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Opinion polls are predicting a doubling of the BJP’s vote share in Bihar. Is that possible?

Friday, 21 March 2014 - 6:15pm IST | Agency: dna webdesk

Opinion polls are projecting huge gains for the BJP in Bihar in 2014 with one survey even predicting a doubling of its vote share. Shoaib Daniyal uses past voting and demographic data to show why such a windfall is unlikely.


Given the natural proclivities of the Argumentative Indian, political commentary in our country is a thriving industry. From news channels, op-ed pages, websites, blogs and Twitter, pour forth great torrents of political punditry, a flood which threatens to breach the embankments as the 2014 general election get closer and people try and predict the final outcome. Valuable as all of this commentary is, it does suffer from one rather debilitating flaw: it’s completely subjective. At the end of the day, it’s only an opinion, unbacked by numbers, a fact that might leave some skeptics unconvinced.

Of course, not all crystal-ball gazing about 2014 is subjective: opinion polls are based on hard numbers and try and predict the future based on the theoretically sound method of a sampled survey. As luck would have it though, opinion polls have an abysmal record of actually predicting anything. In the previous two Lok Sabha elections, almost all pollsters have had their projections proven wrong (by quite some margin).

Given this track record, in the run up to the 2014 election, it might be a good idea to triangulate and verify some of the results that opinion polls are throwing up, with other statistics such as historical voting numbers and demographic data. This method still does not, of course, give us a 100% accurate answer but it could provide a good quality check on the results of various opinion polls.

The way things are panning out, Bihar and UP look to be two states whose results will be crucial to the final outcome. This article will, therefore, look at Bihar as of now. During the course of our analysis, we will look only at vote shares and not final seat numbers. The conversion from one to the other, especially with the small sample sizes most surveys have, is an exercise best left untouched if one is aiming for any sort of rigour or accuracy.

The table below has the vote shares of the 5 main parties in the fray this time in Bihar, as predicted by 3 opinion polls: CNN-IBN/CSDS, ABP/AC Neilson and NDTV/Hansa.

Vote Shares of Major Parties in Bihar (figures in brackets are seats)


2009 general election actual vote shares


ABP/AC Neilson



14% (11)

39% (16-24)

32% (21)

25% (23)


24% (20)

20% (7-13)

14% (9)

22% (5)


19% (4)

15% (6-10)

17% (5)

16% (8)


10% (2)

11% (0-4)

8% (2)

10% (3)


7% (0)

2% (0)

6% (1)

7% (0)

Note: NDTV/Hansa has only released vote shares of pre-poll coalitions. Vote share of individual parties has been arrived at by taking into account 2009 Election Data

The first major take-away from the table, you’ll notice, is how well the BJP is performing. NDTV gives it a respectable 25 percent of the vote share, ABP 32 percent and CNN-IBN thinks that the BJP is going to get a whopping 39 percent of the state’s vote. This, of course, means that the BJP is going to increase its vote share by leaps and bounds: it has never got these many votes in Bihar, not even close. But by how much, exactly, is it increasing its vote share?

To answer that, let us calculate how many votes did BJP get in the last general election. The figure of 14 percent you see there is misleading because in 2009, it had a pre-poll alliance with the JD(U). That means that of the 14 percent vote the BJP got, some portion of that were JD(U) supporters. And vice-versa for the JD(U)’s 24 percent vote share. All we can say, with certainty, is that the BJP-JD(U) combine got 38 percent of the vote share in Bihar. We do know, however, that in the BJP-JD(U) alliance, the BJP was the junior partner. Not only was the CM from the JD(U), but in their pre-poll arrangements, the JD(U) would always contest more seats than the BJP, a sure sign of seniority and, by extension, greater popularity. We can, therefore, say with a lot of certainty that the BJP’s supporters (i.e. its vote share in case there was no alliance) number less than half of the 38 percent vote share of the BJP-JD(U) combine. Hence, the upper limit of BJP actual vote share in Bihar stands at 19 percent.

In other words, CNN-IBN is predicting, that in 2014, the BJP would will increase its vote share by at least 105 percent (from 19 percent in 2009 to 39 percent ). The increase predicted by ABP is at least 69 percent and that by NDTV is a (much more modest) at least 32 percent.

How does this sort of dramatic change in vote share sit with the historical voting patterns in Bihar? If you go through the election data since 1951, you see that the biggest ever increase in vote share for a major party (defined as having at least 10 percent of vote share) from one Lok Sabha Election to the next is 59percent. This increase happened for the Congress in the 1980 general election where it polled 36 percent of the vote, up from 23 percent in 1977. This sharp surge is easily explained though: the 1977 Congress vote share was abnormally low given that it was a reaction to the Emergency, the biggest challenge India’s democracy has ever faced. In 1980, the Bihari vote was just normalising itself. The next biggest increase in vote share is, coincidentally, the BJP’s. It increased its vote share by 36 percent in the 1991 general election as compared to the one in 1989. Again the reason for that is apparent: the Ram Mandir agitation. Advani’s Rath Yatra, the high drama surrounding his arrest and the near frenzy of events at the time (the Babri Masjid would be demolished just 6 months after the election concluded) meant that the BJP’s popularity increased sharply as Bihar got polarised along religious lines.

Apart from these two cataclysmic events though, the data shows that while seat numbers might change significantly, vote shares are far less volatile. Since 1999, although Bihar politics has been through many a tumble, actual vote shares of the RJD-INC combine (between 30 percent -37 percent ) and JD(U)-BJP combine (37 percent -44 percent ) have only fluctuated within a very narrow band.

This is, of course, nothing surprising. Our friends over in Finance know this phenomenon as the Law of Large Numbers which states that as a corporation grows larger, its rate of growth decreases. So a blue chip would grow much slower than a sprightly little start-up. In a way, this is a universal trend: large numbers tend to be slothful. They’re like huge juggernauts, rumbling along at their own slow pace, if moving at all. Sharp change is not impossible but it is very unlikely. 

Bihar’s voter base, measured in the crores, qualifies as a “large number”. This is exactly why its movement has been so slow, historically. A doubling of the BJP vote share as predicted by the CNN-IBN poll, therefore, is fairly improbable.

Apart from statistics and history, the other major problem such a sharp change comes up against is the issue of caste. It’s no secret that Bihar votes largely as per caste and, as of now, the only vote bank that the BJP has are the Upper Castes and Banias, which add up to 18.4 percent of the population (very close, incidentally, to our estimated BJP vote share of 19percent ). If the BJP plays its OBC card right, it might attract castes such as Telis and Tantis (Modi himself is from the Teli caste and has emphasised his backward caste origins during his campaign), which might stretch the vote share up to 25 percent (in comparison, the RJD-Congress vote share in 2009 was 29percent ). Movement beyond that would mean that traditional networks of caste patronage are being disrupted significantly, another highly improbable event given Bihar’s past history.

Of course, all of these factors do not completely rule out the BJP doubling its Bihar vote share as CNN-IBN predicts. The Modi Wave might still steal a march, having an impact greater than Nehru, the Emergency, Indira Gandhi, Babri Masjid and caste-based voting. After all, nothing is impossible. However, based on historical actuals data, till the final results are in, it is fairly safe to say that such an outcome is rather improbable.

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