Let Manipur put IndiaTodayAxis & HuffPoCVoter Pre-Polls to a Psephological Test - Who is more reliable? Journalists or Pollsters?

Friday, February 10, 2017

The pre-poll numbers are all in and what are tabulated above are only those of Delhi based polling agencies though there are also a handful of local media polls. The most striking discrepancy is while the former project the BJP as a clear winner, the BJP hardly shows up as a major contender to power in Manipur in local media polls. In the case of the latter, the Congress is expected to either retain its dominance of the state or attain a near majority!! The ground reports published in the media overwhelming also shares the view that the Congress is sitting pretty in the state. How to explain this bewildering discrepancy we are seeing? 

The largest size of a Manipuri Assembly constituency is believed to be just 28,000 voters with the mean sub 25,000. Seats are won or loss by very minute swings even votes of single numbers. Added to this is the complexity of a very fragmented politics at the constituency level with a plethora of parties feeding on sentiments of different tribal sub-identities and with their own charismatic leaders. In short, this state is a psephologist nightmare but apparently this did not deter Axis & CVoter to put their hats into the ring.

Around 60% of Manipur’s population lives in the plains, while the rest on the hills. The demographics of this North Eastern state by religion reveal that Hindus and Christians are both roughly 41% of the population with Muslims around 7-8%. In the NE however religious polarisation plays second fiddle to tribal loyalties. The Meitis are found concentrated in the plains while the Nagas in the hills. The relationship between the Nagas and other Manipuri communities had been traditionally rocky and continues even to this day.  The respective voting pattern of the plains and hills expectedly demonstrates a considerably wide contrast. The Congress traditionally sweeps the plains, while their performance in the hills is mixed, at best. The population distribution desegregated by tribes can be found in the table below. 

The BJP could not even open its account in 2012 Assembly Poll. After winning the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP through money power, they induced two opposition MLAs to quit and re-stand for elections and this way wormed their way to attain some Assembly representation. Though BJP had managed a couple of defections, it could not replicate their Assam Formula very successfully in terms of engineering mass defections of leaders that mattered.

The Congress dominance of Manipur is mainly due to their stranglehold sway over the Meiti community with Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh as their leader. The only way a challenger can successfully depose the incumbent is to find a way where a strategy is found to challenge both the Congress and Ibobi dominance over the Meiti community. 

Having found this path blocked, BJP strategy apparently revolves around in the plains targeting the anti-incumbency votes of 15 years accumulated of Congress continuous rule and weakening the latter in the hills enabling the Naga People’s Front (NPF) to win the hills and post poll formalise a coalition led by BJP and includes NPF and other smaller non-Congress parties. 

With the BJP contesting alone, the Index of Opposition Unity (IoU) is very low and this provides a big boost to Congress to come back to power, even if there are some dropping in their vote share. In the plains which accounts for nearly 60% of the Assembly seats, BJP’s attempt to be the main rival to the Congress faces three additional major hurdles. 

Firstly, being a constituent in the Naga People’s Front (NPF) - Nagaland’s ruling coalition, among non-Naga Manipuri communities, BJP is treated with extreme suspicion and virtually an outcaste. This is precisely the reason why BJP could not formalise a pre-poll alliance with NPF as it would fuel even greater backlash from the non-Naga Manipuri communities. 

Secondly, given their shaky base, the BJP should have stitched up an alliance among non-Congress, non-Naga parties. Going alone is a distinct disadvantage. The BJP however apparently covertly eyed the Muslim vote. The Muslim vote is scattered among various parties, and their electoral preferences are more determined by their tribal not religious identity. But the Muslims including illegal Bangladeshi refugees have been nursing alot of grievances, being ignored and given step motherly treatment by the Congress government. A good number of them belong to the Meitei community. If at all, the BJP were to succeed in inducing Muslim consolidation around their social base pivoting around the Nagas, they should have been given more seats than the symbolic one seat they were given by the BJP. The result is that Muslims have no special reason to consolidate around the BJP. 

Thirdly, the district reorganization and resulting two months Naga blockade have polarised Manipuri communities between Naga vs non-Nagas to the advantage of the Congress that enables the latter to overcome anti-incumbency. The same reason gives the Congress a reasonable chance to be competitive in the hill, Naga dominated region. 

So we come back to the main issue, why is there a stark discrepancy between the polls of Delhi based agencies and local media on one hand and between ground reports of journalists like the one whose extracts are published below this post and opinion polls published by Delhi based agencies? 

One explanation could be that pollsters are better equipped to interpret the tea leaves than seasoned journalists covering elections hitting the ground trail. Another is that these polls by Axis and CVoter are meant to be politically “weaponised numbers” masquerading as pre-polls. Rather than facilitate as a snapshot of public mood in any given moment as pre-polls are normally meant to be, they are instead designed to mould or condition by public opinion and thereby create a hawa that there is strong wave in favour of the BJP, inducing a “bandwagon effect” as known in psephology. These are all of course only hypotheses that could either be  validated or falsified by the results of March 11th. So watch this space as well as watch closely the vote shares of the results viz-a-viz those projected by Axis & CVoter. And remember, the focus is on their pre-poll numbers, not exit poll numbers!

 Economic blockade

The 100 day-long economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC), which has put life out of gear in the state, seems to be favouring three-time Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who is seeking his fourth term.
Political parties in the state were hoping that the lifting of the blockade would bring normalcy back to state, and they could finally start campaigning in earnest. The UNC imposed the blockade on 1 November 2016, after the state government created seven new districts in the Naga-dominated areas of the state, with the stated aim of making administration easier.

Ibobi's masterstroke

The people of Manipur are deeply divided between the people of hills, inhabited by tribes, particularly Nagas, and those who reside in the plains, the dominant Meities. 

Last year, the divide intensified after the Chief Minister Ibobi announced the creation of seven new districts, splitting up Naga-dominated districts, leading to a massive uproar amongst the community, which saw it as an attempt to compromise the territorial integrity of Naga-inhabited lands.

Political observers called it a masterstroke by the Ibobi government, who also was able to appease the Kuki tribe with the creation of Sadar Hills district. As a result, only the Nagas seemed unhappy with the decision, while all the other communities began to side with the Congress government, despite the anti-incumbency at play.

BJP losing ground

With this move, Ibobi also put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a Catch-22 situation, since it could no longer oppose the creation of the new districts as it would antagonise the dominant Hindu Meities that constitute nearly 60% of the state's population. 

Moreover, the Congress was also successful in portraying BJP as a party sympathising with the Nagas, considering the peace talks the Central government is holding with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

The BJP suffered a major setback after a popular leader Khumukcham Joykishan quit and joined the Congress. He had earlier defected to the BJP from the Congress. Joykishan's departure has hurt BJP's prospects since he was considered to be one of its Chief Ministerial candidates. Experts see his departure as a sign of which way the wind is blowing, and how Joykishan knew that he would be better off with the Congress than the saffron party.

Amid all this, the Congress government is holding talks about declaring the UNC as an unlawful organisation, which has again been welcomed by the Meities. 

In such a scenario, the BJP has lost the edge which it had before Ibobi declared the creation of seven new districts. The saffron party is now left with only two issues to corner the state government - corruption and bad governance - which are unlikely to hurt the Congress's plans of seeking a fourth successive term in the state.

Read the full article: HERE

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