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Bhabanipur: Has the BJP Blinked? || Midweek Matters 28

23-09-2021published_dt 2021-09-23T07:29:26.079Z23-09-2021 12:59:26 IST
2021-09-23T07:29:26.079Z23-09-2021 2021-09-23T07:29:26.079Z - - 01-12-2021

Hello and Welcome

To Midweek Matters.

The Election Commission of India has announced the schedule for by-election to Bhabanipur Assembly constituency. Mamata Banerjee who lost the election from Nandigram to BJP in May seeks to return to Assembly from that seat. Although there are a few Loksabha and Assembly by-elections pending, the Election Commission has decided to conduct elections only for 4 Assembly constituencies, 3 in Bengal and one in Odisha. The ECI has again given a special treatment to Bengal. Within a period of about a fortnight two opinion polls were published. One by India Today and the other one by a body called Morning Consult. Today I want to look at the contrasting findings of these two surveys, and see how they could help us understand BJP's present engagement in Bengal, especially with regard to Bhabanipur. 

 

Let us first look at the surveys that are recently published. One by Morning Consult and the other by India Today. They have come out in a gap of about a fortnight. Morning Consult said that PM's approval is high at 70%. India Today's finding is that it has steeply declined to 24%. Understandably starting from Union Ministers to the humble local party worker, all of them have made the Morning Consult's finding viral on their social media platforms. Compliant media outlets were encouraged to publicise the top slot the PM has in approval ratings compared to his peers in twelve other countries, including the US, Germany, the UK, and Italy. However, other than using it for impression management, the party and government leaders do not have much reason to really trust the finding of Morning Consult. I assume that they would have been briefed on how weak and undependable the outfit's methodology, and how woefully inadequate it’s sample size are. 

Let me briefly give you an idea. Morning Consult is a new kid on the block. Around only since 2014. It claims a valuation of one billion US dollars and offers to provide political intelligence, economic intelligence, brand intelligence, and global leaders approval ratings. It says that it tracks on a weekly basis the approval rating of leaders of 13 countries, including the US, UK, Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil. I’ve given the link to its portal in the description. Its latest survey findings received a lot of publicity in India driven mainly by BJP supporters. It placed India's PM on the top of the chart. About its data collection it says that all its interviews are conducted online among nationally representative samples of adults. In the case of India, it’s portal specifically mentions that the sample is representative of the country's literate population. Those who want to see the details of their sample size and methodology may take a look at them there. Its sample size for India is something that doesn’t pass the approval of any serious professional. It contacts 2 thousand 1 hundred and 26 adult literates. And they are contacted online. Yes. 2,126 respondents contacted online. Now you can imagine how inadequate the size of the sample is and how unrepresentative it could be in a country that is as vast and diverse and socially stratified as India is. While it contacts 2,126 respondents in India, a country with a population of about 1.4 billion, it interviews 40,246 respondents in the US which has a population of about 330 million. Except the US, the sample size from all other countries is woefully small. Our PM's top approval rating by  Morning Consult is not new. You will see in their portal it never went below 63% in the last two years. That low end figure was in May and June of this year. It hit as incredibly high as 83% in April and May 2020. Now, you may be wondering why last week's rating was suddenly pushed so hard by the ruling party in the mainstream as well as in social media. 

That’s because just a couple of weeks before that the India Today Mood of the Nation survey found that the Prime Minister's popularity has steeply fallen to 24%. It was 66% in August 2020. It fell to 38% in January this year.

It’s a continuous decline, mainly accounted for by rising prices, increasing unemployment and Covid mishandling. This negative narrative had to be countered by the ruling party. 

But, the India Today sampling is much higher and much more widely and professionally spread. The study design is qualitatively much higher than the one done by Morning Consult. It contacted 14,599 respondents, 71% of them are from rural areas and 29% from the urban sector. It is spread across115 Lok Sabha constituencies and 230 Assembly segments in 19 states. If a professional choice has to be made between the two surveys, India Today would be the clear choice for the size of it’s sample as well as its diverse spread. On both the counts Morning Consult is hopelessly inadequate. I can say this with confidence as someone who’s been working in this domain for over two and a half decades. 

I can’t imagine that the top leadership of the BJP is unaware of how unreliable and non-serious the rating given by Morning Consult is. It would have had the benefit of a competent professional advice on this. And that advice would have told them that it is useful only for publicity and headline management but of little real value as a dependable gauge of public mood.

With these findings in mind, let us try to look at the Bhabanipur by-election in Bengal. 

Bengal seems to have received special treatment by the Election Commission yet again. During the general election to the state assembly in March-April this year, the state had a long drawn eight phase polling, unlike the other states that went to polls along with it. The grounds for a protracted poll schedule offered by the Commission then were unconvincing. The decision of the poll body thus gave credence to the opinion that it acted in concert with the ruling BJP at the centre so that the party could move its limited cadre from one geographical cluster to the other for campaign as well as booth management. The Commission's decision enabled the BJP to launch an ambitious no holds barred electoral assault to defeat Trinamool Congress and capture Bengal. Though it didn’t succeed in wresting power, the BJP nevertheless made enormous gains. It’s vote share increased from 10% in 2016 to 38.13% in this year's election. And it’s seats went up from a mere 3 to 77. The campaign rhetoric descended to low level vitriol between the incumbent CM Mamata Banerjee and the Prime Minister who led the BJP's charge. Post-poll violence further embittered the relations between the two sides. Mamata Banerjee lost her own seat while leading her party to a grand victory and was sworn in as CM. Therefore, she had to necessarily get elected to the Assembly in a by-election before six months from the date of her swearing in. Failing which there would be a political-constitutional crisis. And everything depended upon the Election Commission's decision. It could decide to hold or not hold the by-election. In the event, the Commission decided to hold the election. As Mamata Banerjee getting  elected is a foregone conclusion, the decision means that the Commission has acted in order to avoid a constitutional crisis and to facilitate her entry into the State Assembly. 

Decision by the Election Commission to hold the by-election for Bhabanipur is as special as its earlier decision to hold the general election in eight phases. Except Bhabanipur and two more assembly constituencies in Bengal and one assembly seat in Odisha, the Commission decided to defer the by-elections that are due for 3 Loksabha and 31 Assembly seats in various states in the country. It cited COVID-19 pandemic, festivals, and flood situation to not conduct the elections. Conducting a few by polls and deferring many others is as unconvincing as having 8 phase polling in Bengal while other states had one or two phases in March-April state elections. Many political observers expected that the EC would defer the election in Bhabanipur too thus creating problems for Mamata Banerjee and Bengal.

It is widely reported that the Bengal BJP was taken unawares by the EC decision to go ahead with the by poll for Bhabanipur.  The Bengal BJP leaders expected that their high command would not let the EC to conduct by-election election to the seat.

The question is: has the Election Commission on its own, independently, decided to conduct the election in Bhabanipur defying the wishes of the ruling party and union government or was it allowed or even nudged by them to make an exception and go ahead with the election? If the conduct of the so called independent constitutional bodies in the recent past is any guide, it is more than clear that the EC was allowed, or even nudged, by the union government to go ahead with the by-election to avoid a constitutional issue in Bengal. 

What does this decision signify? The most important message from this is that the BJP has blinked in its confrontation with Mamata Banerjee. It is on the defensive. It is an admission that it doesn’t want to take any more beating from the Trinamool Congress. The violence that the BJP cadres reportedly suffered after the Trinamool victory seems to have unnerved the state BJP and its central leadership. The continuing defections from BJP to Trinamool, the homecoming of many Trinamool leaders who joined the BJP before elections indicate that the BJP is unable to hold on to the significant gains that it made in the just concluded general election. It sensed that the morale of the cadre is low and it is ill-prepared for a fight. It shows that the party undervalues the massive surge in its support during the energetic campaign in the general election. That it’s unrealistic expectations and exaggerated claims of forming the government were not merely a posturing for boosting the morale of the ground force. That it really expected to win and now stands dejected that it could not. The BJP has not been able to grasp the massive gains that it made electorally and ideologically in Bengal. It is now unable to retain the people that it had attracted into its fold during the run up to the elections. It realised that it punched above its weight in Bengal and invited retribution from the Trinamool that it is unable to absorb. The central leadership doesn’t seem to have anticipated the relentless hot pursuit of its cadres and leaders by Mamata Banerjee's party and government. It seems to have realised the inadequacy of the state leadership to withstand the aggression of Mamata Banerjee and its inability take her on for the next five years. It also means that the central leadership is unwilling to invest time and political resources disproportionate to the likely gains in Bengal now. 

The climb down in Bengal also points out to one more thing.  The BJP central leadership has realised that the political capital of its supreme leader and its mascot has begun to dwindle. Any manipulation of the Election Commission to scuttle Mamata Banerjee's bid to enter the Assembly might prove to be politically costly and drag it not only into a bruising fight with Trinamool in Bengal but might also offer a cause and a fresh impetus for the opposition to rally in the country at large. It would further accelerate the alienation of the middle class. It must not have failed to notice that it has only lost allies and has not won a single credible friend between 2014 and 2019. Therefore, the BJP must have realised that there is no tangible gain in engaging with Bengal now. It would only drain its political resources when the farmers' agitation is growing and it has to face elections in Uttar Pradesh, the most important political geography for the Hindutva party. 

 

There are good reasons for the BJP leadership to be unnerved and to blink in Bengal. It signals that the party has sensed the declining popularity of its mascot. It’s able to read the core message from the two surveys and see them for what they are. And with a declining political capital it would be an error to choose a battle that would yield little dividend.

No amount of effort is likely to yield any political gain to it from Bhabanipur. 

But there’s even more important point that one should not miss. Even in decline, the Prime Minister remains the tallest leader in the country. No leader from the opposition comes anywhere near his standing, his political skills, his connect with the people, his ability to sway the masses. The formidable election fighting machine that the BJP has become under his stewardship has no match in the country. There is no political force capable to take on the Hindu-Hindi-BJP triad on which his political platform stands today. In less than six months Uttar Pradesh elections offer an opportunity to the non BJP parties to forge such a force. They will tell us if the opposition to him will be able to take on him and his party and stop them in their tracks from redefining the idea of India as a soul dead, majoritarian Hindutva state. But as of now, opposition in the country is like Schrodinger's cat: it’s alive and dead at the same time. 

That’s all we have time for this week. 

Will be back again next week

Wednesday, lunch time at 1:00 o’clock. 

Stay safe and do take good care of yourselves and all your dear ones. 

Until then, Bye.

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