Indian polls: Not one-horse race

Anand K Sahay

The first phase of polling on Tuesday to elect India’s fourteenth Lok Sabha — there are four stages in all, concluding on May 10 — confirms the dilemma of psephologists and analysts.

Voting was held for 140 parliamentary seats, i.e. slightly under a fourth of the total seats in parliament. A large number of these seats come from the BJP’s area of influence, such as Gujarat and the tribal regions of central India. Nearly 90 of this block of seats were taken by the ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP in the last general election in 1999, with the main opposition party, the Congress, winning barely half that number.

But most exit polls taken after Tuesday’s vote suggest that the NDA share of these seats is likely to be down, and the Congress is expected to improve. Mind you, the NDA share is still higher. But the Congress is distinctly showing the tendency to improve on its previous performance. The election is thus far from being the one-horse race that many initially thought.

This, in a nutshell, can be said to be the story of these elections. Of course, exit polls have a mixed record here. Unlike in the West, they are hardly, if ever, spot on. On the other hand, they can be far out, as was the case only last December when politically significant assembly elections were held in the country.

Opinion polls, thought to be more difficult to get right than exit polls, have a similar chequered history in India. Nevertheless, for what they are worth, these have been saying since February that the NDA is romping back.

The point to note is that the early polls were giving the BJP-led NDA a wide margin of victory. With election approaching, the margin began to shrink.

Reports of journalists from the field have called into question the starry-eyed initial predictions for the ruling combine. Party managers from all sides are now ready to be more realistic.

Nevertheless, the NDA is expected to have the edge, not least on account of the ‘Vajpayee-factor’.

Even opposition parties feel that it is the prime minister’s personality that might tilt the elections in the NDA’s favour. The BJP goes a step further, saying there is a “Vajpayee wave” in the country. Not many might agree, though most would say that the prime minister is among India’s most respected political leaders in the country.

But it is just as clear that despite Sonia Gandhi’s efforts in recent months to whip an opposition-oriented election campaign into shape, the Congress organisation has not really presented the picture of being the cohesive principal opposition party these last five years. This could end up being an important factor in deciding the results.

What is significant in these elections is that the two main parties, the BJP and the Congress, are setting out with the assumption that neither will have a large enough tally on its own to be able to form a single-party government.

The BJP has understood this for a long time; the Congress has only just come on board. The Congress’ acceptance of this reality is a special feature of this election. Which means that small regional parties are once again expected to have a good deal of say in the running of a large country such as India.

But the nature of the debate in the country in recent years would suggest that the character of bilateral relations with neighbours and the great powers, as well as the broad strategy of economic development and growth are not likely to be radically different, no matter which set of parties comes to power.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi