A sluggish economy and an untamable rise in prices can be sufficient reasons for public ire to turn against any incumbent government. In the case of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), there are more reasons than just the economy and prices. One, of course, is its long tenure—it is only the third government since Independence to be in power for nine years running.
But, more important, it has been a tenure marked by a series of nation-rocking scams and corruption charges against its n=ministers and officials—phenomena that have been exacerbated by the ubiquitous reach of mainstream media as well as the explosive growth of social media, particularly in a nation where as much as 65 per cent of the population is under 35. Not surprisingly, the HT-GfK survey captures this strong anti-incumbency mood that is visible across India's regions, ages and economic categories.
However, the most remarkable finding of the survey is not that there is a nation-wide sentiment that is working against the Congress, but the fact that this is leading to a consolidation in favour of the BJP. This is the most worrisome signal for the Congress (and its allies) as it has always believed – or at least hoped - that the BJP, caught in its own internal mess, would not be able to mobilise anti-incumbency in its favour.
The findings of this survey sharply question that premise. Substantially more people believe the BJP would be more capable of handling the seven issues that emerged as the key concerns of the electorate, including price rise, corruption, job creation, and law and order. This offers the BJP the window to project itself as the national alternative to Congress.
How would this sentiment work on the ground if parliamentary elections were to be held today? In states and regions where the BJP is present, it will straightaway translate into votes. It would mean that the voters may distinguish between the state and national elections; for instance, the BJP may not do as badly in Karnataka in 2014 as it did in the recent assembly election.
In UP, it could do surprisingly well – as the Congress did in 2009 by winning 21 seats, just two less than SP, which comfortably won the assembly election in 2012. In strongholds such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, the BJP could increase it tally. In states where the BJP does not exist, the situation will be more complex. Parties that are more anti-Congress are likely to find more support.
If BJP emerges as the national alternative to Congress, the regional parties will be forced to rethink their strategies. For instance, it would become difficult for Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to dump the BJP as he may have planned.
Having noted these factors playing in BJP’s favour, we must now turn to the caveats which are really consequential. The respondents in this survey have virtually taken for granted that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is the leader of BJP’s 2014 campaign. The strong polarizing presence of Modi will advance BJP prospects; but ironically, it will also slowdown the slide of the Congress.
All social forces against the BJP would gravitate towards the Congress in the event of Modi emerging as potential prime minister. In other words, the key factor that plays in BJP’s favour will also have an opposite reaction. Moreover, if the simmering leadership war in the BJP goes out of hand, that also will affect the party’s ascendance.
The second risk for the BJP is the inherent volatility associated with the two social groups that seem to strongly support it currently – the middle class and the youth. It is among these two categories that the support for the BJP is maximum while poorer people tend to go with the Congress.
“Congress historically has been more adept at accommodating emerging social forces. They are likely to blunt the anger among middle class and youth in the coming year,” says Imtiaz Amhad, former professor of political science at JNU. “Middle class and youth are receptive to overtures. Things can turn around between now and 2014,” he says.
Therefore, while the survey is as clear as it can get in saying that the BJP is well ahead of the Congress, don’t miss the emphasis: it reflects what people want if the elections were to happen today. The election is, in all probability, a full year away and tomorrow things may change. Keep watching this space.