“We have organized 930 Ram Navami Yatras in the state in the last 4 years. These Yatras have now become a symbol of Hindu assertion here, often people have participated in large numbers despite intimidation and threats by local police and TMC party workers” explained a VHP functionary to me in Baharampur, the headquarters of Murshidabad district of the heavily Muslim dominated Malda division of Bengal. “A decade ago nobody in rural Bengal would participate in any community affairs of Hindu religion, today most of them take pride in doing so… we are proud of this achievement” he added further.
For most of us outsiders, the sudden rise of BJP in Bengal may have come as a surprise, but a lot of groundwork has been done by the larger Sangh Pariwar ecosystem which has created an undercurrent in favor of Hindu politics in the state in the last couple of years. In the first two phases, we saw this massive consolidation of Hindu votes even in areas where BJP’s organization strength was weak. It was as if the Hindu majority community was silently going into a polling booth resolving to vote saffron in an out and out red state.
This is not an easy decision, mind you. In Bengal, especially in rural Bengal, political current flows through a system of patronage that was once created by the Left and now mastered by TMC’s local networks. These local TMC workers and leaders can not only ‘protect’ ordinary people but can also give access to the government, whether it is for education of children or jobs or even doles from the government schemes all are channeled through this patronage network which is how Mamata Didi maintains her grip on power in the state. Therefore, for ordinary voters to break free from this patronage network and vote for BJP is a huge risk, yet many are taking this risk this time.
Our models have clearly suggested that the voters have taken a risk in Bengal, at least until now as TMC has underperformed while BJP has gone beyond expectations. In fact, this has now become the buzzword everywhere else in India. Average BJP Karyakartas in Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan also are talking today about a saffron surge in Bengal and Odisha. The Bengal buzz has really electrified the atmosphere elsewhere too. Yet, the reality of the 2019 election only begins now, for it is from today’s phase that the TMC’s real strength will begin to show up in Bengal.
There is also a certain sense that the real election for the Congress party too only begins from today. Of the 71 seats that will vote today, Congress had won a paltry 2 in the 2014 election, even as its other UPA allies had drawn a zero. BJP and its NDA allies of Shiv Sena and LJP had swept the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand winning every seat of this phase last time. Even in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, BJP had won all but one seat each in 2014. It is widely expected, at least by the journalistic community, that such a performance cannot be repeated by the saffron parties this time. The fact that Congress party won two of these states just last December also makes it tougher for the BJP to repeat the 2014 encore, at least on paper, because past electoral cycles have shown that a party that wins an assembly election then goes on to perform exceedingly well in the Lok Sabha poll that that follows within the next 6 months.
Even we have restrained from calling out 2019 after 3 phases although BJP has been doing so well till now simply because our models have been built to be conservative until a particular geography actually votes and we do have the post-poll numbers of that area. Generally, the ‘uniform swing theory’ has almost always worked in India. If an X party gets a positive swing in 2 or 3 geographies that vote early, then there is a 93% probability that the rest of India would also show a similar swing in favour of the X party. This has been almost always true whether in 2014 or 2009 elections or even going back into 1989 or 1984 elections. When the Congress lost its brute majority in 1989, it faced a uniform swing away from it across India. When BJP won a majority on its own for the first time, it got a positive swing almost everywhere from Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh to Assam.
The extent of the swing may vary a bit, but uniform swing theory almost always works (there are rare exceptions like 2004). What really determines the outcome is the base strength. In a state like UP, where BJP has always had a core-strength of around 25-30%, the swing made a huge difference whereas in a state like say Kerala, where BJP had a base strength of less than 6-7%, the swing did not make any impact in 2014. This is a unique feature to Indian politics wherein swing voters tend to vote for a party that is seen to be “ahead” or “winning” rather than waste their votes on party/parties that are losing.
This is not just limited to politics, but almost all aspects of Indian socio-economic parameters work along similar lines. Take for example any or most products that we consume starting from toothpastes to cars, in all the segments, there will be 1 or 2 brands that virtually dominate the market and command almost 50% of the market-share. In the ‘oral care’ (toothpaste in layman’s terms) segment Colgate commands 53% of the market share even now after Patanjali made a huge disruption. Similarly, in the passenger car market, Maruti Suzuki commands 48% while Suzuki and Hyundai together command about 65% of the market-share.
We Indians find comfort in numbers. We tend to believe that “if so many people are buying Maruti cars then there must be something good about it, so let me also buy the same”. Compare this to say the US market and you will see a complete contrast. In the United States, about 9 different major car makers all have a market share of around 7 to 8%, no single brand commands a near total domination. Similarly, the US political trend too varies from state to state depending on whether they are Blue (Democrat) or Red (Republican) leaning states.
At any given point of time in India, there are about 20% swing voters who usually decide the fate of an election. The swing voters are like those consumers who are about to buy a product but are unsure which one to buy unlike those consumers who simply know that they need a Colgate tooth paste or a Maruti Car or a Samsung or Xiaomi mobile phone (the two brands between them control 50% of mobile phone market-share). Here are some of the unique characteristics of the swing voters that we have observed over the last decade.
As Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh vote today, we will be observing whether the swing voter still believes that Modi is winning this election or will they split out in favor of the local Congress government. What is clear so far is that the swing voter in other states/geographies have stood by the BJP as they believe only Modi is in the race for Prime Ministership, while all others are simply trying to stop him. By the end of the day today, we should have the clearest idea of how the next parliament is going to look like, one way or the other.