The exit polls have created quite a buzz with their projections of the results of the five state Assemblies for which voting was held recently. As one awaits the actual day of counting (Tuesday, December 11), a few trends seem clearly discernible and merit detailed reflection. Firstly, the exit polls seem to be unanimous in stating that Rajasthan would see a change of guard and Telangana would see the the TRS, under K. Chandrashekar Rao, retaining power. The few surveys in Mizoram also indicate that the Mizo National Front is marginally ahead of the Congress. There seems to be a little difference of opinion among the different polls on the direction of the Chhattisgarh result, and Madhya Pradesh seems to be a close race between the incumbent BJP and its main challenger, the Congress.
Three immediate issues come to the fore in any discussion of the trends. First, the “cycle of anti-incumbency” appears to be coming full circle. Soon after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP managed to win state after state elections, wresting power from either the Congress or state-based parties. The incumbent governments had completed one or two or in some cases even three terms and faced a determined BJP that made the best of the strong anti-incumbency sentiment. As the Narendra Modi-led BJP nears the end of its five-year term, state governments headed by the BJP are now facing the heat of anti-incumbency. In Gujarat, the BJP managed to retain power after a closely fought electoral battle. In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan it faces a stiff challenge from the Congress. In the past four years (since 2014), the Congress has been unable to defeat the BJP in any straight contest. If the exit poll numbers are to be believed, December 11 could see a turnaround, with the Congress stemming the tide of continuous defeats. How dramatic the turnaround is will depend, of course, on whether that return to winning ways is limited to one state, stretches to two states or encompasses all the three states of North India!
Second, the trends that the exit polls indicate are indicative of the fact that at the end of the day, “governance”, as perceived by people on the ground, truly matters. If the BJP loses power in Rajasthan, it would truly be a reflection of public perception of governance at the state level and the people’s response to the attitude and approach of those entrusted with the responsibility of leading the state. Similarly, it seems clear that in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, rural distress and the challenges of securing employment could play a major role in defining the nature of the people’s verdict. In Telangana, the public perception of the work done by the TRS over the last four years and the euphoria over the formation of the new state may well help the incumbent secure another term. A lot of media space has been devoted to the role of the leadership (both at the state and the national level) in determining the electoral outcome of the state Assembly polls. This leadership is often seen by the people from the prism of performance in terms of “visible” implementation of welfare and development programmes on the ground. The results that would be out by Tuesday are likely to categorically underscore this point.
Third, we are clearly moving into a phase of politics where voters across the country are making a clear distinction between a state-level and a national election. In the current round of state elections, the voters are responding to specific issues linked to their states and regions. While national events may have a tangential impact, the core factors are patently state-specific. This explains why despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi being reasonably popular in Rajasthan, if the BJP is voted out of power in the state, it would largely be a response to the state government and its leadership. The electoral verdicts in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh would surely be a vote on popular perceptions of the performance of the state government. This implies that next year’s Lok Sabha polls would see a different set of factors influencing voter choices. Electoral slogans across the states which have had voted for new Legislative Assemblies clearly recognise this distinction between state and national verdicts. In the past it was often argued that the trend in the state Assembly polls was often repeated in the Lok Sabha polls when held within a year. In 2014, Karnataka bucked this trend and a year later Bihar and Delhi saw state verdicts being distinctly different from the Lok Sabha verdicts of those states. The larger point one is trying to make is that while the verdict in the five state Assembly polls is crucial is helping parties and alliances defining strategies, it need not necessarily be an indicator of the way 2019 is likely to go. Even those who have characterised these elections as a “semi-final” do concede that the specific context of a semi-final may not be totally relevant for the finals. The finals need to be viewed in the specific political context that that particular election is fought in.
As one saw party leaders responding to the exit polls, one noticed that they were taking the cautious stance that these were just projections and that the “real people’s verdict” would be known only on December 11. Yet, their “cautious optimism” or “guarded skepticism” reflected an acceptance of the fact that it was truly difficult to definitively conclude the mood of the voter and what had been locked up in the EVMs. The fact that everyone is kept guessing and waiting with bated breath for December 11 reflects the strength and vitality of India’s democracy.