The Indian voter is a difficult beast to decipher. Psephologists, who routinely end up with egg on their face after pre-poll, post-poll and exit poll surveys, would vouch for that. Here’s more evidence that experts don’t read him right at all.
After the 2G spectrum scandal burst into the public consciousness in 2010 accompanied by the Commonwealth Games scandal and tremendous media heat, it was believed that the Congress’s goose was cooked nice and proper. The high-voltage anti-corruption movement that followed from mid-2011 till early 2012 convinced everybody that the party was indeed doomed. Given the odds stacked against the party, it was expected that it would lose a series of elections in states besides losing its vote share dramatically. There was nothing irrational about the expectation.
However, as election results in a number of states between 2011 and 2012 suggest, nothing of that sort has happened. To the contrary, it has gained in vote share in all the states that went to polls in the period. In Uttar Pradesh, which went to polls in early 2012, the Congress’ vote share went up by three percent (from 8 to 11) while that of the BJP which made corruption at the Centre its major vote plank declined by a similar percentage.
In Punjab, the party registered a vote share of gain of 0.79 percent. The SAD-BJP combine which returned to power with an absolute majority lost its vote share by 2.34 percent. The BJP’s loss was 1.15 percent. In Uttarakhand, the Congress’s gain in terms of vote share was nine percent, in Himachal it was 3.27 percent and in Gujarat it was about one percent. Increase in vote share means more votes than earlier for a party.
The numbers are perplexing to say the least. In Uttarakhand, Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, who has significant following in the state, and anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal had openly backed the incumbent BJP government. In Himachal Pradesh, there was a serious graft charge against Virbhadra Singh just before the elections. In other states too corruption was the big issue. How come then did the Congress manage to improve its performance?
Does it mean that the issue of corruption is over-hyped in the country? Possible. The electorate in general does not view it as seriously as many in the chattering classes do. If it does not disrupt their daily lives significantly they would chose to tolerate it. Admitted, a lot of local factors go into assembly elections, but given the unprecedented buzz around corruption over the last two years it was expected to make some impact. The reality is, it has not.
Another issue that was supposed to influence voter preference heavily was rise in the prices of essential commodities. The culprit here, again, was the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre. Survey after pre-poll survey made it clear that the voters were unhappy with price-rise and this would weigh heavy on their mind when they troop into the polling booths. The results and vore share analysis do not reflect that.
Does it mean that the excitement in the media over both the issues—corruption and price-rise—was misplaced? Does it also mean that the media have a very limited role in influencing voting behaviour in the country? If you go by the results, the answer is yes. Its impact is confined to a limited section of the population and people, when it comes to voting, make their own choice anyway. It applies to both urban and rural voters.
It means none of the opposition parties can hope to make a killing out of these issues in the general elections whenever it is due. They have to think better. And yes, pollsters need rethink the way they map electoral behaviour.