Is India's 2019 election really a foregone conclusion?

Is India's 2019 election really a foregone conclusion?
  • All surveys predict a comfortable lead for the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • The average of all polls project a majority for NDA with 276 out of 543 Parliamentary seats
  • Opinion polls in the past have underestimated the number of seats bagged by the winner by 8%
It's election season in India, a time when business peaks for surveyors and pollsters. While the credibility of opinion polls is often brought to question, their strike rate in predicting the winner of Parliamentary elections has been very high at 97%.

However, the success rate in estimating the number of seats that the winning side may bag is as low as 62%, according to data compiled by veteran journalist Prannoy Roy and election researcher Dorab Sopariwala in their new book 'The Verdict'. And in nearly three-fourths of all elections -- Parliament and state-- the pollsters have sided with caution and underestimated the winner's final tally.

For the upcoming elections in 2019, opinion polls, so far, have unanimously projected a comfortable lead for the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs.

The alliance is likely to get more seats than any other rival, but pollsters are divided on whether it will be able to secure a majority like it did in 2014. These are early days and public mood is known to swing sharply closer to the elections.

To estimate what the final picture may look like on May 23, let's look at the average of all four surveys. That seems to suggest that the incumbent coalition under Narendra Modi may indeed get re-elected with a majority.

The rise in number of seats in favour of the NDA is in sync with the broad consensus that the Modi government benefited from the recent escalation of tensions with Pakistan. He has definitely used the spotlight on him to garner as many votes as possible by riling up nationalist sentiments and portraying himself as a strong leader who is not afraid of combat.

The projected margin of seats above the half-way mark is still just four. The average under-estimation of the winning party by pollsters in Parliamentary election is about 8%, according to Roy and Sopariwala. If that were to be true in the upcoming elections, the NDA may even land up with 298 seats.

Now, a number that high may trigger scepticism. While the nationalist fervour in India may help Modi, past experience shows that such conflicts with Pakistan have not led to decisive electoral gains. The BJP won only 23.75% of the votes cast after the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, whereas in 2014, when there was no semblance of a war, the party bagged 31.3% of the votes.

Further, the Modi government has lost a lot of support since the sweeping win in 2014 due to a variety of reasons. A flagging economy and lack of jobs, the government's alleged attempts to dress-up economic data, ill-advised demonetisation, persistent farm distress, and rise in communal polarisation and violence among other issues have dented the government's chances.

This was clearly visible in the state election results that were held in the closing months of 2018. The swing in voter sentiment in a smaller region tended to be duplicated around the country, British social scientist Sir David Butler explained in the foreword to Roy and Sopariwala's book. That would explain the sharp fall in the projected number of seats to the NDA in 2019 compared to the 336 it scored in 2014.

Indeed, Modi's popularity is a shadow of its past while his rivals are on an upswing but, if pollsters are to be believed, the incumbents are still comfortably ahead of the others.

On the other side, hectic parleys are underway between opposition parties to eke out a winning combination. In India, an election is as much a numbers game as it is about ideology. Political expediency, caste, region and religion-based affiliations can often turn out to be the deciding factors. The game is far from over. There will be more surveys and polls in the days to come and we will be watching.

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Voting in India's 2019 elections will run from April 11 to May 19 and the results will be counted on May 23