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BJP supporters in Varanasi, India on 04/24/2014 © Arindambanerjee / Shutterstock

Is the BJP Rising in Eastern India?

In the first of a five-part series on opinion polls about the forthcoming Indian elections, pollsters agree that the BJP-led coalition is poised to make gains in the east of the country.

As India goes to the polls in 2019, election fever has hit the country. Two of India’s pollsters, Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), differ starkly in their assessments about the fortunes of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Shekhar Gupta of The Print invited these two gentlemen to have a debate in “the spirit of healthy disagreement.” I joined that conversation and Gupta extended the invitation to me. Since then, Gupta seems to have changed his mind and, therefore, this author’s side of the argument is appearing on Fair Observer.

THE ART, NOT SCIENCE OF OPINION POLLS

Opinion polls are a treacherous climb even under fair weather. After all, they are based on a miniscule sample of voters, susceptible to several errors and products of judgment, not exact scientific methods. Still, when done well, opinion polls tend to be within range of each other.

For instance, the Centre for Voting Opinion and Trends in Election Research (CVoter), which this author leads, and CSDS do not differ greatly in their predictions for the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, CVoter predicts a narrow victory for the Indian National Congress, while CSDS forecasts a slim majority for the BJP. In Rajasthan, both CVoter and CSDS envision victory for the Congress and defeat for the BJP. The only difference is that CVoter foresees a landslide win, while CSDS anticipates a slimmer margin.

While differences between CVoter and CSDS might be marginal, these two organizations differ dramatically with Yadav’s assessment. He opines that the BJP is staring at a loss of nearly 100 seats from its 2014 tally. Yadav takes the view that the BJP would gain a few seats in the east, losing many in the west and the south. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the BJP is likely to lose its current hold. The same holds true for the rest of the Hindi belt, a term analogous to the Bible belt in the US.

CVoter and CSDS estimate that Yadav is erring on the high side. Therefore, this author will examine the eminent pollster’s prognostications, region by region, starting with the east.

Yadav argues that the east of India is the only region that offers the BJP a growth opportunity. In 2014, the BJP won a mere 11 seats of 88. Since then, opinion polls have indicated growing support for the party. In Odisha, the increased support base has come at the expense of the Congress. On the other hand, the BJP has snatched support away from the Left Front coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.

Yadav concludes that the BJP will be a force to reckon with in eastern India. The key question for 2019 is whether it can convert its votes into additional seats this election. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system left behind by the British can often be unkind to parties with significant vote shares. An increase in votes may not necessarily lead to the same corresponding increase in seats. Despite the pitfalls of FPTP, Yadav estimates that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will win an additional 20 seats in the east.

This author largely agrees with Yadav’s observations when it comes to the eastern part of the country. The latest CVoter Tracker forecasts a gain of 24 seats for the NDA in the east, a mere four seats more than the eminent pollster’s estimate. As per the data of CVoter Tracker, the NDA has increased its vote share from 24.2% in 2014 to an estimated 36.2% in October 2018, a massive upswing of 12%. Curiously, this vote share is not coming at the cost of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The UPA vote share has gone up from 19.3% to 19.7% during the same period. What is going on?

THE LEFT IS BEING LEFT OUT

The key development in the east is that the NDA is taking away votes from the Left Front. The communists have always claimed to lead national parties but, in reality, have led regional parties with two bases: the southern state of Kerala and the eastern giant West Bengal. The NDA is shifting the electoral landscape in eastern India and emerging as the only credible challenger to Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and leader of All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). As a result, the Left Front is getting left out.

Once, West Bengal was the bastion of the Left Front. From 1977 to 2011, the communist-led Left Front ruled the state. To put this in perspective, this government outlasted the collapse of the Soviet Union by 20 years. Now, the TMC and the NDA are duking it out in a two-horse race. As per CVoter Tracker data, the former is polling at 41% while the latter at 31%. If identity politics grows and communal polarization increases, then Muslim votes could shift from the Congress to the TMC even as Hindu votes might move from the Left Front to NDA.

This could lead to 35% voting for NDA and 45% opting for TMC, which might give all 42 seats in West Bengal to the TMC. However, this is unlikely. As per CVoter Tracker data, the NDA is poised to win nine seats because its voters will have a majority in some constituencies in the state. Although the TMC might command a 10% lead is for the state as a whole, this lead varies dramatically in the state’s five regions.

The TMC leads the NDA by 21% in the north border regions and by 13% in deltaic region, but its lead narrows to about 5% in the northern hills and is merely 2% in the southern plains. In the highlands, it is the NDA that leads TMC by about 3%. This region comprises districts like Jhargram and Purulia, where the TMC is understandably accusing the NDA of joining hands with Maoists for electoral gains. Were there to be a vote swing in just two of the five regions of West Bengal, a 21-21 tie between the TMC and the NDA is not outside the realms of the possible, even though it is not very probable.

The NDA may still trail the TMC in West Bengal, but its fortunes are burning bright in Odisha. Southwest of West Bengal, the state of Odisha has long been dominated by Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a regional party led by Naveen Patnaik. Like many parties in India, the BJD is a family fiefdom. Chief Minister Patnaik is the son of Biju Patnaik, a larger-than-life figure who made his name as a pilot in World War II and the post-independence conflict in Kashmir.

In Odisha, the NDA is polling 38% while the BJD is flailing at 33%. As in the northeastern Indian states of Tripura and Assam, the NDA might be about to win big in Odisha. Of course, there is always the possibility that the BJP makes a realpolitik deal with the BJD. Patnaik could join the NDA and retain his throne as a regional satrap to the BJP. Odisha demonstrates that the east is turning saffron — the color of the Buddha, Hindu priests and, most pertinently, the BJP.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.