Key takeaways from the exit polls

Finally, the long-drawn-out election came to an end on May 19. Spread over seven phases and lasting more than 40 days, general election 2019 was witness to one of the most rancorous and toxic campaigns the country has ever seen in general elections since 1951.

As the campaign got more and more acrimonious with each phase of polling, the role of Election Commission of India (ECI), which was once seen as the neutral guard of the election process, came under intense scrutiny for its inability to enforce the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). Not only the ECI did not take swift action against all who violated the MCC, its selective action against some erring politicians, while letting others go scot-free, raised doubts about its impartiality.

As a result, not only the ECI’s credibility got undermined but the enormous public trust it has enjoyed since the 1990s appears to have been dented by its apparent biased and partisan role. The seven-phase election schedule also came in for criticism and aspersions were cast on the ECI’s neutrality in determining the poll dates and phases. Questions were raised about the multi-phase elections in many states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal.

Most of these states were crucial for the BJP and needed long and sustained campaigning. So, whether the poll schedule was drawn to suit the ruling party’s convenience and interests has been a matter of speculation and debate. If the objective behind holding staggered polls is to prevent pre-poll and poll day violence, then violence and vandalism in West Bengal proved that the ECI failed in its objective.

But now that India has voted and exit polls have indicated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is comfortably set for a second term in office, all eyes are now focussed on May 23. Exit poll numbers, if they come true, don’t favour the Congress and rest of the Opposition, but predict a repeat of 2014 for the BJP: a wave in favour of Modi.

But can exit polls be trusted? Not entirely because they have got things wrong around the world, the latest example is the Australian elections. Earlier examples include US presidential elections and Brexit. In India too, exit polls do not have a reliable track record of forecasting electoral outcomes correctly.

For instance, in 2004 exit polls had wrongly forecasted BJP-led NDA coalition winning again, while in 2009 they underestimated Congress-led UPA’s seat share. In 2014 too, they had got it all wrong about BJP and NDA’s seat share. Projections have also been found to be dramatically incorrect in assembly elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015), UP (2017) and Chhattisgarh (2018).

While exit polls make for good television, the fundamental problem with them, according to some analysts, is that they tend to go with the popular perception, rather than measuring the popular perception. For instance, in 2004 the popular perception was that India was shining and based on this urban perception, pollsters predicted that the NDA government would be voted back to power with 250-plus seats.

When results were declared, the NDA got only 187 seats. In 2009, there was no visible under-current in favour of incumbent UPA government or the NDA and exit polls had predicted 187 seats for NDA and 196 for UPA. But the actual results were: 159 for NDA and 262 for UPA. In 2014, the popular perception was that UPA would be voted out of power. But despite a visible wave in favour of Modi, exit polls did not predict a majority for the BJP but gave only 274 seats to the NDA. The actual results surprised everyone.

In 2019, the general perception has been that the NDA would return to power with a reduced majority. The exit polls validate this perception if one takes an average of all polls: 302 for BJP-led NDA and 122 for Congress and its allies. But the variation in the range of projected seats for NDA and UPA for eight major exit polls is quite huge – 267 to 365 for NDA and 82 to 142 for UPA.

Therefore, it is quite likely that the actual seat tally could be somewhere in between the range for the two alliances, or it could be something else. However, if the projections hold, it appears that the BJP will repeat its performance in its traditional heartland strongholds – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal – where it had a success rate of more than 90 per cent in 2014.

It also means that the saffron party is all set to make significant inroads in new territories like the West Bengal and Odisha. However, South India, barring Karnataka, will remain a major concern for the BJP, while in UP the SP-BSP alliance may succeed in rolling back the saffron party.

One of the major takeaways from exit polls is that the 2019 election, as many commentators have said, has been a referendum on Modi. Not only has his presidential-style of campaigning worked for him but five years later, his popularity is still intact. This means that more than the BJP, it is Modi’s victory, not so much because of his policies or his development model, if there is any, but his persona as a leader.

This will give him enormous power within the party and in government. However, this should be a major concern for the party as well, which needs to develop alternative leadership in the long run because both 2014 and 2019 elections are personality-driven victories for the BJP. Another important takeaway is that the BJP fought this election on the issue of nationalism: the Balakot airstrikes were invoked time and again to drive home the point that Pakistan can be taught a lesson only through a tit-for-tat policy.

If national security is what has worked for Modi then it means that some of the important economic issues that directly concern masses – rural distress, high unemployment, clumsy GST, the impact of demonetisation on informal sectors and the slowdown of the economy – have had little impact on voters. The third major takeaway is the consolidation of Hindu vote, which has been the BJP’s long term objective.

This will help the party’s mainstreaming process further among different castes and social groups. But whether it will give an impetus to the party’s planned long march through institutions remains to be seen. In many ways, the Modi government has been a fundamental break from the past.

Whether his return to power will help hasten the long term process of a radical right-wing change is a matter of debate. If the 2019 election was a battle of ideologies between the BJP and the Opposition, then the Opposition, by not uniting against an ideological enemy, has defeated its own objective.

A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.

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