2013, conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, the first scenario looks the weakest. Our survey indicates that voters are in a mood to punish the Congress for a variety of reasons but are not certain how harsh the punishment should be.

Therefore, as parliamentary elections approach, the big story is that the Congress (and whatever is left of the UPA) is down but not out. For a government that has not been known for much good over the past four years, it is no news that it is down. The bigger story therefore is about the BJP. In broad terms, both the BJP and the Congress seem to be locked in a close contest — a gap of a mere one per cent. But this conceals the real story. In contrast to the Congress, the BJP is poised for a substantial leap in its vote share — reaching 27 per cent. This will be the BJP’s highest vote share so far. Even when Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani were at the helm, the party could barely cross the 25 per cent threshold — just once, in 1998. If the BJP really achieves this feat, that would be the end of the Advani-Vajpayee era for the party.

This scenario begs two questions: How does the Congress manage to avoid a steeper fall in its fortunes? And second, is the BJP poised for its best ever performance in terms of seats if the national mood remains the same?

A peculiar structure of support allows the Congress to keep the downslide under control — while it loses heavily in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, it appears to be in a somewhat better position in Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal. Thus, the south and parts of the east seem to be less disenchanted with the Congress than the north and the west. This may help the Congress to offset its losses. Second, the survey points out that despite their dissatisfaction with the UPA, people are aware of the various welfare schemes of the government and a large proportion of the respondents have reported that they are beneficiaries. It is quite possible therefore that the Congress may save the day not by its performance record but if it skilfully focuses on the welfare schemes and appeals to the beneficiaries.

Handicap

But is the Congress in a position to be able to take advantage of the welfare initiatives? Its MPs are not rated positively; nor are its State governments assessed favourably. Net satisfaction with the performance of Congress MPs (i.e., proportion of respondents fully satisfied with the MP’s performance divided by those fully dissatisfied) is 0.65 while the same for BJP MPs is 1.4 — almost two times more. Thus, sitting MPs would be the Congress’s major liability and handicap — if they are fielded, the party faces the flak from voters; if they are not fielded, there would be a harvest of rebel candidates. To add to this adversity, Congress governments are far less popular when compared to BJP-ruled States. If we consider States ruled by the BJP and the Congress on their own strength (leaving out all coalition governments in which they are partners), the net satisfaction with BJP-ruled governments is 59 as against a mere 16 for Congress-ruled governments. Thus, dissatisfaction with the UPA government combined with a low level of satisfaction for Congress-ruled States and negative assessment of Congress MPs would cumulatively produce a much more devastating outcome for the party than the vote share suggests.

Opportunity for Opposition

For the BJP, this is a big opportunity — after one of its popular leaders, Mr. Vajpayee, faded into the background. The party made up its mind to showcase Narendra Modi as the leader and this might just be working in its favour. This swing however is tempered by two interrelated limitations.

One is the heavy concentration of its support in select States — most notably Gujarat and M.P. As a result, its ability to pick seats across States remains severely restricted. Second, the BJP’s support is also concentrated more among upper castes, upper and middle classes and the educated, urban voter. It is a big question for the party if this social base would translate into a large number of seats. If these two limitations play out, the BJP may end up getting a decent vote share and still not being able to cross the 200- mark.

The BJP’s potential among these social sections and in the regions of the north and west is quite reminiscent of its similar headway in 1998-99. To be able to capitalise on this, the BJP would need to push aside the State level players in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — that might not happen. In both U.P. and Bihar, while the BJP vote share shows a dramatic improvement, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Janata Dal (United) JD(U) may hinder the growth of the BJP in these two crucial States.

This leaves the electoral contest wide open at the moment. In the run-up to the election, two factors would be crucial — the ability of the Modi factor to translate votes into seats and the ability of the Congress to package its welfare schemes and mobilise their actual and potential beneficiaries.

(Queries about the survey may be sent to election@csds.in)

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