Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CNN-IBN’s poll shows Congress suffering; but BJP not gaining

The only reason I am referring to this poll is that it appears to have been done scientifically by a professional research agency (CSDS) unlike the blatantly motivated survey undertaken recently by Anna’s team in Chandni Chowk. This research has been around for some 15 years now and has credibility. There is also good normative data available from previous periods of time – making good and meaningful comparisons possible. Finally, the research appears to be apolitical, and it damns both the Congress and the BJP in equal measure. It also gives a more realistic estimate of the support that Anna enjoys.

Let’s look at the bad news for the Congress first. Clearly, the PM seems to have lost his AAA rating much like the US sovereign bonds have in the last few days. On preference for PM, Manmohan Singh has lost his prima donna position to go down to #3 now. His support has fallen from some 19% two years back to some 10% now. That’s a clear negative signal to the Congress, because when the people are upset with a government, they tend to direct their attacks at the leader. Equally, it appears that for every one person who believes the Congress is not corrupt, there are four who believe it is. Now this is a very significant public indictment of the government. It shows that the recent scams, as well as the efforts of the government’s opponents (BJP and civil society), have succeeded in damning the government’s ratings. Should this continue till the next elections, the UPA government is most likely going to lose. Another point of concern for the UPA is that of the top five “best” state governments, four are from the NDA camp while only one – West Bengal – is from the UPA side.

However, the good news for the Congress is that none of the disenchantment that the public has with it is translating into a gain for the BJP. In terms of choice of person for the PM, the top three positions continue to remain with the UPA. What must come as a huge relief for the UPA is that the one to top this list is none other than Rahul Gandhi. In many ways, this is not surprising. Every single person I speak to finds him to be a dynamic person and a well meaning one. So much comes out in the poll also as nearly half find him to be well meaning and pro-poor. Rahul’s charm cuts across urban and rural areas. His one trip to Mumbai showed that. His ability to ride a local train and mix freely with people gave the jitters to the Shivsena/BJP who had been taunting him before his visit. His focus on UP and Bihar and his disinterest in taking up any ministerial position has gone down well with the people. Rahul Gandhi’s top rating however gets him only 19% support. This is where past normative data from this research comes in handy. Apparently, top leaders in the past like Sonia and Vajpayee have got up much higher ratings. So Rahul still has a long way to go to claim the position that many believe is rightfully his. What should give him satisfaction is that his ratings have tripled from 6% levels in the last two years when he has been on overdrive. At number two is Sonia Gandhi – who many love to hate. The people of India have spoken clearly that in spite of all allegations of dynasty, they are unbothered about it. Sonia Gandhi’s support remains pretty strong at 10% followed by Manmohan Singh who has dipped from 19% two years back to some 10% now.

So why is it that in spite of a very adverse rating of the Congress, and in spite of BJP states getting rated well, the BJP is unable to build a stronger position for itself? The two factors that come to mind are its own involvement in corruption and the lack of any strong leaders at the center. The top rated leader is Narendra Modi, but he gets only 5% rating. This is shocking, considering the amount of support he enjoys in Gujarat and the good rating his state has got in this poll. It’s also surprising considering the efforts he has made to spread his wings outside his home state. It’s my belief that what works against Modi outside Gujarat is exactly the same that works for him inside the state. Modi is an extreme Hindu rightwinger and while that works in Gujarat, no one outside wants to touch him. That’s what happened in Bihar where Nitish Kumar didn’t want Modi anywhere near him during his election campaign. Modi’s extreme imagery is bound to keep his national ambitions in check. At number two in the BJP rankings for PM is Advani with a shockingly low rating of some 4% or so. In many ways, this is not surprising, given his age and the perception of people that he is too old to become the PM. Another shocker for the BJP is that its leader in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj manages to get only a third position. She may however feel good that neither Jaitley nor Gadkari feature anywhere close to her at all. The only other leader that comes somewhere near her is Rajnath Singh.

What does it all mean for the BJP? Many have already commented on this; so what I write is nothing new. While the Congress is losing the corruption perception battle, the BJP is not gaining from it. For the lay public, both the Congress and the BJP are alike. The BJP simply rules over a smaller territory; hence there are fewer cases coming out against it. But in the states that it rules, there is still a lot to worry about. Karnataka has seriously dented the image of the party. That apart, five of the thirteen most corrupt states as per the Economic Times – Synovate survey, belong to the BJP (story in ET on April 17th this year). In fact, four of the top six states are ruled by the BJP (Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand and MP) with one ruled by BSP (UP, as most corrupt) and one ruled by the Congress (Delhi). Many media reports have already commented that the corruption struggle has been usurped by Anna; not by the BJP. And since Anna doesn’t plan to enter elections, the Congress must be taking comfort from the BJP’s discomfiture.

In terms of poll strategy, several battlegrounds are emerging. First and foremost is UP where the state elections next year could prove to be the turning point for both the Congress and the BJP, at both the Center and the state levels. From a distance, it appears that the Congress is growing in strength in this state, and the BJP isn’t. Its choice of Uma Bharati to spearhead its campaign in UP is clearly a flawed one and it shows the confusion in the strategy think-tanks of the party. Does the BJP still want to flog the Hindutva horse? I personally feel that the entire country, including UP, has moved ahead of Hindutva and the BJP should look for other issues in UP. It also lacks any strong leaders from UP. Neither Gadkari, nor Sushma Swaraj nor Arun Jaitley nor Advani resonate with UP. In the past, it was Kalyan Singh who got them there….now he is a person the BJP cannot stand. So poor is the condition of the BJP leadership in UP that a rookie like Varun Gandhi manages to get a fairly decent share of the action there. The 2nd important battle ground is AP where the Congress will surely face an uphill task. If it yields to Telengana, it will lose support in the other two regions. If it doesn’t yield, it will lose support amongst Telengana supporters. Besides, the party hardly has any strong leaders left in the state. And then the problems created by Jagan will surely cripple the party. Who gains in AP? Not the BJP, but Jagan’s party in all likelihood. The third important battleground is Karnataka, where the BJP is expected to lose heavily. Since there is no other opposition in this state besides the Congress, again this will give the Congress great joy.

Why is the BJP unable to capitalize on any issue to grow its popularity? Largely, because it lacks strong leaders at the center. After Vajpayee, there has been a total vacuum at the top. Advani’s past his prime and between Sushma and Arun Jaitley, they cannot figure out whether they are in the same party or not. This is the reason why they have a weakling like Gadkari as the President of the Party; Just as Rajnath Singh and Bangaru Laxman were before him. For all the noise it makes about the PM being a weak leader, the truth is that the BJP is the party bereft of strong leaders.

The real truth is that the Congress would not be too worried by the current challenge posed by the BJP. Their main worry remains Anna and his success in showing the Congress to be a corrupt party and one that is unwilling to correct its ways. My big worry is that if the Congress suffers and the BJP doesn’t gain, then the Lok Sabha is going to be an even more divided house the next time around. The Left is hardly likely to gain unless Mamata messes up in WB. It’s the smaller regional parties who could gain – that means an even more weak central coalition government than we have seen during the NDA and UPA times. One of these two central parties – BJP and Congress – has to see the larger picture and do something dramatic to gain from the flux that prevails today in the country…..else they will both be written off…..at least in the near future.

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