The Rajya Sabha will remain a headache for the NDA

With the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, securely in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, the locus of political opposition is set to move to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where the BJP remains in a minority. Most bills need to be passed by both houses to become law, and this has sparked speculation as to how the BJP might push through its legislative agenda without a Rajya Sabha majority.

It is evident from the chart below that the the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) controls many more seats in the Rajya Sabha than does the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

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There are two obvious paths before the BJP:

  1. Regional parties. The ruling party could make deals with unaligned regional parties (such as the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK) to win support for specific bills. Since the NDA is 59 seats short of a majority it will have to convince six or seven of the largest regional parties to support it in the Rajya Sabha.
  2. Joint sittings. The BJP could arrange for joint sittings of the two houses under Article 118 of the constitution. The NDA is slightly over the halfway mark of the two houses’ 777 combined seats. However this is a rare step, carried out only thrice in Indian parliamentary history, and would require the consent of the President of India.

With two ordinances passed in its first two days, the Modi government has signalled that it may not be overly concerned about precedent. Even so, frequent joint sittings of the two houses could anger opposition parties that have become quite efficient at disrupting parliament in recent years.

The desirability of each strategy depends in part on how the number of seats controlled by the NDA grows over the next five years. If the NDA can woo new allies easily then it is less likely to take recourse to the more drastic step of calling joint parliamentary sessions. Recall that the Rajya Sabha reflects the balance of power in India’s states, and that a third of its members are elected every two years.

How then might the balance in the Rajya Sabha shift in the coming years? Let us assume that the NDA’s strong 2014 Lok Sabha performance translates into state election victories in 2014 (Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra), 2015 (Bihar) and 2016 (Assam) in roughly the same proportion. This is a contestable assumption because the national level “Modi wave” will have less relevance in a state election in which local factors gain prominence.

Still, maintaining that assumption, here is what the Rajya Sabha might look like in 2016 (excluding the 11 current vacancies in the upper house):

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This is quite clearly not enough to tilt the scales in the NDA’s favour. Even after the 2016 Rajya Sabha elections, the ruling alliance will be 47 seats short of a majority and will need the support of regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the All India Trinamool Congress.

The NDA’s prospects begin to sharply improve in its fourth year if the 2014 election results are mapped on to state elections in 2017. Keep in mind that this is a very optimistic scenario for the alliance: the BJP’s popularity could well have ebbed by then and the local factors mentioned above will again be in play in a state election. We are also assuming that party state assembly seat shares translate quite simply into Rajya Sabha votes; in practice there is often voting across party lines and strategic voting in favour of third candidates that can make the outcome less predictable.

But assuming that the broad patterns of the general election apply to the 2017 state elections in Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, this is what the Rajya Sabha could look like in 2018:

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The NDA is still 30 seats short of the halfway mark in the Rajya Sabha, and the ruling alliance will need to win over at least one of the three biggest regional parties (Samajwadi, Trinamool and AIADMK) plus an assortment of smaller players. The NDA is well over the halfway mark of a joint sitting at this point, so its preferred strategy will depend on how easily it can woo those parties.

Either way, the NDA will remain short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, although its rising tally will require it to attract fewer allies by 2018. But 2018 is close to the end of the its term, which means that for most of its tenure the NDA will be forced to reach out to a large number of regional parties to pass bills in parliament.

And the winner is…

Never mind the general election, real geeks want to know who won the battle of the exit polls. The contestants, as many will recall, were:

And judging from the result and the accolades that followed, Today’s Chanakya was the clear winner.

But not so fast. To make election predictions under India’s first-past-the-post system, polling agencies must first estimate party vote shares and then use this data to make seat share predictions. As we discussed in Why you should ignore opinion poll seat predictions, the primary task of a survey is to collect data on vote shares. This is subsequently translated into seat share predictions based on mathematical models that try to guess how these votes will be distributed among different states and regions.

The ideal scenario is one in which you accurately capture the vote share of different parties and convert these into the correct number of seats. But you can also get the right answer if you make two opposite errors that cancel each other out. This is what occurred with CSDS’ 2012 Uttar Pradesh post-election poll, in which CSDS was the only pollster to correctly predict the number of seats that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party would win in that complex four-cornered contest. As Yogendra Yadav later wrote:

Sukumar is absolutely right in saying that we over-estimated the lead in terms of votes and under-estimated its impact on seats. These two compensating errors cancelled each other and our final forecast was closer to the outcome than others.

The first step in evaluating the success of an exit poll (or a post-election poll taken some days after voting) is therefore to check how close it came to estimating the correct vote share. There are various ways to do so (e.g. here), but here we rely on two common techniques:

  1. Comparing the ratio of the votes of the winner and the runner up (the “Mosteller 2” method)
  2. Comparing the margin in percentage points between the winner and the runner up (the “Mosteller 5” method–preferred by Nate Silver)

In the recently concluded election, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 38.3% of the vote while the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 22.8%. This is a ratio of 1.68 in favour of the NDA and a vote share gap of 15.5 percentage points.

Under the Mosteller 2 method, we rank the exit polls based on how far they deviated from the vote share ratio in their own estimates. And we find that the NDTV Hansa poll performed the best, while the India Today Cicero poll did the poorest.

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Using the Mosteller 5 method, we find that NDTV Hansa did the best again with a deviation of only 0.8 percentage points from the actual vote share gap between the NDA and the UPA. CNN IBN CSDS came second, and India Today Cicero were last once again.

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What is interesting is that Today’s Chanakya’s performance was middling according to both measures, even though its seat share estimate came closest to the actual. Certainly the agency is a winner from a marketing point of view, but in this case a subpar vote estimation appears to have been overcompensated for by an aggressive seat conversion formula (as others also noticed with its Uttar Pradesh prediction).

Today’s Chanakya may be doing best in the box office, but the award for best survey goes to NDTV Hansa.

Research note

Only NDTV, CNN IBN and India Today were kind enough to make their national vote share estimates easily available online. I had to endure considerable time watching YouTube videos to locate the vote shares of the India TV Cvoter and ABP News Nielsen exit polls and — even less forgivably — failed to locate the Times Now ORG data in spite of being forced to watch Times Now for a memorable length of time. Equally painful was having to manually calculate Today’s Chanakya’s national vote share estimate from its state vote share data, since the agency inexplicably chose not to disclose its national numbers.

The return of the gender gap

If women alone were to vote in the current elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win 88 more Lok Sabha seats than the Indian National Congress (INC) (using CSDS data — see Table 3a). If only men voted, the BJP would get 126 more seats than the INC (if we stubbornly assume a constant ratio of voteshare-to-seats conversion). This hypothetical example highlights how gendered voting choices can have a big effect on election outcomes.

As Rajeshwari Deshpande wrote in September 2009:

The Congress has enjoyed an advantage among women voters since the 1996 general election. The party’s popularity among women reached a high point in 1999 when the gender gap in favour of the Congress was 5 percentage points. Since then, the gap has been closing. In the 2009 election, the Congress enjoyed a slight tilt in women’s votes towards it.

That no longer seems to be the case. According to the latest available CSDS data, the gender gap between the INC and BJP has reemerged with a vengeance (we define the gender gap as the difference between women and men voting for the BJP subtracted from the difference between women and men voting for the INC — note that the 2014 gap emerges from less reliable pre-poll data while the rest are from post-poll data):

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So why might such a gap exist? The United States has experienced a gender gap in favour of the Democratic Party since 1980, and in 2000 and 2012 Democratic presidential candidates had a 20 percentage point gap in their favour (that dwarfs the Congress Party’s record eight-point gap in 1998 and 1999). Explanations of the gender gap in the United States and other industrial societies fall into three general (and partly overlapping) categories:

  • Economic. Higher female participation in the labour force, and the fact that female workers face wage discrimination at the workplace, have pushed women to the left of the political spectrum in favour of parties that emphasise redistributive politics.
  • Family. In a similar vein, rising marriage ages, the widespread use of contraception, more out-of-wedlock childbearing and increased divorce rates have driven women voters to the political left, since they are no longer in a position to benefit from the incomes of male partners.
  • Values. The belief that a woman is entitled to reproductive autonomy (particularly salient in the United States) and the spread of feminist ideas have pushed women voters in the direction of political parties that share those values.

To what extent might these factors apply in the India case? At first blush, it would appear unlikely. India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen in recent years (from 44% in 2005 to 36% in 2012), which would undermine the case for an economic explanation. The mean effective age of marriage for Indian women has risen from 19.5 years in 1991 to 21.2 years in 2011 (a 9% increase), and contraception usage has increased between 1992-93 and 2005-06, but the divorce rate remains low and out-of-wedlock childbearing appears rare. So far as values go, abortion is not a partisan political issue in India, and there is no evidence that women’s rights issues shape voting behaviour.

Indeed that India even has a voting gender gap should be surprising: political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris found (using 1990s data) that only “postindustrial” societies have a gender gap that favours left parties; the gap favours ideologically conservative parties in post-Communist and developing societies. (Let’s leave aside the question of how generalisable categories such as “left” and “right” can be.)

But things get interesting when you look at the following chart (drawn from Table 2 in Deshpande’s article):

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The gender gap in favour of the INC in 2009 — when it was small by historical standards — was highest in precisely those groups that you would expect to be most influenced by the same economic and cultural trends that have created the gender gap in Western societies. If this holds up to further scrutiny (beyond the scope of this blog), then it could provide one answer to the puzzle that Deshpande posed about women and the INC: “There is no evidence that women find its policies more attractive than [do] men”.

There are other views. Deshpande argues that it makes more sense to look instead at regional variations, and sure enough, the INC’s gender advantage varies from state to state. She suggests that the INC’s gender gap is really the reflection of caste and class factors, and that there is no independent gender tilt in favour of the INC (although there probably is one against the BJP). Furthermore regional parties matter a great deal, and women in the latest CSDS surveys appear to be leaning towards Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

That said, women’s issues are more salient in the 2014 national campaign than ever before (as Supriya Nair pursuasively points out), which has forced political parties to craft more specific appeals to women. An Association for Democratic Reforms-Daksh survey found that women’s safety is the third most important election issue (of ten) for urban voters. And Narendra Modi’s aggressive, patriarchal campaign clearly contrasts with Rahul Gandhi’s persistent outreach to women voters.