It is never a good idea to reach firm conclusions based on opinion or exit polls, but there is no harm in speculating based on the numbers. At the very least, they point towards a broad trend, even if the details may differ, and drastically so, sometimes.
Four exit polls conducted after voting in Maharashtra have varying numbers, but the overall picture remains more or less the same: the BJP will emerge as the single largest party, followed by the Shiv Sena and then by the Congress and the NCP, which occupy the third and fourth place. Some polls say the BJP will get a majority on its own, others say it will fall short by a few seats to reach the 145 target and at least one claims the gap between the BJP’s final tally and the halfway mark will be quite significant. One way or the other, the Maharashtra government is going to get a BJP mark. We cannot predict what this will mean for the state, but we can conjecture what these results could imply for the various parties.
Bharatiya Janata Party: Capturing Maharashtra is a huge step for the party. Not only is Maharashtra a rich state, the victory erases the perception of the BJP as a party just of and for Brahmins and traders. To be sure this performance is due to Narendra Modi’s personal appeal and some deft media handling and candidate selection, but the net result is that now the BJP is no longer limited to Vidarbha and Mumbai. It has an almost pan-Maharashtra presence and that too, most likely, without the support of the Shiv Sena. Unless the party now bungles it, it can only grow and become more dominant. Its biggest organisational challenge will be to create new leaders.
Shiv Sena: This was to be a battle to remain relevant in the aftermath of its bitter split with the BJP. Analysts had even earlier written off Uddhav Thackeray and his party’s victory in the BMC elections and the subsequent Lok Sabha poll results (18 MPs) could not give him the much-needed credibility in their eyes. But, by parting ways with the BJP and holding his ground, Uddhav has managed to emerge as his own man. His campaign was tightly focussed on the theme of “betrayal” by the BJP, even if the tone occasionally was below the belt. If the Sena truly gets 70-plus seats, it will become a serious political player in the state. It has to now think — should it continue with its narrow-minded, nativist stance or subtly change to become a more inclusive party.
Congress: Except for a short period in the 1970s, and then in almost five years in the 1990s, the Congress has administered this state continuously since 1961. It controlled not just Mantralaya, but also many local self-governance bodies, sugar co-operatives, banks and cultural institutions. Though Maratha-dominated, it wielded enormous influence in all the other regions and among all communities and social strata. The split with Sharad Pawar did hurt it, but they stuck together since the NCP was really part of the Congress system. But arrogance, corruption and a failure to not just deal with problems but negotiate changes in society eventually led it to its doom. The outgoing government had a good man as the chief minister, but he could not rise above his party’s failures. Now it faces the possible ignominy of not even being the official opposition.
In a sense this reflects the party’s plight at the centre. Can it rise from here? The answer is a big, qualified yes. For that, it will have to change its old ways, get new leaders and learn to move with the times — the voters are always looking for an alternative when things go wrong — but the alternative must look credible. The Congress will have to bring about structural changes if it wants to become that alternative. Things look bleak on that front right now.
NCP: The myth of Sharad Pawar being the great Maratha, the dominant political force of Maharashtra and putative leader in Delhi, has been demolished once and for all. If his party really slips to the fourth place, it will sink into irrelevance. The NCP really needs to do some serious soul-searching on what it has become and what the public thinks of it. Some leaders think it can still remain in the game by offering help to the BJP to form the government—that will put paid to all of Pawar’s claims of always remaining with secular forces. But even if that buys the NCP time, what is its long-term future? Merging with the Congress is one option, but will the Congress want that? And how long will the NCP’s legislators stay with the party without power?
MNS: Raj Thackeray’s party, the exit polls suggest, will be the last of the well-known parties, with less than 10 MLAs. A fall from the last time when he was all gung-ho and touted as the man who would fell the Shiv Sena. Now he projects the picture of a man in search of a role — should he support Modi, join his cousin, stay aloof and build his party? His declaration that the MNS will now not fight Lok Sabha elections indicates he has a plan in mind to build the organisation but that will require hard work and strategic thinking. Merely beating up a few cabbies is not going to attract support. The MNS can have a future, but it has to resolve its own identity issues first.
Caveat: This entire analysis is based on the exit polls, which is all that is available at the time of writing. Such polls can and often do go wrong. But unless the EVMs throw up a startlingly different result and ranking on October 19, this prognosis will stay relevant.