If the exit polls for five assemblies are an indicator – and they do come true on December 11 – the Congress is all set to have its best day in office since May 16, 2014 – when it was reduced to 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha polls. For the BJP, it will not just mean a return to the drawing board, but rather the buying of a new one.
The elections were considered a bellwether for next year's Lok Sabha elections. The exit polls indicate that PM Modi is still the most popular leader in comparison to challengers like the Congress president Rahul Gandhi. But, if the states are lost, the inference will be that Modi's capability of swinging state polls and his ability to lift his party over the hurdles of anti-incumbency has dwindled.
In all election wins since 2014, the BJP gave credit to the PM. If despite exit polls the BJP wins, Shivraj Chauhan and others will be chief ministers. But if polls are lost, PM Modi will have the losses pinned at his door.
The exit polls indicate that PM Modi is still the most popular leader in comparison to challengers like the Congress president Rahul Gandhi. (Photo: PTI)
If the exit poll verdict is anywhere close to the real one, then, the Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, has cause to cheer. As since 2014, the Rahul Gandhi-led grand old party has not defeated the BJP in a single direct contest.
Since the three heartland states have more rural than urban voters, the results will also indicate the mood of the farmers, social destitutes and those in the unorganised sector. The endless policies unleashed by the centre will be tested. Modi’s arrival at Raisina Hill had set a trend where the route to states was through the centre. The predicted losses may eventually reverse the trend.
If BJP loses will the lotus wilt?
Exit polls predict a close contest in Madhya Pradesh and losses in Rajasthan indicating that anti-incumbency is an inexorable reality of politics. In a close contest, the BJP's machinery in any of the three heartland states may have the muscle to edge out the Congress.
But, in these three critical heartland states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – exit polls say that the party is nowhere near the halfway mark. These are the states where the BJP in power was popular enough in 2014 to give 62 of the 65 seats to PM Modi.
Along with UP, these states had yielded 135 of the 283 seats the BJP won in 2014. That translates to almost 48 per cent of the seats won by the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls last time.
However, since 2014, the political landscape has changed for the party. The fearsome Modi juggernaut has raised the specter of rivals rushing into each other’s arms. In UP, that had a devastatingly telling impact on the BJP which lost three critical Lok Sabha bypolls – one held by chief minister Yogi Adityanath and the other by his deputy Keshav Maurya.
So potent is the chemistry of the SP and the BSP, that them coming together will be a serious hit to the BJP in 2019 as it will reduce the harvest for the saffron party in the Hindi heartland.
Exit polls are saying that the BJP would be ruling 16 states after December 11. In many of the states like Haryana, UP, Maharashtra, Goa and others, the failure to meet the impatient aspirations of voters and the dismal performance of CMs – either RSS men or handpicked leaders – is already eating into the BJP's base. Worse, in states like Maharashtra, the Congress is back with the NCP.
Not only does this threaten the BJP's numbers in 2019, but the losses in strongholds at the hands of the Congress will also take the shine off the BJP to act as a magnet for regional – small and micro-parties – for tactical alliances. Plus, it will also embolden current NDA partners to bargain for more.
To retain its allies, the BJP may have to sacrifice more seats in bargain situations. Contesting fewer seats may expose the BJP to ceding more ground in case it later manages the numbers.
Will the Assembly poll results prove to be a vote against regressive politics? (Photo: Facebook)
The losses will also be the voter’s verdict against the political agenda which includes regressive elements like cow slaughter.
The verdict will also indicate to a lesser extent, whether the re-drawn agitation for Ram temple in Ayodhya is seducing the voters. If exit polls are wrong, it may prove that 2014-like polarisation is still in play, and Ram Mandir could prove to be a trump card in 2019.
After the Bihar loss of 2015, the detractors of the Modi-Shah combine had staged a noticeable rebellion challenging the leadership. Knives will be out again. Amit Shah, called Chanakya by the BJP's rank and file, will come under pressure if Madhya Pradesh is lost.
A loss for the BJP will put even more pressure on the party's Chanakya – Amit Shah. (Photo: PTI)
One big lesson for the BJP from the verdict could be on its campaign style.
Since 1989, there have been elections which have hurt the Congress as its campaign was downright negative. Interestingly, the BJP in the three crucial states didn’t showcase as the key issues what PM Modi or its governments had achieved. It was too negative at times – perhaps in an attempt to cover anti-incumbency. The voters didn’t take tangible promises home as they did in 2014 (OROP, drive against corruption, etc).
Lesson if Congress wins
The Congress, exit polls show, is winning three – or is leading in three states.
But, the party is not likely to emerge without body blows and some tough lessons in these contests. The Congress is likely to lose Mizoram, and K Chandrashekar Rao is expected to retain Telangana, the exit polls predict.
If Congress wins Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi’s ratings within his party – and the rest of the country – will change dramatically. It will add a spring to his walk – not just because his party has won the states, but because he has managed to strategise and tackle issues such as infighting, rivalry among state leaders and a not so galvanised cadre.
Yes, there was anti-incumbency. The chances of winning for the Congress were better than any since 2014. To seize credit, Rahul Gandhi could have pushed himself completely in the front, and dwarfed state leaders. But, through tactical retreats, he kept the regional satrap-like leaders with strong vote bases in the frame.
So, a young Rajasthan unit chief Sachin Pilot or a multiple term CM like Ashok Gehlot was in focus constantly and amply. Same goes for Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh.
If exit polls prove to be right, it will be a big win for Rahul Gandhi. (Photo: PTI)
Perhaps, that’s where lies the lesson for the Congress. It has to pick between strategising to defeat Narendra Modi or planning to make Rahul Gandhi prime minister. Rahul Gandhi has to place his strategy for 2019 somewhere between a bayonet charge and retreat.
The win or loss for the Congress will also decide its place in the pantheon of the opposition parties. Congress’ equity will go up for mergers and acquisitions of allies compared to 2014.
But the Telangana loss may be a setback for the party. It may indicate that the Congress picked an ally which it should not have. Congress inherited the sentiment against TDP for opposing the creation of Telangana, which means there would be the need for better judgment for alliances – both between parties and with vote banks.
Did Rahul Gandhi err in his choice of allies? (Photo: PTI)
In MP, if there was unrest among upper caste voters against the BJP, the Congress jettisoned the option of an alliance with the BSP. Former CM, Digvijaya Singh, has a strong pro-minority image. He was sent missing from the mainstream campaigning.
The slew of cases against Congress leaders remains a worry for the party. The intensity of attacks on Robert Vadra, AgustaWestland like issues may increase. Congress can keep its fingers crossed.
What's in it for voters?
In 2014, voters had served a strong decisive mandate for PM Modi. The losses, as predicted by the exit polls, will force the voters to make some tough choices. BJP's decline may not be a single party or Congress’ gain – raising the chances of a post-poll alternative coming to rule.
Through the five states, it seems the voters have sent a signal. Course corrections by all players may decide who rules Delhi after May 26, 2019.
(An abbreviated version of the article appeared in Mail Today)