Wednesday, July 31, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The word ‘ghetto’ has a pejorative connotation. We associate it with closed communities of broadly similar people who are inclined to think that their little worlds constitute the larger world. Yet, while the temptation is to associate ghettos with communities of the disadvantaged—the Blacks or Hispanics in the US, the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK and the Muslims in India—there is little qualitative difference between Harlem, Southall, Bhendi Bazar and the so-called ‘gated communities’ of the rich that command high property prices in most countries. Both are communities of the like-minded and, inevitably, are victims of what has been described as ‘group think’.

“Group think’ is one of the biggest hurdles in the path of political analysis. The temptation to transplant our set attitudes and our preferences to the larger region or even the whole nation has often proved irresistible and often accounts for the strategic miscalculations of both the media and political parties.

Fortunately, there are instruments for measuring public opinion and the scientifically conducted opinion polls, properly interpreted, have become important correctives. Opinion polls may not have yet found a foolroof way of predicting the number of seats likely to be won by political formations in a multi-cornered contest, but they have been indispensable in gauging attitudes and broad levels of support and rejection for individuals and parties. In the past, the political class and analysts depended on instinct and anecdotal evidence;  opinion polls have become convenient substitutes—provided they have been conducted with methodological rigour and are bereft of hidden agendas. A pollsters job, it must be emphasised is not to impart good news to politicians but to accurately convey real feelings on the ground.

Over the years, the polls conducted by the Lokniti unit of the CSDS have demonstrated their ability to be a reasonably accurate barometer of public opinion, a reason why I take these polls more seriously than other similar exercises. Their tracker poll whose results were published and broadcast throughout last week by the Hindu and CNN-IBN are very revealing and should be closely examined. The poll doesn’t tell us who will win the 2014 general election or who will form the next government; it provides us a still photograph of how India perceived politics in June 2013. The findings may go against anecdotal evidence but the political class can ignore it at its own peril.

The most important finding is that the UPA-2 Government is reeling from the after-effects of prolonged policy paralysis and economic mismanagement. There is clear evidence of popular exasperation with perceived non-performance and rampant corruption. In particular, the Government’s failure to offset runaway inflation with increased opportunities is costing it dear. The Congress and its alliance partners are losing votes in nearly all the states with the exception of Karnataka and Maharashtra. The performance of its state governments is also poorly rated. Likewise, and despite the departure of Nitish Kumar from the NDA, the BJP is gaining in varying degrees almost everywhere apart from Karnataka, where it is yet to recover from its Assembly defeat and split in the party.

What has added to the UPA-2 woes is the clearly diminishing popularity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Although Rahul Gandhi remains its great white hope, he has not been able to fully capitalise on the formidable Gandhi brand. In particular, the Rahul attempt to revitalise the Congress in UP and Bihar doesn’t appear to have made any headway.

The initial Congress belief that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the face of the BJP campaign would polarise votes in its favour has clearly proved wishful thinking. In a short spell, and despite the absence of any rigorous campaigning outside Gujarat, Modi has given the BJP a significant incremental boost in all parts of India, barring the South. The Modi effect is particularly pronounced in UP and Bihar. At the same time, it is significant that the Modi push has not affected formidable regional leaders such as Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and even Mamata Banerjee—though in Mamata’s case, the sharp decline of the Left is a factor.

For the BJP, there are important conclusions to be drawn from a poll that still shows a significant percentage of the electorate to be undecided. First, it is clear that the incremental surge on account of Modi is almost exclusively due to his reputation that preceded his anointment and the ability of the BJP to reclaim a traditional urban and semi-urban constituency that had drifted to the Congress in 2009. If the BJP has to build on this, it has to campaign vigorously in the next few months and, in particular, win the states where Assembly polls are due at the end of the year. Information in India takes a long time to percolate downwards and the polls suggest that a full awareness of who Modi is and what he stands for is still patchy, particularly south of the Vindhyas.

Secondly, the BJP must make itself a prisoner to the issues that agitate the electorate against the UPA. There is no likely benefit to introducing abstruse ideological themes that motivate the electorate but is considered irrelevant by voters. In concrete terms, this implies that the BJP should all possible care to prevent falling into the Congress trap of battling it out on conflicting versions of secularism. What will appeal to the electorate is the assurance of better economic management, an impression of personal integrity of leaders and the promise of quick, firm decision-making.

Finally, the BJP has to also focus on areas where a pro-Modi vote won’t necessarily translate into seats. This is because in a possible post-election muddle, regional parties are likely to want to ally with a party which can bring something significant by way of popular support to the table.

As of now, the mood of the nation is fractured. The task before the parties is to clear the fog. The poll suggests prudent tactical options. 

Sunday Pioneer, July 28, 2013

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