Bellwether Lok Sabha poll survey shows Modi effect in UP, Bihar

Everyone knows that the path to 7, Race Course Road, goes through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two states with 120 Lok Sabha seats between them.

If Narendra Modi wants to ride to 200-plus Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and make a bid for the prime ministership, he has to win big in these two states. If Arvind Kejriwal or Nitish Kumar or Mulayam Singh Yadav want to become kingmakers or want to stop Modi in his tracks, this is where they have work to do.

As things stand, Modi has had a head start in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in terms of perceptions, and an early poll shows how far ahead he is currently.

Given the criticality of these two states, Think India Foundation commissioned Lokniti-CSDS to do an indepth and continuing tracker survey in these two states, and the first one is now with us. The poll shows Modi comfortably ahead of his main rivals in both states.

A caveat is in order upfront: this tracker is neither a broad-based opinion poll that is spread thinly over a large number of Lok Sabha constituencies, nor is it completely representative of all segments of opinion in all parts of these two states. However, it represents a deep-dive into a critical and fairly representative constituency. At the very least, it will be more accurate for that constituency, if not completely representative of the whole state.

Narendra Modi. AFP.

Narendra Modi. AFP.

The two bellwether Lok Sabha constituencies chosen for the deep-dive are Bhagalpur in Bihar and Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh.  These constituencies were chosen because they have, over time, tended to capture overall voting trends better in their respective states. The sample sizes were also large – 1,000 for each – and the survey was done in all assembly segments. Arguably, it could offer better accuracy, and indicate which way the wind is blowing. With this in mind, no seat share or voting percentage projections are being made.

So what does this deep dive tell us?

Both in Bhagalpur and Fatehpur, the results are encouraging for the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate.

In Bhagalpur, where the sitting MP Shahnawaz Hussain (BJP) was elected with 36 percent of the vote in 2009 in a partnership with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(U), the BJP on its own seems to be favoured by a hefty 47.6 percent of the voters. Congress is second with 19.2 percent, and Lalu Prasad’s RJD third with 15.2 percent. In 2009, the RJD was second with 27 percent , but Lalu’s recent conviction in the fodder scam has obviously dented its vote.

This does not mean the BJP will win in a canter in Bhagalpur, leave alone gain a majority of seats in Bihar, but it shows that the BJP is ahead in its perception battle.

Narendra Modi, not surprisingly, is streets ahead in terms of personal popularity as PM candidate, with a 38.9 percent approval rating against local son Nitish Kumar’s 15.4 percent.  Rahul Gandhi comes third, and Lalu fourth – but then Lalu is not a PM candidate. Rahul apparently does not count for much as yet.

Clearly, Nitish Kumar has much to worry about in 2014, more so since the majority of the electorate thinks he made a bad choice by dumping the BJP alliance around the middle of this year. Some 53.7 percent of the sampled voters said Nitish Kumar’s decision was wrong, and only 32.4 percent felt it was right.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP appears to be ahead in the first lap. The sitting MP, Rakesh Sachan of the Samajwadi Party, polled 32 percent of the vote in 2009, and the BJP was a distant third at 17 percent, well behind BSP’s 24 percent. But this time around, the BJP is clearly ahead with 35.6 percent of voters (in the sample of 1,000 respondents) preferring the party over the others. The BSP and SP are bunched up next at 22 percent and 21 percent. Note the SP’s third place.

That this upsurge in interest in the BJP is largely the result of the nomination of Modi for the prime ministership is clear from the fact that his own approval rating is 33.6 percent - well above the rest.

Mayawati can’t be too unhappy, since she scores higher than Mulayam Singh Yadav with 21.8 percent against Yadav’s 13.4 percent.

Yadav’s poor third place should be a cause for concern. It suggests that the rule of Akhilesh Yadav has dented the popularity of SP and brought Mayawati back into the reckoning. Rahul and Akhilesh come in third and fourth with just over 8 percent each. The fact that Akhilesh, who is not even an aspirant for PM, is close to Rahul in the perception battle suggests that the latter is not taken all that seriously in Uttar Pradesh.

Equally interesting, even though both BJP and SP were presumed to be interested in a communal polarisation after the Muzaffarnagar riots, it is Mulayam Singh who is being held accountable. Some 82 percent of the people polled in Fatehpur said they had heard of the riots, and 31.2 percent held the SP responsible for it. The Congress gets the second share of the blame, with 13.7 percent, and the BJP third, at 12.4 percent. Clearly, the Congress-SP linkage at the centre is proving costly for both.

Independent of the communal situation, the SP-Congress central alliance is likely to prove to be a millstone around both their necks as a huge majority – 47 percent – expressed itself "fully dissatisfied" with the UPA government, with 18.6 percent saying they were "somewhat dissatisfied".

If Bhagalpur and Fatehpur are early straws in the wind, it would suggest that the Narendra Modi bandwagon is gaining momentum, even though he can by no means be said to be home and dry. Mayawati could be his most significant opposition, not Mulayam Singh, though it is early days yet.

Modi has made only a couple of visits to UP so far -  but in the coming weeks he is planning a huge rally in Varanasi on 20 December. Though the speculation is that Modi will play out his Hindutva card, an assumption strengthened by the party’s decision to send his trusted aide Amit Shah to oversee the state, the results of this survey show Modi to be in the lead even without Hindutva. Price-rise is the dominant concern of the electorate – with a quarter of the people worried about it in Fatehpur. Development, employment and corruption are the next three concerns – not the mandir-masjid dispute.

The message for Modi from the electorate is this: tell us how you will improve the economy and jobs, not about the construction of a temple.

This is not the final word, but our surveys in January and March will tell us how things are shaping up as the campaign warms up. These are early indications on electoral mood. Nothing more, nothing less.