The run-up to the 15th general election had thrown up two clear possibilities and one outlier as the contender to form the next government at the Centre: the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the so-called Left-led non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front.
The publishing of the much awaited (and much maligned) exit polls has left people no wiser; the margin of difference between the two main coalitions, UPA and NDA, is too close to call. Political punditry unleashed across the electronic networks has only left everyone even more confused. Depending on which exit poll you consider, any of the combinations (including the Third Front, if we give the exit polls the freedom to go wrong like they did in 2004) have a chance at forming the next government. As a result, we have no option but to wait with bated breath till noon on Saturday, counting day.
Indeed, it would seem that the bar on exit poll data being released before all phases of polling were completed only helped make E-day (exit poll day) a sort of dress rehearsal for D-day, ahead of C-day (counting day).
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Having said so, what do we make of the slew of exit poll projections? Some broad conclusions can be drawn.
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First, the split verdict among the exit polls underline the difficulty of calling an election in the absence of any palpable wave and in a country which is so heterogeneous, both within and across regions. It is clear that there is no pan-India issue binding the electorate. Neither record inflation, nor the rapid descent of the economy from heady heights seems to have had a telling impact. That’s not surprising, given the varying strength of the linkages between various regions of India and the rest of the world. As Mint had reported in its March series, Bharat Shining, rural India isn’t as economically susceptible as urban India.
Second, the results of the exit polls confirm initial expectations that the mandate will indeed be fractured and there will be no clear winner. Depending on the combination and its inherent stability, this has obvious implications for the future direction of government policy and its ability to shepherd the economy through a global economic crisis, of a magnitude similar to that witnessed in the 1930s Great Depression.
Not surprisingly therefore the stock markets cheered on Tuesday when there was buzz about the NDA emerging victorious—a political combination that would have automatically meant the exclusion of the Left parties and their conservative imprimatur on the policy fabric.
Third, it seems as though young people may not have significantly altered the national verdict. In other words, they did not react decisively to the youthful appeal of Congress icon Rahul Gandhi or the geriatric image of the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, L.K. Advani.
This is significant because the election was supposed to see a big surge in first-time voters as part of a trend where young voters were sizeable in number. According to IIMS Dataworks, an associate of research and consulting firm Invest India Economic Foundation Pvt. Ltd, 40% of the voters will be below the age of 30.
Fourth, the exit polls seem to indicate that the two main national parties have improved on their past performance. The point of dispute is not in the gains, but the extent and who will end up as the single largest party and thereby have the right to take first shot at government formation. The big question is whether this marks a reversal or at least defines the limits of regional parties. If this is the case, then the BJP is better placed than the Congress. Unlike the latter, the BJP is made up of strong state-level leaders—Narendra Modi, B.S. Yeddyurappa, Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan—which will make it easier to leverage any such structural shift in the sentiment of the electorate.
Fifth, the poll results, particularly with respect to Uttar Pradesh, seem to affirm what has been known anecdotally about the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Before the elections, the BSP, particularly after its astounding performance in the 2007 assembly elections when it came to power on its own strength, was expected to do very well. In fact, such was the weight of expectations that the BSP rebuffed any pre-poll alliance in the state and actually contested the largest number of Lok Sabha seats.
However, as the campaign picked up, its leader Mayawati seemed bogged down in shoring her party’s prospects in the Uttar Pradesh and was not able to spare too much time for the rest of the country.
The game-changer seemed to be the inability of the Congress to cement an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, which turned a three-cornered contest into a four-cornered one—forcing a split in the Muslim vote.
In addition, the polarization forced by Varun Gandhi’s antics in Pilibhit seemed to have nudged the upper caste votes back to the BJP. This final conclusion, however, has to come with a caveat, because exit polls have consistently underestimated the BSP and did it so spectacularly in the 2007 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
In the final analysis, it is clear that for empirical clarity, one will have to wait for the official verdict. But given that there isn’t much to do in the next 48 hours let’s give in to the national pastime of indulging ourselves in the game of wishful electoral arithmetic!
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org