This is 2017, and we’ve all learned after many misadventures over the past few years to take opinion or exit polls with a large helping of salt. But, even so, the polls that have now been released – and summarised in NDTV’s poll of polls – tell a surprisingly consistent story. And it’s one that the Bharatiya Janata Party will be deeply happy to hear.
First, and always foremost, Uttar Pradesh. Look, it’s always tough to make a prediction about UP. This is a state with real and close three – or four-way contests, in which issues can be deeply local, caste equations change from region to region, and candidate choice really makes a difference. But all the major polls have the BJP handily beating the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance, with the Bahujan Samaj Party a distant third. True, not all the polls collated by NDTV suggest that the BJP will win an outright majority. But here’s where an aspect of recent polling comes into focus: polls in the past few years have noticeably underestimated the margin of the eventual winner. Sure, UP may still go back to the years of hung assemblies, an era that ended with Mayawati’s victory a decade ago. But the BJP has consistently beaten polling in North India since 2014 (with the exception of Delhi), and I think it would be unwise to assume it wouldn’t do so again.
These strong numbers for the BJP do suggest one thing of national consequence, even if they are only imperfect reflections of the final result. Think of the context here: UP is a state where rural votes make a difference, and we know that distress from demonetisation is strongest in rural areas. You have two powerful anti-BJP forces, both of which have at least as much presence in public awareness that they could have tried to craft a coherent anti-demonetisation narrative. And the incumbent state government itself is not too unpopular. And yet, going by the polls, the BJP is still in pole position. Remember the narrative that it’s selling: that it alone will be able to provide proper governance to UP. What its robust poll numbers suggest is that not enough people think demonetisation is a sign of poor governance and decision-making – quite the opposite. Unless the BJP radically underperforms these numbers on Saturday, it will be clear that demonetisation is electorally a dud for the Opposition.
The Congress’ long slide into irrelevance seems to be continuing, if one takes these polls seriously. It may not manage to recover a Goa being run by remote control by Manohar Parrikar, it seems unable to prevent a BJP surge in Manipur, a state it has dominated for 15 years, it will almost certainly lose Uttarakhand, one of the tiny handful of states it still rules – and even Punjab doesn’t seem as much of a sure shot as it should have been. And already the commentariat is readying – without much evidence – to blame his decision to ally with the Congress for Akhilesh Yadav’s possible defeat.
Yes, some of the Congress’ problems outside UP can be traced to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, which in Punjab has definitely lured voters with a distaste for either party, and in Goa appears to have split the anti-BJP vote. But that also reveals the weakness of the Congress’ strategy. The BJP might displace the Congress as the natural party of national government – but only the AAP actually seems to pose an existential threat to the Congress. Unless the Congress works hard to try and figure out what divides it from the AAP, and why voters unwilling to vote BJP should prefer it to the AAP, it’s clearly in real trouble.
Frankly, the very fact of the AAP’s existence is why this set of elections has been such a headache for pollsters. There are genuine three-cornered contests in not just UP, but also Punjab and Goa. When that happens, figuring out who is losing and gaining votes at what rate is incredibly hard – and extrapolating from that to seat totals is even tougher. Look at how contradictory the various Punjab polls are. The simple truth is this: in the absence of a three-cornered fight including the AAP, the BJP would lose both Punjab and Goa. Currently, it may well be that the Congress will lose both.
Of course, these polls will be forgotten once the real results start coming in on Saturday. But nothing that they have revealed dents the meta-narrative that has been true for months, even years, now: that Narendra Modi is proceeding swiftly, with assistance from the AAP, towards his long-term goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat.