Officials on Saturday will begin counting votes from month-long elections in five states whose outcome could test Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to pursue tough economic reforms and see opposition parties forge new alliances at the national level.
Exit polls, which have a patchy record in India, show the Bharatiya Janata Party will storm to power in at least three states, including the political bellwether, Uttar Pradesh.
That would come as vindication of Modi’s policies, including the controversial decision to recall 500-and 1000-rupee banknotes, and boost his chances for a second term in the national elections in 2019. A strong showing by his party will also provide fresh impetus to politically unpalatable but industry-friendly labour and land reforms.
The elections are also crucial for a clutch of smaller parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which is seeking to expand its national footprint. Exit polls forecast a neck-and-neck race between Congress and the AAP in Punjab, where the ruling coalition, of which the BJP is a member, faces a drubbing.
Polls also predicted that Modi’s party would retain power in Goa and take Uttarakhand from the Congress, and put the BJP narrowly ahead in Manipur. Such results could signal the BJP’s slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat” still has resonance on the ground.
“BJP is already the dominant national force. This election will show us the extent of dominance, especially if it wins UP,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research.
“Its victory or loss will also show if the competitive spaces in Indian politics open up or not.”
But most eyes are on Uttar Pradesh where Modi staked his reputation on a campaign to win a state the BJP last ruled in 2002. He held 23 public rallies and two road shows in about a month.
If exit polls for the state hold, this could be seen as a personal defeat for chief minister Akhilesh Yadav whose Samajwadi Party remained mired in a family feud in the run up to the polls.
A spectacular performance by the BJP will accentuate its domination of the country’s political landscape and further marginalize opposition parties, especially the Congress that looks clueless about how to stop the Modi juggernaut.
It could also lead to renewed attempts by opposition parties to forge a ‘mahagathbandhan’, or grand alliance, along the lines of one which was instrumental in the BJP’s defeat in Bihar assembly polls in 2015.
But if the exit polls go wrong and the BJP fails to impress, it might force the NDA government to abandon fiscal prudence in favour of populism. Poll reverses would give voice to Modi’s critics within the BJP and the RSS, making the NDA government vulnerable to pressures.
If the Congress loses Manipur and Uttarakhand and fails to dislodge the BJP from Goa as some forecasts suggested, even a victory in Punjab might not resuscitate a party that has been on a downhill since 2014.
Similarly, should the AAP trump the Congress in Punjab it would become the only regional party that would have a government beyond the boundary of one state — in this case the Union territory of Delhi.
That would pitchfork the AAP at the national political centre-stage as a rallying force for anti-BJP parties.
But if the Congress surprises the pollsters on Saturday with a more creditable performance, it will get a momentum ahead of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections later this year.
The Congress might then well be on the path of revival and well set to play a lead role in forming an anti-BJP front at the national level in the run up to 2019 general elections.
Possible scenarios and implications at the national level
SCENARIO 1: BJP makes a clean sweep
If the BJP is on the winning side in all five states, it would embolden the NDA government at the Centre to go for the jugular by accelerating economic reforms, especially the long-pending ones in the labour sector. The results would silence the snipers in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, who have strong reservations against the Centre’s reforms agenda. A spectacular performance by the BJP will accentuate its domination of the country’s political landscape and further marginalize opposition parties, especially the Congress that looks clueless about how to stop the Modi juggernaut. It could lead to renewed attempts by them to forge a mahagathbandhan or grand alliance, which was instrumental in the BJP’s defeat in Bihar assembly polls.
SCENARIO II: Dismal show by the BJP
If the BJP fails to impress, especially in Uttar Pradesh, it might force the NDA government to go for course-correction and abandon fiscal prudence in favour of populism. Poll reverses would give voice to Modi-baiters within the BJP and the RSS, making the NDA government vulnerable to pressures. If the Congress retains Uttarakhand and Manipur and returns to power in Goa and Punjab, it will get a momentum ahead of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections later this year. A resurgent Congress might also become the rallying force for opposition parties in future elections.
SCENARIO III: Mixed verdict
If the results are a mixed bag for the BJP and the Congress, the latter will stand to gain. The Congress hasn’t been able to retain a single state in elections since 2014. If it breaks this cycle in Uttarakhand or Manipur and defeats the BJP in Goa or the BJP-SAD combine in Punjab, it could be a watershed for a party that has seen a continuous slide in its fortune. UP results will be crucial to the BJP. Modi government’s popularity would be judged by the party’s performance in the country’s largest state. If it does well in UP, mixed results elsewhere might not have much impact either on the BJP’s politics or the NDA government; an obverse scenario might be construed as a setback to Modi who along with his ministers virtually camped in UP, making it the testing ground of their popularity. The BJP is particularly keen on the poll outcome in Punjab. If the Aam Admi Party (AAP) wins Punjab, it would become a threat to reckon with in subsequent elections. Such a poll outcome could propel the AAP to the national political centrestage- a prospect the BJP is not comfortable with.
(Inputs from Prashant Jha)