Politics is a numbers game in a democracy. But in India, the electoral math can be especially abstruse, confounding the mightiest pundit. Complex equations of coalition dharma can throw up unexpected results.
Worse, the numbers don't always add up to an expected result. In our great nation, two plus two can even make five, given the right political conditions. Take, for instance, the latest CNN-IBN/Hindu election tracker polls which reveal yet again the inadequacies of conventional political wisdom.
Unpopular leaders with popular votes
In most parts of the world, plummeting favourability numbers would translate to declining vote share.But such truisms apparently fail to hold true in West Bengal and Bihar. Popular satisfaction with Nitish Kumar's government has dropped from 90 percent in 2010 to 69 percent in 2013. The CM himself has dropped 9 points. And 38 percent of Biharis disapprove of his decision to break with the BJP. And yet, the JD(U) has improved its vote share by 1 percent.
Mamata's fall from grace is even more precipitous. Her personal approval ratings have fallen 15 points, but the really bad news: Satisfaction with her government's performance has nosedived from 79 percent in 2011 to 9 percent! That would be catastrophic for any government, except Trinamool -- like the JD(U) -- has actually gained 1 percent in the vote share.
The do-nothing strategy works
The Congress party has sat on the sidelines in both West Bengal and Bihar, and yet it is sitting pretty in both states. Despite Mamata's self-destructive behavior -- and the Left's best efforts to capitalize on the same -- it is now more unpopular than ever. The communist parties' vote share has dropped 15 percentage points since 2009. Congress, on the other hand, has gained 8 points in vote share. To be fair, so has the other non-player, BJP, which has doubled its vote share to 12 percent.
In Bihar, the Congress vote share is unchanged at 10 percent while all other parties in the state have improved their fortunes. Yet as The Hindu notes, it is Congress which is poised to be a kingmaker:
Should Mr. Kumar align with the Congress, the alliance will trump other parties. An alliance among the RJD, the Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party will likely do even better than a JD(U)-Congress alliance. So the future of Bihar is really in the hands of the Congress, which ironically is at the bottom in terms of vote share.
In India, the best winning strategy is to do nothing and wait for the right alignment of the electoral stars.
Communalism vs Corruption? No one cares
The C-words don't matter. One of the big guns in the BJP's anti-UPA arsenal is corruption. And yet despite all the drama surrounding 2G, Anna Hazare and Aam Aadmi Party, it scores abysmally low on the list of the Indian voter's priorities, coming in fifth, way behind 'development and economy', 'price rise', 'governance' and 'leadership'. If the UPA loses power in 2014, but it won't be as a deserved punishment for presiding over some of the biggest corruption scandals in Indian history.
But if all those 'G's don't matter, neither does the other C-word, communalism, which scores even lower than corruption, coming in at number 7 on the list. Godhra and khaki shorts nationalism may dominate news headlines, but they matter little to the average Indian voter who is worried about his wallet.
The bad news for the UPA: Only 20 percent of the voters see the economy as 'good' or 'very good.' The good news for the UPA: No one seems willing to hit it where it hurts most: high inflation.
“It really is puzzling, that we have had nearly two years now of consumer price inflation over 10 percent, and nobody seems to be making an issue out of it. In earlier times, an unanticipated spike in prices could topple governments. But the opposition just hasn’t been taking up these questions,” Pronab Sen, economist and former chief statistician of India, told The Hindu.
The lesson of this electoral story: Ignore popularity ratings, do nothing, and keep the price of onions down.