The Bharatiya Janata Party could emerge as the single-largest party in three of five states, including Uttar Pradesh, which voted to elect new assemblies over the past month, exit polls showed on Thursday.
The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party were locked in a tight race in Punjab and the country’s principal opposition party was battling with the BJP to retain power in Manipur and Uttarakhand.
The results, officially out on Saturday, will be seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, including the shock recall of 500-and 1000-rupee banknotes – a decision that opposition parties slammed as anti-poor and turned into a poll plank.
The five state polls are also billed as a virtual semi-final to the general elections in two years, and the results are likely to shape both upcoming presidential elections and policy formation. If the forecasts come true on March 11, the BJP-led central government could give a fresh impetus to politically unpalatable economic reforms, especially those in the labour sector.
Exit polls have frequently gone wrong in the past, including in Bihar and Delhi in 2015. Analysts say states with diverse populations and complex caste, community and religious affiliations tend to throw pollsters off.
Some of the polls predicted ranges of seats while others gave absolute numbers without mentioning any error margin.
In UP, where the BJP is seeking to regain power after 14 years, all exit polls forecast a hung assembly. Two gave the BJP a clear advantage over its nearest rival, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, while two others predicted a close fight between them.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was seen as a distant third in all four exit polls available for the 403-member house. In the event of the polls throwing a hung assembly in UP, post-poll re-alignments of political forces could not be ruled out.
Akhilesh on BSP
In a Facebook Live conversation with BBC Hindi on Thursday, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was ambiguous about the possibility of the SP joining hands with the BSP to keep the BJP out of power.
“No one will want President’s Rule in UP and that the BJP governs the state through a remote control,” he said in a cryptic reply to a query about the possibility of a post-poll arrangement with the BSP.
The BJP was seen as surging ahead of the rivals in Goa and Uttarakhand as well.
In Punjab, all exit polls unanimously predicted a drubbing for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine. But the polls were divided on whether the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party, which is fighting its debut assembly election in the state, will form the next government.
Two exit polls predicted a photo-finish while two others were split between the Congress and the AAP in the 117-member assembly. The halfway mark is 59.
In Uttarakhand, the BJP looked set to dislodge the Congress as four out of five exit polls gave a clear majority to the saffron party. One poll forecast a close fight in the 70-member legislature.
Three exit polls suggested that the BJP could retain power in Goa. The AAP, which ran a high-voltage campaign in its debut outing in the state, was seen as failing to have had an impact in the 40-member assembly.
But polls were split over Manipur, with one giving a majority to the BJP and the other to the ruling Congress.
For full coverage of the 2017 assembly polls, click here