Billed as a semi-final before India’s crucial 2019 parliamentary polls, the results of elections to the five state assemblies—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram—do not bode well for the BJP whose campaign over the past two months was led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi even as the Congress might see in the outcome a glimmer of hope to stage at least a fightback next year.
Most exit polls—there were as many as seven—predicted significant gains for the Congress which has been in a power draught in three crucial Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, besides losing most other states since the Modi government came to power at the Centre.
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Of the four exit polls conducted in Madhya Pradesh, where the total assembly strength is 230, two predicted a simple majority for the Congress while the other two gave it a comfortable majority. The ABP News-CSDS poll suggested that the Congress could even win as many as 126 seats. Chhattisgarh, according to the polls, would be a cliff-hanger with both the BJP and the Congress in a neck-and-neck position. As for Rajasthan, the Congress is expected to sweep the elections in the backdrop of widespread anger against the incumbent BJP government of chief minister Vasundhara RajeScindia.
Should the polls be believed, the BJPwill have much to worry with less than six months left before the Lok Sabha elections that will be an acid test for Modi whose governance track record has taken some hits over the past couple of years with allegations of corruption, mismanagement and little or no improvement on the economic front, especially unemployment, which is rife in several of the northern Indian states, and social instability as the party has taken recourse to low-key communal violence aimed at polarisation.
The prediction in Telangana, where the Telangana Rashtra Samity (TRS), led by K Chandrasekhar, dissolved the assembly at least four months before the polls, is predicted to win over the alliance of the N Chandrababu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress. This suggests that Chandrasekhar’s decision to dissolve the assembly was a politically astute move. In Mizoram, two exit polls indicated that the Mizo National Front (MNF) would be better placed than the Congress, though it would still fall short of the majority in a House of 40.
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But for the BJP, the exit polls for the three north Indian states should be an alarm call because all together they constitute 65 parliamentary seats of which the BJP commands 62 and contributed, along with Uttar Pradesh, to the party’s stunning victory in 2014 polls that was led by Modi. More worryingly for the BJP is that the elections, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, may have been shaped by a degree of agrarian distress which is true in other states too. If the exit polls are anything to go by, especially in the context of issues related to farmers and agricultural distress, the Congress has an opportunity to step up its campaign on these lines. However, much will depend on the steam that the Congress may be able to gather, along with other opposition parties, as it advances closer to the Lok Sabha elections.
The exit poll results should also encourage the Congress that it could yet play a key role in the formation of even a broad coalition front to take the on BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. The series of electoral setbacks for the Congress, beginning with its below par performance in the last parliamentary elections, when it was reduced to 44 seats, had left it an “untouchable”. Now, it is in a somewhat better position to command a coalition that would have to devise its electoral strategy with other potential partners on a state-to-state basis, if not on a pan-Indian level.
This would suggest that the Congress may yet not project party president Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate, which could be a sticking point with other coalition partners such as the Trinamool Congress and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But this is an issue that could be ironed out after the Lok Sabha elections. Rahul’s focus during the party’s campaign for the assembly elections was on allegations of corruption, the farmers’ plight in northern states and a general attack on the ruling BJP in general and Modi in particular. He did not shy away from employing ‘soft Hindutva’, though the efficacy of an approach based on this line of campaigning has always been suspect as far the Congress is concerned.
Exit polls in India have had a mixed record and have thrown up widely divergent scenarios in the past, especially when compared to pre-poll electoral surveys. Their accuracy and unreliability, and therefore their predictive capacity, is suspect, leaving the suspense to continue till December 11 when the ballots will be counted. The day the results are declared will also be the first day of the winter session of parliament where the respective positions of the ruling BJP and the opposition parties will be put to test.