Several exit polls put out by Indian TV channels on Friday night signalled ominous signals for ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on one hand and a strong comeback trail for main opposition Congress party in four of the five states where assembly elections were held recently. The exit polls, broadcast soon after polling ended in Rajasthan and Telangana states, projected that the Congress would edge out the BJP in Rajasthan and would make substantial gains in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states, ruled by the BJP for the last 15 years, to emerge as the single largest party..
However, the Congress is projected by the exit polls to be voted out of power in the north eastern state of Mizoram yielding place regional outfit Mizo National Front while in the southern state Telangana, ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) was forecast to emerge as the clear winner ahead of the Congress-led grand opposition alliance.
Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram, considered by most political observers as a pointer to voters’ mood in the run up to the national elections next year, were held over a period of nearly one month starting on November 12. The counting of votes will be taken up on December 11 and the results declared on the same day.
Almost all exit polls predict the defeat of the BJP in Rajasthan which has swung between the BJP and the Congress in every assembly poll held after five years since 1993. The BJP had defeated the Congress in the previous elections in the state in 2013. In Madhya Pradesh, three of the four exit polls predicted that the Congress would emerge as the single largest party while two polls gave it a clear majority. The exit polls project that Chhattisgarh could be heading for a photo finish. While two exit polls put the Congress ahead of the BJP in Chhattisgarh, two others predicted the BJP government may manage to retain power in the state.
If the Indian exit polls, which often go way off the mark from actual results, are a correct guide, the Congress, which has been losing elections in state after state since the 2014 parliamentary elections that brought the BJP to power, will get a big boost ahead of the 2019 parliamentary poll. In the 22 states that went to polls after 2014, Congress has won, on its own, in only two, Punjab in 2017 and Puducherry in 2016. Another importance of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly poll results is that these three states together account for 65 parliamentary seats. The BJP had won 62 of those 65 seats in 2014.
The recent elections in the five states also gave an insight into the nature of campaign issues likely to be brought up by the main contenders for power in 2019. Agricultural sector crisis caused by falling prices and lack of adequate job creation emerged as among the key issues in the campaign in the polls in the five states. This means the issues covered two major segments of voters—farmers and youth. A good showing in these states would prompt the Congress to step up its attack on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on farm distress, an issue which put the BJP on the defensive.
The BJP has used a mixture of developmental agenda, including the social welfare schemes rolled out by the Modi government, and at times the narratives of nationalism and religious polarization by projecting the issues of “illegal” migrants from Bangladesh.
The Congress has stuck to farm distress, lack of adequate job opportunities as his key poll planks. In the run up to recent elections in the five states, the party also aggressively campaigned on the anti-corruption theme by raising the issue of the purchase of Rafale fighter planes from France and alleging graft by the Modi government. The party’s President Rahul Gandhi not only brought Modi directly into the line of fire on the Rafale issue but tried to reverse the 2014 scenario when Modi had made corruption as a key election issue in the wake of a series of major scams that buffeted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh between 2004 and 2014. When the results are declared on December 11, it remains to be seen if livelihood issues would get precedence in voters’ mind over divisive themes.
Gains for the Congress in these states would also bolster its efforts to reassert its position as the principal opposition party and strengthen its bargaining power in firming up state-level alliances with regional parties and lead a joint opposition front against the BJP in the next parliamentary elections. It will also be a boost to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress although the party has maintained that it may not project him as the prime ministerial candidate and indicated such issues can be dealt with after the general elections.
On the other hand, the results of the elections in the five states will put to test the BJP’s ability to hold on to power in 2019 by stemming anti-incumbency and reversing a growing perception of a slide.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a senior
journalist based in India