Debating India

What explains the rise of the Congress

Sunday 13 August 2006, by KUMAR*Sanjay, YADAV*Yogendra

The projections made by The Hindu -CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey invite two obvious questions: where exactly is the UPA gaining votes and seats? Why? What explains this rise of the UPA, especially the Congress?

A survey of this size does not permit a precise forecast of seats at the State level, particularly for the smaller ones. However, it is a good indicator of the drift in public opinion in the major States. Perceptions of the incumbent State Government are crucial in shaping voting patterns in Lok Sabha elections. In many States, incumbent governments are still new and popular. Usually, incumbents gain in popularity in the first one or two years after the election. This is the case with the following governments: the DPA in Tamil Nadu, the Congress in Assam, the UPA in Maharashtra, the Left Front in West Bengal, the NDA in Bihar and, to a lesser degree, the Congress in Andhra Pradesh and Haryana and the LDF in Kerala. In all these States, the ruling parties or alliances would have done very well had a Lok Sabha election been held in the first week of August. In Kerala the contest would have been keen between the LDF and the UDF; the latter invariably performs better in Lok Sabha elections than in Assembly elections.

BJP facing the heat

Anti-incumbency seems to have set in some of the BJP-ruled states, which the party swept at the time of the last Lok Sabha elections. The Governments of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh seem to be facing the heat. Ashok Gehlot and Ajit Jogi of the Congress and Uma Bharti are more popular in these States than the incumbent Chief Ministers.

In Karnataka, the ruling party’s popularity has taken a nosedive and also damaged its partner, the BJP. The Congress’ stock has gone up considerably here. In Gujarat too, the Congress has made gains, though the BJP continues to be a position to stage a stiff contest. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party is at the receiving end of voter anger; the BSP is ahead in the electoral race that will be staged next year. However, if a Lok Sabha election were to be held next year, the Congress could surprise itself with an impressive showing.

Congress behind in Orissa

In Orissa, Naveen Patnaik continues to buck the anti-incumbency trend and the Congress is simply no match for the BJP-BJD combine. The Congress is well placed in Punjab but this reflects more the soft spot voters have for Manmohan Singh than approval for the State Government.

While voting decisions are still principally determined by State issues, there are some signs that voting behaviour has begun to change in this respect. The national context appears more important now than it was in the 1990s. The Congress is the main beneficiary of this trend. The survey indicates that the Congress may have made major gains at the expense of regional parties (sometimes its own allies) in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Although the trend is nascent, it has a long-term political significance.

Mid-term evaluation

Any attempt to explain the UPA’s rise in the middle of a not-so-distinguished term in office must begin with a popular evaluation of the performance of the Central Government. In this regard, the survey provides mixed results. The overall perception of the Government’s performance is more positive than newspaper headlines might suggest. Three times more people are satisfied than dissatisfied with the Government’s record of work. Asked to compare the UPA Government with its NDA predecessor, the majority preferred the present Government.

However, it is a mistake to conclude that the UPA’s gains are principally due to its record of governance. A careful comparison of the satisfaction ratings in January and now shows a small decline. Asked to evaluate the Government’s performance against their expectations, the response is lukewarm.

Negative perception

There is a negative perception of some key issues. People think that corruption has increased, national security has deteriorated, the condition of farmers has worsened, and prices have gone up. Clearly this is not a mid-term scorecard that any Prime Minister can be proud of.

On the leadership issue, the results are much less ambiguous. Sonia Gandhi is far ahead as the popular choice as Prime Minister. She is 10 percentage points ahead of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who dominated the popularity chart for nearly a decade. While Mr. Vajpayee’s announcement of retirement has led to a sharp erosion in his ratings, none of the BJP’s national leaders has managed to fill the vacuum. Since 2004, Mr. Vajpayee’s rating has fallen by nearly 20 points; L.K. Advani’s rating has gone up by less than two points in this period. Manmohan Singh has made quiet but significant gains during this period. Although voters prefer Ms. Gandhi to Dr. Singh, there is little support for the idea of replacing the latter.

The return of the `national’ voter is linked to a changing social profile of the Congress party. An analysis of the social profile of the potential Congress voters shows that the party has made big gains among the OBCs and Muslims, while partly recovering its base among Dalits. This is the base the regional parties had taken away from the Congress. If this trend persists, we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era that could transform the face of the Congress as well as that of Indian politics.

Methodology of the survey

The State of the Nation Survey was conducted in 19 major States (excluding those with less than five Lok Sabha seats) in the first week of August 2006.

A sample of 208 Lok Sabha constituencies and 890 polling booths there was drawn by circular random sampling (probability proportionate to size). The latest electoral rolls of these booths were used to randomly draw 26,000 names of persons, who were approached. The survey was completed in 883 locations.

Rains, flooding and other contingencies led to the dropping of seven booths and the substitution of two constituencies. In all, 14,680 respondents were interviewed between August 1 and 6. The interviews, with a structured questionnaire in the language spoken by the respondents, took place at their places of residence.

An analysis of the profile of the respondents shows that the sample is fairly representative of the main social groups. A higher completion rate among rural areas and men led to a slight over-representation of these two categories in the sample.

An apparent over-representation of `Dalits’ in the sample could be the result of the existence of many `Dalit’ communities that are not recognised as Scheduled Castes.

The fieldwork for the survey was coordinated by K.C. Suri (Andhra Pradesh), Sandhya Goswami (Assam), Rakesh Ranjan (Bihar), Baba Maya Ram (Chhattisgarh), Pushkar Raj (Delhi), Priyavdan M. Patel (Gujarat), Harish Kumar (Haryana), Rekha Chowdhary and Gul Mohammed Wani (Jammu and Kashmir), Harishwar Dayal (Jharkhand), Sandeep Shastri (Karnataka), Sajad Ibrahim (Kerala), Ram Shankar (Madhya Pradesh), Nitin Birmal (Maharashtra), Surya Narayan Mishra (Orissa), Ashutosh Kumar (Punjab), Sanjay Lodha (Rajasthan), G. Koteswara Prasad (Tamil Nadu), Sudhir Kumar (Uttar Pradesh east), A.K. Verma (Uttar Pradesh central), Mirza Asmer Beg (Uttar Pradesh west) and Suprio Basu (West Bengal). The survey was directed by Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS.

The central team that designed, coordinated and analysed the survey comprised Yogendra Yadav, Sanjay Kumar, Praveen Rai, Sanjeer Alam, Vikas Gautam, K.A.Q.A. Hilal, Himanshu Bhattacharya and Kanchan Malhotra of the CSDS and Professor Rajeeva L. Karandikar of Cranes Software International Limited.

See online : The Hindu

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