NEW DELHI: Even in a landscape inundated by continuous waves of Assembly elections, the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh exit polls grabbed all eyeballs on Thursday. The results will come on Monday, but most exit polls dampened fevered speculation by predicting that the BJP is retaining majority in Gujarat, even if just about, and sweeping the Congress out of power in the hill state.
Till now standing as a saffron fortress that nurtured Narendra Modi’s political career from infancy to prime ministership, Gujarat had suddenly seemed a wide open field during this campaign — with the first romance of demonetisation ebbing, the GST hurting its trader base further and caste equations in ferment.
The Patidars, OBCs, Dalits, farmers and the youth were in agitation mode, seemingly ready to be mined by the opposition, and the Congress moved in with deft alliances.
The real battleground shifted to Gujarat, leaving Himachal almost as a sideshow. The Congress showed a rare appetite for challenge, and a kind of electoral strategising not seen in a long time was visible on the ground. Rahul Gandhi’s rallies drew crowds and applause too. Maybe not as much as the mascot of Patidar agitation, Hardik Patel, but substantial.
But clearly, that may not have been enough to match up to the muscle required to wrench power from the well-entrenched BJP, still held aloft by the star power of Narendra Modi—his personal popularity covering up the undercurrents of anti-incumbency that the BJP government faced in Gujarat in his absence. Or so the exit polls predict.
The exit polls show the Congress making rather modest gains—around 70 out of 182, up from the 48 seats it won in 2012 —not nearly enough to push the BJP out of power. The BJP, which currently holds 120, is predicted to claw back to 113-115 seats in the Assembly, where 92 is the half-way mark. Nowhere near the 150-seat tally projected by Amit Shah, but comfortable.
Today’s Chankya gives the BJP the biggest edge over its opponents –135 seats; and India Today-MYAXIS the lowest, between 99-113, but more importantly none of the exit polls seem to endorse Rahul’s “we’re winning Gujarat” view.
Faulty ticket distribution in South and North Gujarat, infighting among local leaders, and outsourcing of seats to Alpesh Thakor and Hardik may have pulled the Congress back. Despite a vigorous campaign mounted by Rahul— his temple visits helped the party shed its pro-minority image—the controversies that erupted around some of the party’s old guard, Kapil Sibal and Mani Shankar Aiyar, dampened the initial surge.
Going for the jugular, the PM not only made hay out of whatever straw he could clutch on to, the BJP was quick to make course corrections — the GST relief at the Guwahati meet, the focus on tribal voters to offset the erosion in Patidar votes, giving substantial tickets to Patels. The Congress fought back, but could not dominate the narrative.
So till the real votes are counted on December 18, the exit polls seem to suggest that Gujarat may not become the harbinger of change it was expected to be. As for Himachal, the Congress had left an aging Virbhadra Singh to fight a lonely battle. The exit poll prediction is it may not get more than 13 seats. The exit poll predicts BJP winning anywhere between 51 (India Today-Axis) and 38 (ABP-CSDS) seats.