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Upswing of Congress Party?

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Anationwide survey has reported a major upswing in the popularity of the Congress Party. The State of the Nation Survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) had a sample size (14,680 completed interviews), sample coverage (all the states and union territories that have more than five Lok Sabha seats) and a sampling technique (circular random sampling for selection of respondents from electoral rolls) that should make any political analyst take the findings seriously. The survey used the standard hypothetical question (

August 26, 2006 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY
Anationwide survey has reported a major upswing in the popularity of the Congress Party. The State of the Nation Survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) had a sample size (14,680 completed interviews), sample coverage (all the states and union territories that have more than five Lok Sabha seats) and a sampling technique (circular random sampling for selection of respondents from electoral rolls) that should make any political analyst take the findings seriously. The survey used the standard hypothetical question (“Who would you vote for if Lok Sabha elections were held tomorrow?”) to measure levels of popular support for different political formations. It found that the Congress and its allies had gained as much as 8 percentage points over their combined vote share in the Lok Sabha elections held in 2004. All others have lost proportionately, the biggest loser being the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that has suffered a drop of 5 percentage points. On this basis the CSDS estimated that if Lok Sabha elections were held in the first week of August, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would have won 306 seats. The Congress and the BJP would have touched their highest and lowest points, respectively, since 1991, with the Congress at 240 seats and the BJP at just 82 seats. Even if we do not go by the inherently risky enterprise of seat projections in a first-past-the-post electoral system and that too in a hypothetical situation, the fact remains that the ruling coalition seems to have expanded its lead over the NDA from less than 1 percentage point at the time of the Lok Sabha election to a staggering 14 percentage points in August 2006. These findings may not at first sight appear convincing for neither the UPA government nor the Congress seem to be in the pink of health. Of late, the government has found itself in all sorts of difficulties, from the Volcker controversy and Mandal II to issues like farmers’ suicides, the price rise and the Indo-US nuclear deal. Upswing of Congress Party? Even its sympathisers would not describe it as a government that is moving with a sense of purpose and command. As for the Congress, it is only fair to say that as and when it displays signs of life in the inter-election period, the party finds it hard to convey some of the demands of the people and its workers to its own government and still harder to convert some of the landmark decisions of the present government like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or the Right to Information Act into planks of popular mobilisation. The survey findings do, however, make sense if they are seen as indicating the play of short- and mediumterm factors that are helping the Congress. The central government is not unpopular, despite serious anxieties among the electorate about inflation and farmers’ suicides; at any rate it is seen to be not worse than expected and is viewed to be better than the NDA. The two public faces of the regime – Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh – enjoy a fair degree of popular trust and have gained consistently in popularity as none of the BJP leaders is in a position to step into Atal Behari Vajpayee’s shoes. It is also possible that this survey may have caught the Congress at a fortunate point in the state level electoral cycle when its state governments have not started shedding their popularity while those of the NDA have touched a low point of “anti-incumbency”. All these factors, however, do not fully account for the scale and nationwide spread of the upswing of the Congress. Something deeper seems to be at work here. Some of the features of the “post-Congress polity” of the past 15 years appear to be undergoing a subtle but long-term change. The survey offers preliminary indications that voting intention in a possible Lok Sabha election is no longer simply a function of political preferences at the state level, that more and more voters are “splitting” their parliamentary and assembly vote and preferring the national parties in a Lok Sabha election. It also shows some signs of the Congress regaining its social “rainbow” at the expense of regional formations,

including its own allies, which had in the past two decades walked away with different slices of this rainbow. The historical failure of the political formations of the “third front”, which were the natural heir to the democratic upsurge of the 1990s, has meant thatthepolitical energy released by this upsurge and mobilised by various splinters of the third front has started returning to the Congress, at least when making the choice at the national level.

These must be very tentative observations, but if this reading is not off the mark, we are in the process of a long-term change in the terrain of party political competition. If so, the Congress should be seen as a passive beneficiary rather than creating a shift in its favour. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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