Uttar Pradesh is the BJP’s to lose. Or is it?

As counting day on 11 March approaches, it seems as difficult as ever to gauge which way the political wind in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is blowing. Even before the campaign began, pre-election opinion polls offered little help, showing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance neck and neck, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lagging.

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We know from elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015) and West Bengal (2016) that a dead heat in pre-election polls is almost never a good predictor of the eventual outcome.

So what are the BJP’s chances of pulling off a win? If the starting point is the BJP’s historic 2014 victory, its lead seems unassailable. The BJP won 328 of 403 assembly segments, including 253 with more than 40% of the vote, and as Praveen Chakravarty states, for it to win fewer than 200 seats even if “two of the opposition parties get together, the BJP would still have to lose more than 10% of its voters”.

But if the baseline is the 2012 state election, the SP-Congress alliance begins to look formidable. As Karthik Sashidhar writes: “it will take a 7 percentage point swing from the 2012 elections to pull the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance below the halfway mark”. While this sounds big, it is well within the realm of possibility: in 2014, the SP dropped seven percentage points from its 2012 tally, giving the BJP a sweep in that four-cornered contest.

So which is it? The opinion poll numbers suggest that 2014 is, in fact, the appropriate baseline: 33% represents a near doubling of the BJP vote in the past three state elections and a decisive break from UP’s two-party dominant system. Yet it is undeniable that the SP-Congress alliance has raised the threshold of votes any party needs to attain a majority, transforming the contest from a seeming BJP walkover to a tough fight.

One way to resolve this impasse is to look at UP by-elections. Since the 2014 general election, the state has had 18 assembly by-elections: 11 in 2014, two in 2015 and five in 2016. These constituencies are fairly representative of the state: they are distributed across UP, and their combined 2014 general election vote shares approximate how the whole state voted in 2014, albeit with a slight bias of 3-4 percentage points each towards the BJP and INC (see table below).

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And this is how those 18 constituencies’ votes moved, from 2012 to 2014 to the subsequent by-elections:

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Note that the BJP’s vote share fell about 11 percentage points in the by-elections, while that of the SP rose more than 24 percentage points. The BJP retained only three of the 14 assembly constituencies in which it had a lead in 2014, and lost 11 to the SP. That’s a sharp fall in votes compared with 2014.

There are two obvious caveats. One is that ruling parties tend to do very well in by-elections. Voters calculate that having a ruling party legislator is more beneficial for their constituency, and parties in power tend to win by-elections about 2/3rds of the time. The second is that the BSP does not generally contest by-elections, so the 2014-16 numbers aren’t strictly comparable to 2012 and 2014 when the BSP was in the fray.

But that’s also the bad news for the BJP. One reason it did very well in the general election is that many BSP voters – including Dalits and MBCs – preferred Modi in 2014. But in the subsequent by-elections, the BSP’s vote appears to have gravitated towards the SP rather than to the BJP. It’s possible that incumbent advantage, including control of the state’s law-and-order machinery, contributed to this shift, but the BJP will have to fight to retain its 2014 voting bloc.

Such big drops in vote share are not unheard of in the wake of “wave” elections, such as in 1984. In November that year, the INC won 51% of votes in Uttar Pradesh, only to slip three months later to 39% in the state election that followed. Even bigger dips have occurred: in 1987, the INC won 29% in Haryana, a sharp drop from the 55% it received in 1984.

Now 1984 was a long time ago, and the obvious counter-argument is that UP has seen many big political events since the by-elections that could put wind beneath the BJP’s wings. These include the army raid across the Line-of-Control, demonetisation, the civil war in the SP and the high-pitched election campaign in which the BJP has brought out its big guns. And voters could decide that the BJP deserves a chance to run UP after successive BSP and SP governments.

But the reality is that the BJP’s vote share has dropped substantially since its 2014 victory, and the SP-Congress alliance has built a vote chest that makes it imperative for the BJP to outperform. As it happens, in the 2015 Bihar election, by-election vote shifts overstated the ruling alliance’s vote share but captured the drop in the vote share of the BJP and its allies. The BJP should hope that it won’t be the same story in UP.

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Bihar may be an uphill battle for the BJP

An average of three recent opinion polls (here, here and here) shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- and Janata Dal (United)(JD(U))-led alliances are locked in a statistical dead heat in the 2015 Bihar state election.

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This is a very creditable performance for the BJP. The party was long overshadowed by its partner of two decades, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), even though it played a crucial supporting role in bringing upper caste votes to the alliance. Today, it appears to have fought Bihar’s two dominant parties to a standstill, and could yet form a government with its political allies. Indeed, the formation of a “grand coalition” (महागठबंधन) by the JD(U), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Indian National Congress (INC) could ironically elevate the BJP to political primacy in Bihar, as Yogendra Yadav argued in a recent TV interview.

But it won’t be easy for the BJP to overcome the grand coalition’s raw arithmetic power. At the height of the Modi wave in the 2014 general election, the BJP and its allies outpolled the combined votes of these three parties in only 85 of 243 assembly segments. Most of these lay within 11 Lok Sabha constituencies where heavyweight BJP alliance candidates were contesting. The corollary: the then-hypothetical grand coalition “won” 158 assembly segments.

The big change since then is that the RJD and INC are now in alliance with the JD(U). So why does the race appear to be so tight? One theory is that disaffection with the RJD and Lalu Yadav will encourage many JD(U) supporters who might otherwise have voted for Nitish to switch to the the BJP. Furthermore younger and more educated Yadavs are also said to be weighing support for the BJP, which means that the RJD could also lose votes to the BJP.

Who knows, right? Well, not quite. We have a test of this theory in ten state by-elections fought in August 2014, only three months after the general election. The main difference was that the RJD+INC and JD(U) fought separately in the general election, but presented a unified front in the by-elections. A comparison of vote shares in the two elections gives us an opportunity to gauge the effect of the grand coalition.

So what happened? There was a swing of 2.1% towards the JD(U)-led front and a swing of 6.2% away from the BJP alliance (using simple averages). The BJP and its allies won four assembly seats and the JD(U) alliance took six. This would seem to show that the unification of the RJD, JD(U) and INC had a (weak) positive effect, while the BJP lost substantial vote share compared with the general election, only three months later. If this is a foretaste of how the grand coalition might fare against the BJP, the latter has much to be concerned about.

There are, as usual, caveats. This measure is imperfect because (1) issues and candidates differ between national and state elections and (2) ruling parties tend to win by-elections about two-thirds of the time because voters like their constituencies to receive favourable treatment. This means that any alliance effect — political contradictions that forced some RJD and JD(U) voters into the arms of the BJP — could have been hidden in the by-elections by such an incumbent effect. Furthermore, ten is admittedly a small sample in a state that has 243 assembly constituencies, although as the map below shows they were reasonably diversified in geographical terms (156-Bhagalpur in the southeast seems to not have been properly highlighted).

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Most importantly, of course, there was no chance that the by-elections would result in a change in government, whereas the BJP and its partners present a credible alternative in the state election. So a BJP wave or the move of key swing constituencies towards it (be they Mahadalits or Yadavs) could still produce victory for the BJP. However, the recent historical record and the sheer quantum of votes available to the JD(U) and RJD suggest this won’t be so easy.

The Delhi election is a dead heat

A simple average of the five most recent opinion polls shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are locked in a dead heat in the 2015 Delhi state election, with a projected 40% share of the vote each.

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There is considerable variation among the five polls in terms of the vote gap between the two parties.

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The chart above shows that the BJP is 4-5 percentage points ahead of the AAP in the India TV-Cvoter and India Today-Cicero polls, but 3-6 points behind in the other three polls.

How to judge? As the chart below shows, in 2013 ABP News-Nielsen and India TV-Cvoter came the closest to estimating the relative vote shares of the BJP and AAP (using the “Mosteller 5” method, explained here); CNN IBN-CSDS did even better but are not conducting a pre-election poll this year.

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And what do those two agencies together project in 2015? A vote gap in favour of the BJP of -4 and 5 percentage points, respectively, which more or less cancel each other out. Which is why even a weighted average (by past poll accuracy) of the five polls results in — you guessed right — a dead heat.

Deflating expectations

Every time the price of onions rises, pundits remind us (here and here) of what happened in Delhi in 1998, when a spike in the price of onions is believed to have contributed to the state election defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Inflation does appear to matter greatly to Indian voters: “price rise” was the single most important issue for voters in the February 2014 CSDS tracker poll (PDF), followed by “development”, “corruption” and “economic growth”.

Some blame the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for feeding food inflation via frequent increases in the minimum support prices (MSP) for cereals like rice and wheat in its quest for rural votes. This may therefore have come as a bit of a surprise:

Modi’s declaration is a timely reminder of just how far we are from India’s “Thatcher moment“. India’s political realities do not permit a mass party like the BJP to ignore key constituencies, and this will continue to shape the economic policies of a future BJP-led government.

That said, inflation is a hot political issue and the BJP’s election manifesto claims that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) did much more to control inflation than did the UPA:

The BJP-led NDA Government’s record of holding the prices is a demonstration of our commitment to break the vicious cycle of high inflation and high interest rates.

Tellingly, the Indian National Congress manifesto has no mention of either inflation or “price rise”.

How to judge? Just as India’s economic growth is linked to the global economy through trade and investment flows (see How bad is the UPA’s economic record?), the prices of Indian goods and services — particularly those that are tradable — are tied to global prices. I therefore compare India’s annual GDP deflator since 1998 with that of developing countries (using World Bank data). The GDP deflator is a better measure than an inflation index (like the Consumer Price Index) because it does not limit its measurements to a fixed basket of goods and services but one that evolves with the economy.

And this is what we find: the NDA clearly was more successful at controlling prices than the UPA. In absolute terms, inflation rose from 4.5% during the NDA period (1998-2004) to 6.2% during UPA1 (2005-09), and further to 8.2% during UPA2 (2010-12).

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But how much of this can be blamed on poor economic management? That’s where the global comparison becomes relevant, and the UPA2 in particular performs poorly here. Under the NDA and UPA1, India’s inflation rate stayed below that of the developing world (although the differential decreased during UPA1). But under UPA2, Indian inflation soared to 2.5 percentage points above the developing country average. This can’t simply be explained away by high oil prices and inflation in food commodities (e.g. wheat and rice) because developing countries were also affected by those.

This World Bank chart shows how India’s inflation rate (in %) diverged quite sharply from other countries from 2009 onwards:

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So why did this separation occur? Plausible reasons include:

  • Fiscal deficit. The UPA sharply increased government spending in 2008-09, in the run up to the 2009 elections as well as to stave off the effects of the global crisis, but found it hard to reverse course and reduce the deficit subsequently for political reasons. Finance Minister P Chidambaram even blamed his predecessor, now President Pranab Mukherjee, last year for this inflationary surge.
  • Food prices. Food inflation has been a big driver of overall inflation in recent years. As their incomes have risen, Indians have consumed greater quantities of proteins such as milk, eggs, meat and fish, and the prices of these commodities have accordingly spiralled.
  • Minimum support prices. Government policies to ensure that farmers receive higher prices for cereals (e.g, rice and wheat) and pulses have also contributed to food inflation.
  • Subsidy reform. Ironically, price increases in petrol, diesel, non-nitrogen fertilisers and electricity aimed at reducing the deficit have helped increase inflation directly, as well as indirectly by making it more expensive to grow agricultural produce.
  • Rural wage increases. The wages of agricultural labourers have gone up rapidly, both because of the rural employment guarantee act and because of higher wages in sectors like construction that provide alternative employment for this section of workers.

Not everyone agrees that persistent inflation is a completely bad thing. Harish Damodaran argues that inflation in India is a consequence of the economic empowerment of lower-income groups.

For now, though, it’s the UPA that seems to be paying a political price for elevated inflation and slow economic growth.

Postscript

Some analysts like Yogendra Yadav do not think that the concept of “price rise” as presented in opinion polls is reducible to inflation. As he wrote in 2009:

In India ‘price rise’ is a way of talking about the lack of purchasing power or insufficient income rather than what economists call ‘inflation.’

If so, then real wage growth might better capture how the state of the economy will affect voting behaviour. But that’s a different study.

Running to stand still

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) continues to advance in the opinion polls.  The NDTV-Hansa survey projects a majority for the alliance if elections were held in March:

The CNN-IBN-CSDS-The Week election tracker is more cautious in its forecast, but has also projected a 20-seat improvement in the NDA’s seats tally over the past two months:

This is a good time to revisit the argument I made two months ago in Why you should ignore opinion poll seat projections. I had written that “Indian public opinion polls are much better at predicting party vote shares than they are at extrapolating to seats won in parliament or state assemblies… because vote shares translate into seats in an unpredictable way under India’s multiparty “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

So what does the latest vote share data tell us?

The NDTV-Hansa poll shows that the NDA has increased its vote share by 4.4 percentage points between February and April 2014, while the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has slipped 1.2 percentage points:

The CNN-IBN-CSDS-The Week poll projects that the NDA vote share has risen one percentage point and the UPA vote share has fallen by a similar amount:

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If we assume a margin of error of 3%, this signifies no real change in the two alliances’ relative positions. In other words, the NDA’s advantage over the UPA has neither grown nor diminished in any concrete sense over the past two months.

How opinion polls fared in the last two general elections

As more and more opinion polls hit the headlines, it’s worth recalling how they fared in the two most recent general elections:

2004

2009

Note: The figures in parentheses under the NDA and UPA columns are the respective seat tallies of the BJP and Congress Party.

Should opinion polls be banned?

Despite my critique of their use of communal violence data, the India Today Group graciously invited me to participate in a panel discussion on opinion polling at the India Today Conclave 2014 on Saturday, Mar 8.

I made the following points:

  1. Parliamentary seat projections should be treated with skepticism because there is no simple relationship between vote shares and seats won (as I have argued previously).
  2. About a fifth of the seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha election were won with a margin of 3 per cent or less, which means that fluctuations within the margin of error of most surveys can dramatically change the number of seats a party wins.
  3. Between 20 and 30 per cent of voters make up their minds about whom to vote for a couple of days prior to voting, and last minute vote swings can make a big difference.
  4. Of course I didn’t think that opinion polls should be banned but made more transparent and evaluated by better-informed consumers.

The full video of the event is here: India Today Conclave 2014: Need to regulate opinion polls, say psephologists.

Here is an edited version:

Why you should ignore opinion poll seat projections

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Indian public opinion polls are much better at predicting party vote shares than they are at extrapolating to seats won in parliament or state assemblies. That’s because vote shares translate into seats in an unpredictable way under India’s multiparty “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

For example, the Indian National Congress (INC) increased its national vote share only 2% between 2004 and 2009 but its seats tally increased by 60 to 206. Uttar Pradesh is even more stark: the Bahujan Samaj Party won 206 seats in the 2007 assembly elections with more than 30% of the vote, but the Samajwadi Party won 224 seats in 2012 with only 29%. As Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies told The Caravan: “Same state, same voters, same parties. Party gets 1% less votes and gets 20 extra seats.”

The following chart from Rukmini Shrinivasan’s June 2013 article captures this unpredictability:

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This means that people should take vote share projections in opinion polls much more seriously than seat share projections. And yet our TV studios and newspapers spend hours and column inches on seat predictions with only a cursory mention, if that, of respective vote shares.

So let’s take a look at what the four national opinion polls published so far in 2014 are saying about vote shares:

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The average of these four polls projects that vote share of the INC-led alliance will drop by 7% to 24%, that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance will rise 13% to 34% and of others will fall 6% to 42%.

This is a sweeping vote shift by historical standards:

  1. If it occurs this would be the third biggest negative swing that the INC has suffered, smaller than the -9% and -11% swings in 1977 (post-emergency) and 1989 (Bofors, 1984 wave reversal) respectively but comparable with what occurred in 1996 after the Narasimha Rao government. Perhaps not so surprising in the current political environment.
  2. The real news is the 13% increase in the vote share of the BJP and its close allies, which surpasses the +4% swing in 1989 and the +9% swing the party experienced in 1991 after the Ram Temple movement. This is particularly surprising given the absence of the BJP from large swathes of southern and eastern India.
  3. The fall in the vote share of others is also noteworthy given the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and the resilience of regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and elsewhere.

I will look into these numbers in greater detail in the near future, but here are two caveats:

  • With the exception of the BJP, party campaigns only picked up recently. Not all voters may be paying attention at this point and late vote swings have been known to occur.
  • Candidate selection and quality are important, which is why early polls can be misleading.