NEW DELHI—In India, exit polls for elections have always been hit-and-miss affairs, aimed at second-guessing an outcome based on indefinable factors and not proven methodologies, although each of these exercises claim to predicate their projections on credible sample sizing. Given much prominence by news channels, exit polls have consistently generated excitement and interest, although it's hard to tell how seriously they are taken.
From the viewpoint of understanding broad trends, perhaps exit polls need to be seen and heard. This election season, less than an hour after Rajasthan and Telangana voted on December 7—voters had already exercised their franchise in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram—TV screens unfurled and crunched numbers.
Although the precise numbers varied, certain trends were apparent: true to the oscillation in its electoral history, Rajasthan was set to unseat a BJP government and usher in a Congress dispensation. For some pollsters, MP and Chhattisgarh were too close to call while others deduced that like Rajasthan, the BJP was about to exit and the Congress arrive in Bhopal and Raipur after 15 years. Telangana appeared to root for the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi while unfortunately, the hullabaloo excluded Mizoram because, well, it is tucked away in the "distant" north-east and below the pollsters' radar.
If the projections hold out on December 11, when we will know the actual outcome, it looks like the BJP is about to lose ground in its bastions—sizeable in Rajasthan and moderate in MP and Chhattisgarh—and leave little impression on Telangana, a state it imagined was ripe for communal polarisation and, therefore, receptive to its divisive agenda. Conversely, the Congress, which suffered a drought in the states (barring Punjab) after its 2014 rout, might glimpse a silver lining in the shape of a government in Jaipur and gains in MP and Chhattisgarh but no luck in Telangana after cementing an unwise pact with its former adversary, the Telugu Desam Party, which had opposed, tooth and nail, the creation of India's youngest state.
What does this mean to the BJP and the central government? On one hand is the winter session of Parliament which, coincidentally, begins on December 11. The opposition, particularly the Congress, anticipating some cheer from the states, has steeled itself to encircle the government with its present and prospective allies. It has convened a "strategy" session on Tuesday to pencil a coordinated approach towards the BJP on issues such as the agrarian crisis and the Rafale defence deal. The BJP's consolation prize is that Mayawati, who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party and is reckoned India's pre-eminent Dalit politician, will likely stay away from the Opposition meet to maintain an "equidistance" from the Congress and the BJP.
However, the BJP needs to put its own NDA house in order. A loss in the elections, minimal or considerable, is bound to fire up perpetually griping allies such as the Shiv Sena and Bihar's Rashtriya Lok Samata Party or the occasionally tetchy Janata Dal (United) and the Shiromani Akali Dal. The RLSP commands the votes of the Kushwaha, a backward caste, and was regarded as an asset to the NDA when it was courted by the BJP before 2014. Although Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister and JD(U) leader, has no love lost for the RLSP, the BJP is not keen to let go. A party official from Bihar said on condition of anonymity, "We are confident of containing the contradictions between Nitish and the RLSP."
A scenario that unveils a tanked-up opposition, even sans the BSP, and a disarranged NDA might not be the sort of optics Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his proxy, Amit Shah, will want flashed.
If one were to refract the rays from the exit polls through the prism of the 2019 Lok Sabha battle, a shift in the BJP's base to the Congress, unquantifiable as it is presently, would challenge the Modi-Shah slogan of the advent of a "Congress-mukt Bharat" (an India free of the Congress) and the arrival of a monotheistic order enshrined in the BJP. It's useful to recall that every victory the BJP notched since 2014, be it in a state or a local body, bore the stamp of a mega conquest over the Congress. The Prime Minister himself feted every win through a tweet or an elaborate statement. Needless to say, the Congress's ability and efficacy to build on its projected advantage will be conditioned by imponderables galore, not the least being its president Rahul Gandhi's use of statecraft while exploring for allies and winning them over.
Of concern to the BJP should be the role that demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax—policies that underpinned the NDA's vision of the national economy—played in the states.
Of concern to the BJP should be the role that demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax—policies that underpinned the NDA's vision of the national economy—played in the states. In the heartland provinces, demonetisation was trashed by farmers for sapping the life blood of rural economies. Traders traduced the GST just as much for ruining small and middling businesses that fuel provincial economic systems.
Will the government resort to short-term correctives? It has a small window of four months, two sessions of Parliament and a general budget before it. Government sources said that given the vast political capital that Modi has invested in demonetisation and GST, it was unlikely that he would jettison them from the BJP's dominant agenda or tweak them. "Demonetisation and GST are to him was economic liberalisation was to (PV) Narasimha Rao, a political endowment for posterity," a source said.
Government sources said that given the vast political capital that Modi has invested in demonetisation and GST, it was unlikely that he would jettison them from the BJP's dominant agenda or tweak them.
It is improbable that in the event of one or more reverses, the Centre would be blamed. Modi and Shah were a little less visible in the recent poll-bound states compared to their round-the-clock presence in say, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and even Assam. The state chief ministers of the BJP would be held culpable.
In the prelude to 2019, the BJP's ideological mentor and guide, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will not want to muddle the issue of Modi's leadership and Shah's stewardship by raising doubts over the government's mileposts. "Modi remains our mascot," stressed a BJP minister.