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BJP's Early Surge (INDIA TODAY-ORG-MARG POLL) - India Today

By Swapan Dasgupta ()
January 5, 1998

Author: By Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: January 5, 1998

On December 4, the President flagged off the campaign for the 12th
general election by dissolving the Lok Sabha. Having produced a
fractured mandate in 1996, the question uppermost in the minds of voters
is: will 1998 also result in the same uncertainty? To gauge the popular
mood at the outset of the campaign, INDIA TODAY commissioned ORG-MARG to
conduct an opinion poll. Between December 11 and 17, the survey covered
17,434 registered voters in 70 constituencies spread across 16 states.
It was a representative sample covering the full cross-section of the
electorate in terms of age, gender, religion and caste.

Using the shift-swing psephological model, the poll estimates that the
BJP-led alliance is likely to remain the largest formation with an
expected tally of between 234 and 249 seats. With a 6.4 per cent swing
in its favour, this alliance seems set to substantially improve on its
194-seat tally in the dissolved Lok Sabha. The BJP-led alliance is
likely to make major gains in the south and the east, while maintaining
its position in the north and west. Once again, Atal Bihari Vajpayee
remains the person most favoured as the next prime minister. The
Congress and its allies start the election with an estimated tally of
between 150 and 165 seats, implying that its alliances may not yield
extra seats. Sonia Gandhi remains the electorate's choice as the most
preferred leader of the party. The 13-party United Front (UF) starts the
election in third position with an expected tally of between 120 and 135
seats. It is expected to lose seats to the BJP alliance in the east and
the south.

Can the BJP alliance secure a clear majority?

The poll estimates that there will be a big 6.4 per cent swing in favour
of the BJP alliance which should leave it just 20 to 30 seats short of
an outright majority. The BJP is also likely to poll more popular votes
than the Congress. Most of the BJP's gains are likely to be at the cost
of the UF.

One major qualification here: the poll was conducted before the BJP
firmed up its alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and before Mamata
Banerjee split from the parent body. As such, the full effect of the
BJP's frenzied bout of alliance-making is inadequately reflected. More
to the point, a large share of the swing to the BJP-led alliance is from
the south and the east. In these two zones, the alliance has a low vote
base. Therefore, despite the swing, the resulting vote percentage does
not lead to substantial gains in seats. Except in Bihar and Karnataka,
the BJP is yet to cross the threshold levels needed to reap the full
benefits of growing voter support. In Orissa, the full effect of the BJP
alliance with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is inadequately reflected in
this poll.

The trends have a mixed message for the BJP. On a positive note,
Vajpayee's leadership is its greatest asset. Not only is he way ahead in
the personal popularity stakes, his 27 per cent support cuts across all
regions. Among lower castes, however, the enthusiasm is less pronounced,
while the Muslims remain sceptical, with a greater number favouring
Sonia Gandhi. Vajpayee rates even higher than Sitaram Kesri among
Congress supporters. If Sonia keeps away from active politics, it is
conceivable that there could be further desertions from the Congress.
However, a surprise finding is that the endorsement for Vajpayee as
prime minister is lower than the expected vote share of the BJP and its
allies. This conclusion will have to be tested in subsequent opinion

Second, the BJP is seen by 28 per cent of the respondents as being the
party best equipped to solve India's problems. It scores decisively in
the north and is ahead of the Congress in the east. However, since faith
in the BJP is less than its expected share of votes, it may be assumed
there is a section that will vote for the BJP, but without great

Third, apart from the permanent concerns about rising prices and lack of
jobs, the electorate has identified "stable government" as the issue of
this election, ahead of criminalisation and corruption. The yearning for
stability cuts across classes and communities. The BJP is perceived by
28 per cent as being most capable of providing a stable government.The
Congress is narrowly ahead with 29 per cent.

For the BJP, this presents a great opportunity; if it can successfully
snatch the stability card from the Congress, it stands to make greater
headway. However, given that voters are generally wary about coalition
governments and prefer single-party governments, it is doubtful whether
the BJP's rush to find new allies will enhance its credibility.

Another problem for the BJP remains its social base. While the party has
more support than the Congress among Hindus, urban voters and the upper
castes, it lags behind the Congress in the rural and lower-caste
segments. Only six per cent of the Muslims support it. If voter turnout
is high on election day, the BJP could find that its phenomenal growth
is still not good enough for victory.

Overall, however, it has emerged as the favourite at the starting block.
If it maintains the momentum and prevents a ganging up of forces against
it, the BJP alliance's final tally could even go beyond the present
estimates. Alternatively, a series of mistakes could witness a downturn.

Has the Congress become a spent force?

In 1996, the Congress lost its position as the single largest party. In
1998, it faces the possibility of being second in terms of popular
votes. It is not that the Congress, in alliance with Laloo Prasad
Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Shankersinh Vaghela's Rashtriya
Janata Party (RJP) and a partial (excluding Uttar Pradesh) understanding
with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will poll less votes. On the
contrary, there is a positive swing of 1.7 per cent in its favour, the
gains coming from the west and east. With the Congress and the RJP now
deciding to part ways in Gujarat, some gains in the west could be
nullified. As things stand, the combined strength of the Congress and
its allies is likely to remain at what it was on December 4.

The real problem, it would seem, is one of leadership. An overwhelming
72 per cent of Congress supporters believe that Sonia Gandhi should lead
the Congress. This implies a dissatisfaction with Kesri's leadership.
Indeed, in the prime ministerial stakes, Kesri gets a mere three per
cent approval rating and a greater number of the Congress' supporters
feel that Vajpayee would make a better prime minister.

Related to the leadership question is the lack of faith in the political
direction of the Congress. Only 28 per cent of the respondents approved
of the Congress withdrawing support to the UF government led by I.K.
Gujral. An earlier opinion poll (India Today, April 30, 1997) indicated
that 38 per cent supported Kesri's decision to bring down the H.D. Deve
Gowda government.

The popular dissatisfaction with the Congress is evident in the fact
that the BJP is today only one percentage point behind the Congress in
its perceived ability to give India a stable government. Considering
that stability was the Congress' most effective trump card in the past,
the fall has been precipitate. The party, it would seem, is surviving on
brand loyalty.

BJP and Allies
[BJP, SS, HVP, SAD (B), Samata, BJD, AIADMK]

Seats Votes (%)
May '96 Actual 194 23.5
Jan '97 Forecast 240 28
Dec '97 Forecast 234-249 29.9
Swing from May 1996: plus 6.4 per cent

Congress and Allies
[Cong (I), KC (M), KC (J), BSP, RJP]

Seats Votes(%)
May '96 Actual 139 28.1
Jan '97 Forecast 115 26.7
Dec '97 Forecast 150-165 29.8
Swing from May 1996: plus 1.7 per cent

United Front

Seats Votes
May '96 Actual 179 28.5
Jan '97 Forecast 170 27
Dec '97 Forecast 120-135 21.7
Swing from May 1996: Minus 6.8 per cent

How will the United Front fare this time? Who will make the best Prime

For the UF, there are two fundamental political problems this election.
First, the voters have identified stability as one of their pressing
concerns. Second, the electorate appears to have given a resounding
thumbs down to coalition governments. Even those who vote for the UF
constituents feel that coalition governments are not such a good idea
after all. It is this failure to sell the central plank of the UF that
has prevented it from cashing in on the widespread dissatisfaction with
the Congress' shoddy treatment of Deve Gowda and Gujral

Added to this is the excruciating problem of a projected leader. The
respondents haven't denounced Gujral's record as prime minister.
Nevertheless, they haven't endorsed him as the next prime minister
either. Indeed, among UF supporters, Gujral and Sonia enjoy the same
popularity rating, with Vajpayee only a single percentage point behind.
Although the UF, notably Mulayam Singh Yadav, is likely to hold its own
in the north, it is equally likely to suffer severely in the south. In
the east, the RJD's defection to the Congress will hurt the UF's
prospects, although some of these losses could be compensated by the
division in Congress votes in West Bengal. All in all, the UF begins
this election as the underdog.

Will Muslims vote differently this time?

Despite all the noise about containing "communal forces", the Muslim
electorate attaches the lowest priority to Ayodhya. Like other sections,
rising prices, jobs and stability are its three major concerns.

Ideally, this should have favoured the Congress. But though it is way
ahead of the rest in claiming the allegiance of Muslims, there is no
indication yet that it has repaired the post-1992 damage. According to
exit polls, the Congress had 59 per cent Muslim support in 1971; in
1996, this was down to 37 per cent; the opinion poll indicates that 36
per cent of Muslims feel the Congress is the party best placed to tackle
India's problems. Muslims are also the most enthusiastic in advocating
Sonia's case as the preferred prime minister. Against this, there is a
25 per cent endorsement for UF constituents, particularly the Samajwadi
Party. Like 1996, the Muslim vote looks set to be divided between the
Congress and the UF, but with the BJP establishing a toehold of support.

Will the voter turnout fall this election?

Traditionally, mid-term elections have witnessed a fall in voter
turnout. Judging by the opinion poll, this seems unlikely. An
overwhelming 93 per cent have indicated their definite intention to
vote, with only one per cent being equally definite about their
intention to abstain. Of course, the final turnout will be nowhere that
high, but read with the near unanimity with which every section of the
electorate perceives its priorities, there seems to be a readiness to
put the uncertainties of the past 20 months firmly behind. The logic of
the poll suggests the definite emergence of en masse voting. Will this
upset existing calculations? The next opinion poll should provide
further clues.

Who will make the best Prime Minister?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee 27%
Sonia Gandhi 17%
I K Gujral 6%
Sitaram Kesri 3%
Mulayam Singh 3%
Jyoti Basu 2%

Muslim: Sonia Gandhi 20, Mulayam Singh 11, I K Gujral 9, Vajpayee 8
Lower Caste: Vajpayee 23, Sonia Gandhi 19, I K Gujral 5
Upper Caste: Vajpayee 42, Sonia Gandhi 13, I K Gujral 3
Don't Know: 27; Rest: Others (All figures in per cent)

Which party can solve India's problems?

BJP 28
Congress 28
CPI (M) 4
JD 3

Muslim: Congress 36, SP 13, JD 7, BJP 6
Rural: Congress 28, BJP 26, CPI(M) 5, JD 4
Lower Caste: Congress 28, BJP 24, CPI(M) 4
Upper Caste: BJP 43, Congress 22, CPI(M) 3

Stability has emerged as the major concern, above corruption, law and
order, and Ayodhya.
Voter turnout is likely to be much higher than in the 1996 election.
Voter certitude is high, with only 10 per cent being undecided.
BJP alliance is poised to increase its votes dramatically in south and
east, but this may not yield many extra seats.
Congress alliance may increase vote share nominally, but its seat gains
may be limited.
More Congress supporters prefer Vajpayee as prime minister than Kesri.
Voters are equally divided on the DMK's responsibility in Rajiv
Gandhi's assassination.
Congress remains the most favoured party among Muslims, but it has not
recovered from the Ayodhya loss.

**Additional information from the print version**

Regional break-up of expected seats:

May Dec May Dec May Dec
6 7 6 7 6 7

North 87 87-93 31 29-35 19 18-24
South 6 22-28 39 47-53 84 52-58
East 26 51-57 38 34-40 72 44-50
West 76 72-78 35 38-44 1 0-1

Total Seats:
North - 151 East - 142 West - 118 South - 132

Can coalitions give effective government?

Yes No Neutral
All 20 55 25
BJP supporters 14 68 18
Cong supporters 20 55 25
UF supporters 28 44 28

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