A curious aspect of the upcoming Bihar elections is the manner in which election survey agencies are rapidly altering their forecasts, often in the opposite direction. And these shifts are happening within a matter of a few weeks.
Although conventional wisdom suggests that most voters make up their minds a few weeks ahead of actual polls, if one is to go by these surveys, the Bihari voter seems to be taking the psephologists on a roller-coaster ride.
For instance, a survey by AC Nielsen for the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group showed that the NDA, at a 32% vote share, was a full 10 percentage points behind the JD (U)-led alliance in July, with the Nitish-Lalu combine winning with 129 seats to NDA’s 112 seats. This trend changed partially in September following a few big public meetings by Narendra Modi. The Nitish alliance, with 122 seats, was shown to be just four seats ahead of the NDA. By now the vote share lead for the JD (U) alliance had also narrowed to 4 percentage points, with the Nitish-led alliance shown to be having a 43% vote share as compared with the BJP-led alliance’s 39% vote share.
The original trend got completely reversed in early October, with AC Nielsen giving a 2 percentage point vote share lead to the BJP-led alliance. This translates into 128 seats for NDA and 122 seats for the JD (U) alliance. I asked a senior psephologist at AC Nielsen as to how, within two-and-a-half months, there was a 10 percentage point shift of votes in favour of the NDA. He said this can happen if there is a sudden change of momentum in favour of one party or the other, especially closer to the election. At the same time, he admitted that the latest Nielsen poll, conducted in early October, does not take into account the effects of the beef controversy.
The BJP is trying to polarise votes on communal lines with the beef issue, but it remains to be seen whether the ploy succeeds or backfires on the party. However, the impact of Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks on the reservation issue – that the current reservation policy should be comprehensively reviewed – has been captured in Nielsen’s October survey. This seems puzzling because the BJP saw Bhagwat’s remarks as a setback of sorts and not something that would help garner more votes.
All this merely shows that the complex political arithmetic or ‘chemistry’ continues to flummox observers. Interestingly, another pre-poll survey by Cicero for the India Today Group shows just the opposite of AC Nielsen’s voting trend. Cicero showed a month ago that the NDA alliance was ahead with 125 seats to the Grand Alliance’s 106 seats. Its latest survey in October reverses this trend, giving 122 seats to the JD (U) alliance and just 111 seats to the NDA.
In other words, while the ABP- AC Nielsen survey is projecting that the momentum is shifting towards the NDA, the India Today-Cicero poll shows the momentum shifting in favour of the JD (U)-led Grand Alliance.
Interestingly, the CSDS Lokniti survey for the Indian Express shows a 4 percentage point lead for the NDA alliance but introduces a caveat which could neutralise this very advantage. It says that among the pro-NDA respondents, probable changers from their present position comprise 12% and among the Grand Alliance respondents they comprise 8%. If one goes by this survey then, more voters could potentially shift to the JD (U) alliance on the eve of elections.
Yet another pre-poll survey by CNN-IBN and Axis gives outright victory to the JD (U) alliance with 137 seats as against 95 seats for the NDA alliance. This survey, conducted on a sample size of 24,000 respondents across 243 constituencies, with 87% rural and 13% urban respondents, seems to have the widest coverage of the rural belt. Bihar’s 88% rural voting population will dominate the outcome. This survey, interestingly, shows a massive consolidation of Yadavs and Muslims behind the Nitish-led Grand Alliance, suggesting that breakaway Yadav groups or independent Yadav candidates put up by the BJP have not been able to break Lalu’s stronghold. Yadavs and Muslims together constitute about 32-35% of the vote in Bihar. The bulk of the Kurmis and Koeris are also firmly standing behind Nitish, as per this survey.
The deciding factor in the Bihar elections would be the extremely backward caste (EBCs) vote share of about 32%. These comprise over 55 sub-castes, each with 0.5% to 0.7 % vote share. It is believed that this segment, which is too fragmented, will have the maximum number of undecided voters. The upper caste vote (16%) is largely with the BJP. The Dalits and Mahadalits also constitute about 15% of the voting population. Part of this section owes allegiance to Ram Vilas Paswan, who is part of the NDA.
There is one statistical puzzle that no one has been able to crack – which is that even at the peak of Narendra Modi’s popularity in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP alone got about 31% of the votes cutting across all castes, the NDA- alliance still could not exceed 38% of the vote share. Some say 2014 witnessed the peak of Modi’s chemistry. Modi’s and BJP’s popularity since then has certainly not increased; if anything, it may have declined somewhat. So what accounts for the 4 to 5 percentage point extra boost in favour of the BJP, as per some surveys, is not clear at all. This is particularly so when there is no real anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar, who is emerging as the most popular chief ministerial choice across all surveys. This mystery will not be solved before November 12 when the full results of the Bihar elections will be out.