India’s unpredictable elections

Dear Editor,
The final phase (seventh) of voting in India comes to an end this Sunday, May 19. The outcome is unpredictable. This writer travelled to several parts of India to solicit opinions on how people are voting and to gather their views on the outcome.
This writer believes the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win the most seats and form the Government. But it is difficult to determine the proximate number of seats the BJP and the opposition Congress Party will win. Both major parties are contesting the elections with alliance partners – the BJP and its allies are known as the National Democratic Alliance or NDA while the Congress and its allies are known as the United Progressive Alliance or UPA. The NDA will win a lot more seats than the UPA, perhaps two to one. However, the NDA (BJP in particular) will lose seats and the Congress and UPA will gain seats.
In travelling around India querying views, people largely parroted the polls’ findings that they read or heard about in the media just before the first phase of voting on April 11. The polls put the BJP and the NDA well ahead of the Congress and UPA. But polls in India are not known to be reliable.
Almost everyone I interviewed in the urban areas said BJP/NDA will win and they will actually vote for BJP/NDA partner. Middle-class and upper caste voters (Brahmins and Chatris) are voting BJP. However, when one goes to lower-class neighbourhoods and in rural areas, voter preferences change. The lower castes and slum dwellers are divided in their votes. The BJP gets only a fraction (less than 20 per cent) of their support. Muslims are united against the BJP; only a very small percentage is voting BJP. The preference of female Muslims is not known; the BJP has tried to grant them equality. If female Muslims break for BJP, which is quite unlikely given that they have received instructions from clerics to vote for a candidate that has the best prospect to defeat the BJP candidate, the BJP will sweep. The lower castes and the Muslims make up almost 70 per cent of the electorate. No one knows for sure how the lower castes will vote – will they vote en bloc for the SP (Yadavs) and BSP (Dalits) alliance in Uttar Pradesh (UP) State? The two castes have had a history of antagonism and ill feelings towards each other and never quite got along; they were engaged in physical violence against one another. This writer projects BJP will lose a minimum 15 seats in UP but could reduce its losses if Muslims stay away from the polls or if Dalits don’t support Yadav candidates.
There is some element of anti-incumbency in India. This means BJP will suffer losses not only in UP but in other states as well. Also, the caste alliance working against the electoral prospects of the BJP. The Dalits and the Yadavs have formed an alliance in UP, India’s largest state. A similar alliance is formed in Bihar and in a few other states. This caste alliance and the understanding with between the Congress and other parties representing lower castes poses a serious challenge to BJP and would cause it to lose several seats and for Congress to pick up seats. But the BJP party is also expected to make gains in seats in states it never won.
In the 2014 elections, Congress won only 44 seats and the BJP 282 out of 543. The Congress is projected by this writer to win up to 25 more seats, making gains from the BJP in states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh. The BJP/NDA, in addition to losing seats in these states, will lose seats in UP. While losing seats to anti-incumbency and the various alliances allied against it, the BJP will make gains in other states. The party could pick up anywhere between 15 and 20 seats to reduce overall losses. The final projection is BJP is expected to win between 250 and 275 seats and the NDA up to 40 seats for a total of anywhere between 275 and 315. In addition, the BJP will get outside support from the MPs in other states of approximately another 35 seats.
To form a Government, 273 seats are required. So clearly, going by the numbers projected by this writer and the views of pre-election pollsters, the BJP and Modi are projected to retain office. But the number of seats the party or alliance will win is unpredictable. Even if the BJP/NDA comes up short, outside allies will make up the numbers. The UPA and a third front are not likely to have the numbers to form a coalition Government as they did in 2004-2009.

Yours truly,
Dr Vishnu Bisram