CLIFFHANGER IN UP
The BJP falls short of a clear majority in Lucknow, yet is a frontrunner in three out of four states, predicts the India Today-Axis pre-poll survey. The Congress is poised for a majority in Punjab
Describe it as a personal chemistry between the 43yearold Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and the 46yearold Congress vicepresident Rahul Gandhi, or explain it as the geometric progression of the prepoll Samajwadi PartyCongress alliance. But the truth is the alliance between the two parties is rapidly reducing the advantage the Bharatiya Janata Party enjoyed till recently, buoyed by the public response to the surgical strike across the LoC and demonetisation being sold as a propoor initiative. As UP heads to vote, the india todayAxis prepoll survey reveals that what started as a threecornered contest—between the BJP, BSP and SPCongress alliance—is ending up as a fiercely competitive bipolar fight between the BJP, as the single largest party, and the surging SPCongress alliance.
The survey shows that the edge held by the BJP in the surveys in October and December 2016 has begun to give way. In the January 2017 survey, the seats projected for the BJP have reduced to a range of 180191 (out of 403) from 206216 in December. This despite the party’s popular vote share increasing by 1.6 per cent, from 33.2 per cent in December to 34.8 per cent now. Since opinion polls usually have a margin of error of up to 3 per cent, the BJP’s marginal lead in India’s bellwether state could turn either way in a closely contested election. The SPCongress alliance is projected to get 168 to 179 seats, compared to just 92 to 97 seats for the SP and 5 to 7 for the Congress in December.
The implications of this late surge by the alliance will surely change political equations in Lucknow after March 11, the votecount day. With a slender lead, the BJP is likely to end up as the single largest party, prevented by the SPCongress alliance from forming a government on its own. Or else, the alliance, with 33.2 per cent popular vote, will not only close the 1.6 percentage point gap with the BJP but snatch the number one position from it. The potential of the alliance crossing the finishing line is also indicated by the choice of chief minister among the respondents, 45 per cent of who consider development as the main electoral issue. Incumbent CM Akhilesh Yadav, who has announced a slew of development projects in the state, enjoys 35 per cent popularity
as the next CM. His nearest rival, BJP veteran Rajnath Singh, is way behind at 21 per cent.
While it is practically neck-and-neck between the BJP and SP-Congress alliance, the Bahujan Samaj Party is a distant third with 20 per cent popular vote share but projected seats as few as 39-43. Surveys frequently underestimate the BSP, despite the silent support it enjoys among the masses. The question is whether the BSP’s apparent losses will translate into gains for the BJP or the SP-Congress alliance. The answer partly lies in how far the alliance is able to paper over the contradictions in seat arrangements on the ground during the next six weeks of the campaign and how much the Narendra Modi-led NDA government is able to sell Budget 2017 to the voters in India’s most populous and politically significant state.
In Punjab’s triangular contest, the survey shows the Congress continuing to ride a strong antiincumbency wave against the 10-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government. With a 37 per cent popular vote share and seats projected in the range of 60 to 65 (out of 117), the Congress looks to be in a position to form the government. However, the Aam Aadmi Party is poised to make big gains and finish a close runner-up, with only a 3 percentage point gap with the Congress and a projection of as many as 41-44 seats. The SAD-BJP alliance is hopelessly behind, with 24 per cent voter support and just 11-15 seats.
In both Goa and Uttarakhand, says the survey, the BJP appears to enjoy an edge
over its challengers. The BJP’s advantage in the 70-seat Uttarakhand is because of the strong antiincumbency against the Congress. In contrast, the BJP, as the incumbent in Goa, is benefitting from the split in the opposition vote between the Congress and new player AAP. The survey projects the BJP’s seats in Goa in the range of 22-25 out of 40 and the Congress’s at 12-14. In Uttarakhand, there is a yawning gap between the popular vote shares of the BJP (44 per cent) and the Congress (35 per cent). The BJP could bag 40-44 seats, restricting the Congress to 23-27.
The fierce battle for the throne in UP is the result of a bipolar sociological divide across communities. According to the survey, while the BJP has 68 per cent support among the upper castes and 56 per cent across the backward castes, barring the Yadavs, the SPCongress alliance draws 82 per cent support from Yadavs and 74 per cent from Muslims. The BSP gets 60 per cent support from the Dalits. Despite 99 tickets distributed among Muslims, the party has only secured 12 per cent support from the community, down from 20 per cent in 2012. In Punjab, the Congress is more popular among the backward castes and Dalits among Hindus. The AAP draws greater support from the backward castes and Dalits among Sikhs. The Congress is more popular among the urban voters while the AAP finds greater appeal in the countryside.
Victories in UP, Uttarakhand and Goa are likely to give the BJP a boost countrywide. But a Congress win in Punjab and the possibility of the SP-Congress alliance in UP beating the BJP could turn the tide. After defeats in the politically significant Delhi and Bihar assembly polls, potential losses in major states like Punjab and UP could dent PM Modi’s image as the main vote-getter for the BJP. An advantage for the SPCongress alliance in UP could definitely change the fortunes of Akhilesh and Rahul for a bigger national role in 2019.
JOINT VENTURE: SP and Congress supporters during a roadshow by Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi in Lucknow on January 29
CAPTAIN COMMAND: Congress leader Amarinder Singh speaks to the media while campaigning in Amritsar on January 19
CENTRESTAGE: BJP president Amit Shah, flanked by party leaders, at a rally in Dehradun on November 13 last year