As we step into an election year, the game of poll surveys has only just begun

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi

As we step into an election year, with key elections to the States of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry due in less than four months, it would a good idea to take a look at what the early trends indicate.
A leading Hindi-language National television channel kicked off the election year with an opinion poll survey across the five States that have assessed the likely prospects for the contenders.
These elections, due in April-May this year, will be another opportunity for the ruling BJP at the Centre to expand its domain and strengthen its grip over the polity as the party attempts to breach areas that it has never done before–West Bengal in the East and Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South. In this context, the 2021 Assembly elections to five States, three in South and one in East and the other in North East, present interesting pictures with a resurgent BJP eyeing to dethrone strong TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and is comfortably poised to retain its hold over Assam with consummate ease.
But for BJP, in West Bengal and the southern States, early poll and opinion surveys carried out by the news channel earlier this week point to an uphill task.
The C-Voter survey for ABP news channel, the first opinion poll of the year by any news organization, predicted a grand showing by the BJP, upping its numbers from 3 to nearly 100 and beyond, but falling much short of the magic number of 147. This is a fantastic performance by a political party considered an outsider till recently in a State that has been the stronghold of the Left for nearly three decades till Mamata Banerjee ousted the CPM led Left Front Government in 2011.
She will be seeking re-election for the second time, and if she manages to just about hang on to power as the survey indicates it would be a tough time for her running a Government with strong Opposition in the House. In the outgoing Assembly, Mamata Banerjee had over 200 seats out of total 294. The Congress and the Left, which are to contest the elections in an alliance, are not expected to do anything worthwhile, and in fact, their presence could only help the BJP.
The recent spate of resignations from TMC leaders, who are making a beeline for the BJP for sure points to the strong winds in favour of the ruling dispensation at the Centre. In the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections, the BJP won 18 seats, marking its significant emergence in a State where the two poles of the political fight were the Congress and the Left, and later breakaway Congress (TMC) and the Left. Now, the BJP leaders are sure that they will send Mamata Banerjee packing.
In Assam, the survey predicts a facile win for the BJP and a showing much better than in the previous elections.
But it is when we move into South India that the BJP could find the going a bit tougher than earlier anticipated, say in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, which together send 60 MPs to Lok Sabha, along with Puducherry.
Of the three States going to polls, Puducherry portends good news for the BJP, as its alliance partner NR Congress is favoured to return to power. It is easy to explain this change in mood of the people, who find that the V Narayansami led Congress Government failed to perform and would like to give a chance to another party. In fact, the unpopularity of the Congress in the State has prompted the DMK, its alliance partner in Tamil Nadu, to wonder whether it was a good idea to form its own alliance in Puducherry. Clearly, with less than five months to go for the polls, the Congress-DMK alliance has run into trouble, increasing the chances of the Opposition NR Congress-BJP alliance.
But the BJP’s attempts to make an entrance in Tamil Nadu and Kerala appear to be facing a serious challenge, and it might have to step up its game.
If we take Tamil Nadu, where the BJP has managed to enter into an alliance with the Dravidian major, and the ruling AIADMK, the combine faces an extremely resurgent DMK-Congress plus alliance that had swept the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections winning all but one of the total 39 seats. This time, the DMK led alliance is expected to win between 150 and 156 seats, giving it a comfortable majority, the survey predicted.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the AIADMK’s vote shares fell sharply to 18 percent from the 48 percent it had notched up in 2016 Assembly elections, revealing how tough a fight it has in store now. For sure, the AIADMK has roped in other key smaller players in its fold, but on paper, the DMK led alliance appears to be much more formidable. Besides, the AIADMK will be going into the elections with an anti-incumbency of 10 years, and under a less than charismatic leader in E Palanaisami.
Although he has managed to hold the State and party together after the death of the then Chief Minister J Jayala-lithaa in 2016, he faces more aggressive allies with increasing demands. An ally, Pattali Makkal Katchi wants Deputy Chief Ministership and 40 seats, and so does the BJP.
In fact, seat-sharing adjustments are going to be a headache for both the AIADMK and DMK, which wants to contest the maximum number of seats. DMK wants to contest 200 out of the total 234 seats, which is contested by its own alliance partners who balk at the DMK’s arrogance. Unless the DMK plays its cards well and works out proper arrangements with its allies, there is a chance that it may once again fall short of the magic number.
It maybe recalled that in the 2016 Assembly elections, the difference between the winner AIADMK and the loser DMK was less than a mere two percent vote percentage. Had even another smaller party been with the DMK, it would have won in 2016 itself. But the DMK leadership drove them away by refusing to consider their demands.
Many political observers then were unanimous that it was the arrogance of the DMK that cost it dear in 2016, and fear that similar issues with alliance partners can demolish its ambitions this time around as well.
In Kerala, that has been a two-horse race between two alliances, LDF led by CPM and UDF led by the Congress, and is expected to remain so, with the BJP trying to emerge as a key factor. True, the BJP has been steadily increasing its vote share and in 2021 Assembly polls, the BJP is predicted to improve its vote share to 15 percent from 13 percent in the last elections.
But 15 percent vote share is not good enough to dislodge either of the two poles in Kerala, as of now. The C Voter survey predicts the LDF Government to return to power, and become the first party to retain a Government in over four decades. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a slew of welfare measures of Chief Mi- nister Pinarai Vijayan are expected to help him get the blessing of voters this time as well.  

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the PTI, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman