Exit polls released by various news organisations and survey agencies on Thursday after the second phase of elections in Gujarat came to an end have indicated that the BJP is likely to retain power for the sixth consecutive term. In Himachal Pradesh, exit polls have predicted a clear win for the BJP where the party will wrest power from the Congress. If the exit poll predictions come true when actual results are declared on December 18, the BJP juggernaut winning both elections will be a morale booster for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party. For the Congress, it will be yet another disappointing performance.
However, it is unlikely to rekindle the debate on Rahul Gandhi’s ability to deliver electoral gains for the Congress in future. Exit polls can go right or wrong. Many a time in the past, they have gone horribly wrong. But on a few occasions, they have also been proved right. Unlike pre-election opinion surveys which ask voters which party they plan to vote, exit polls ask voters which party they have actually voted for.
Since there is no way to verify voter’s claim, exit polls may not be accurate. That’s one major reason why exit polls are often taken with a pinch of salt. Another reason is the selection of voters and the sample size relied upon to predict the result. It is widely believed that both opinion surveys and exit polls are generally indicative of the larger rather than actual preference and exact voting pattern and, hence, their accuracy is a suspect. Of the two assembly polls, Gujarat is the most crucial election for both the Congress and the BJP. Himachal Pradesh is said to be a lost case for the Congress, as the BJP will benefit from the strong anti-incumbency sentiment. ]
However, Gujarat is a different case, given the fact that disaffection with the incumbent BJP government in some parts of the state and the Patidar factor is likely to affect the BJP’s electoral fortunes to a certain extent. Gujarat also being Modi’s home ground and BJP’s citadel for 22 years, it is all the more important for the BJP to retain power in the state. The fact that Rahul Gandhi campaigned extensively over a month in Gujarat and forged strategic alliance with Hardik Patel proves how critical Gujarat election is for his leadership as well as for his party’s future electoral prospects elsewhere.
Various exit polls have predicted anywhere between 106 to 135 seats for the BJP and 47 to 75 seats for the Congress. All exit polls have indicated a clear win for BJP and less than 80 seats for the Congress. However, while the BJP seems confident of securing a majority, the Congress has not given up hopes of upsetting all expectations and exit poll predictions. In fact, the Congress also seems quite confident of victory. This is because, unlike earlier, public sentiment has not been in BJP’s favour this time.
Exit polls also indicate that the BJP is likely to face a tough fight in rural Gujarat which has 112 seats, while the urban centres may remain solidly behind BJP, thanks to Modi. News reports also suggest that disaffection with the state government and anti-BJP sentiment, mainly because of GST and demonetisation, was pretty high before November 27.
But, things took a different turn when the prime minister hit the campaign trail on November 27. Election analysts and independent political observers feel that Modi’s extensive campaign in various parts of Gujarat over the next two weeks played a significant role in changing the public sentiment towards the BJP. His polarised campaign that skirted local issues and Gujarat’s development model apparently helped the BJP win back its core supporters who were vociferously unhappy with the party earlier. On the other hand, the Congress focused on governance deficit, distress in the farming community and general disaffection among urban voters over GST and demonetisation.
If one probes deeply into pre-election surveys and exit polls, it is quite obvious that Modi is likely to emerge as BJP’s saviour in Gujarat. Since the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and most of the subsequent state assembly elections, it is the Modi factor that has delivered victory for the BJP/NDA, save Bihar, Punjab and Kerala. Had Modi not come to BJP’s rescue in Gujarat, Congress’
resurgent campaign and Rahul Gandhi’s aggression could have possibly done a lot of damage to the BJP. A couple of months ago, Gujarat was said to be a cake-walk for the BJP. The fact that it turned out to be a difficult battle proves that the invincibility of Modi and his party came to be challenged for the first time by the Congress and it is likely to come under bigger threat in future.
This is an important learning for the BJP. Political observers are of the view that if BJP wins a comfortable majority, it will be a personal and moral victory for Modi. However, if the wins less than 100 seats, it will be viewed as a moral defeat for the prime minister. Similarly, if the Congress wins somewhere close to 75 to 80 seats, it will be perceived as a moral victory for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. In such a scenario, the whole political game will change: the BJP will be at the receiving end of political battles
in future and will be forced to act defensively; the resurgent Congress will get aggressive in its attacks on the prime minister and his party on several key issues, including governance employment creation and flaws in Modi’s economic development model.
Whatever the result of the Gujarat elections, another important learning for the BJP will be that its overdependence on Modi has its limitations. As the Modi magic begins to wear off, the Congress is likely to benefit from the slide in the Modi-BJP graph. In Gujarat, Rahul has demonstrated a contrasting leadership style to the one the prime minster has often been criticised for. It is quite likely that the BJP will now stop underestimating Rahul’s ability to lead and connect with voters. There cannot be a better start to Rahul’s presidential tenure than a win in Gujarat.
But even a decent performance will be good enough for the Congress; it can take pride for putting up a brave fight. If the Congress under the new president can harvest the brewing anti-BJP sentiment across the country, it will not only revitalise party but also the opposition at large. The author is an independent senior journalist.