New Delhi: Their specific state-level numbers varied but all exit polls released Sunday evening at the end of the final phase of voting in the Lok Sabha election predicted the return of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with a diminished but confident majority. The surveys pegged the NDA figure anywhere between 267 and 350, most likely to be well past the halfway mark of 272 in the parliament. Only ABP-Nielsen gave the NDA 267 seats, slightly short of a majority.
In 2014, the BJP won 282 seats and the NDA, 336 seats.
Compared to that tally, the NDA’s total losses could be in the range of 30-60 seats – not large enough to deny Narendra Modi another term at office. One poll, by India Today, also envisages the BJP crossing the 300 seat mark by itself.
The exit polls both confirmed the BJP’s strategic intentions – to gain dramatically in West Bengal and Odisha – but also revealed potential surprises, such as big wins in Karnataka and Maharashtra, where the BJP was up against robust opposition alliances.
Overall, if the results hold, it appears that BJP’s strategy to turn the election into a presidential-style referendum on Prime Minister Modi outdid the opposition’s campaign which highlighted rural distress, unemployment and the allegation of irregularities in the purchase of Rafale aircraft.
Congress’s slow-motion return
The Congress and its allies also appear to be slowly recovering from the rout of 2014, with most polls giving them at least a two-fold increase. It is the so-called “Others” – mostly regional parties – which may not have performed as well as expected by analysts or reports from the ground.
If true, this will mean that the saffron party has actually made significant inroads in their pocket boroughs. In states like West Bengal and Odisha, especially, the BJP’s campaign to dramatically improve its showing may have succeeded, reflected in an almost two-fold increase in its projected vote shares.
However, south India, barring Karnataka, remains unbreached. Exit polls showed a very poor performance by the BJP in the other four southern states.
Most exit polls also predicted that the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party front has worked in rolling back the BJP in India’s most populous state. From the 71 seats won in 2014, the BJP may face a loss of 40 – its average 2019 score, across polls, being 30 or fewer. The formidable SP-BSP gathbandhan is projected to win as many as 56 seats, while most polls gave the Congress only two.
#ABPExitPoll2019 predicts clean sweep for Mahagathbandhan (SP+BSP+RLD) with 56 seats in India’s largest state – Uttar Pradesh (80 seats).
Heavy losses for BJP+ – Pegged to win 22 seats. (BJP had won 71 seats in 2014 polls)
Congress+ may get two seats. pic.twitter.com/zoaRouEa4h
— ABP News (@abpnewstv) May 19, 2019
The saffron alliance also seems to be repeating its performance in its traditional heartland – through Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal – where it had a strike rate of more than 95% seats.
This would mean that the appeal of the Congress, which wrested the state assemblies of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh only five months ago from the BJP, wilted before Modi’s popularity. Some of these states also witnessed massive farmers’ protests in recent times.
Substantial gains in Bengal, Odisha and Northeast – as was BJP’s strategy during the campaign – seem set to compensate for marginal losses in the heartland.
Significantly, all the exit polls indicate the Left Front is staring at an electoral disaster. At least one poll, the TimesNow-VMR exit poll, shows that its total may not end up in double digits. In 2014, the Left Front had 13 MPs from Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.
After its bitter and bruising multi-phase battle with the BJP in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress appears to have held its vote share. However, the Left’s share may come down to 15% – a drop almost equal to the BJP’s projected gain, of more than 20 percentage points from the 2014 elections.
However, the same TimesNow poll threw up some major discrepancies.
For instance, it shows that BJP may win the Chandigarh seat but it gives the Congress almost a five-percentage-point advantage over the BJP.
Even as most opposition political parties contended that exit poll findings are vastly different from on-ground sentiment, the West Bengal chief minister went a step further, alleging that the projected win of NDA in exit polls was BJP’s narrative-building exercise to fix the elections.
I don’t trust Exit Poll gossip. The game plan is to manipulate or replace thousands of EVMs through this gossip. I appeal to all Opposition parties to be united, strong and bold. We will fight this battle together
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) May 19, 2019
Irrespective of the allegation, exit polls have had a history of being misleading. In 2004 and 2014, they were way off the mark. Projections were also dramatically different from the results for assembly elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015), Uttar Pradesh (2017).
Political analyst Sajjan Kumar told The Wire, “The variations in state-level projections of most surveys are very high. For instance, half of the surveys show that the Mahagathbandhan may win close to 50 or more out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. But the other half shows that NDA may also win the same number of seats in UP. How can the conclusions of different surveys be so from each other?”
He added that a striking feature of the surveys is that despite these state-level variations, most surveys peg the all-India tally for the NDA to be around 300. “How is that possible? This means that although pollsters found different realities in different states, they were all sure of a NDA win with broadly the same number of seats,” he said.