Cliffhanger in Bengal, Stalin sweep in Tamil Nadu, predict exit polls
Exit polls for the latest round of assembly elections on Thursday predicted outcomes along expected lines in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, but seemed to suggest that West Bengal may be too close to call.
The polls predicted a sweep for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, signalling the emergence of MK Stalin, 62, as one of the most powerful regional leaders in the country; an unprecedented return to power for the Left Democratic Front (LDF), headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, in Kerala; and a successful defence by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam. But West Bengal, arguably the most intensely and bitterly fought state election in recent times, is also emerging the tightest, the polls indicated.
Some polls gave the BJP, which pulled out all stops in its campaign, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah leading from the front, the edge. Others pointed to an advantage for the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC). The truth will emerge on May 2, when votes are counted.
Opinion polls have been horribly wrong in the past, although, sometimes, they have also been prescient.
The BJP’s general secretary in charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, said the party would form the government in the state. He attributed the indecisive opinion polls to the research firms’ lack of familiarity with the state, people’s fear of “voicing opinions freely” in a state with a culture of political violence, and the presence of a large number of “silent voters”.
The TMC’s Samir Chakraborty chose only to look at polls that gave an edge to his party. “TMC is getting a majority despite Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, and top BJP leaders making Bengal their base camp,” he said.
If the BJP manages to pull off a win, it will a remarkable achievement for a party that won only three of the 294 assembly seats in 2016, although it won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019. The party has long considered Bengal the last frontier, and a win in the state will complete its dominance of the east.
If the TMC manages to hold on — whichever party wins, the margin, if the opinion polls are any indication, will be slim — it will a remarkable achievement for chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose party was weakened by desertions, faced significant anti-incumbency, and appeared to be behind the BJP for much of the campaign.
It will also elevate her standing in any anti-BJP grouping that coalesces at the national level.
Any such grouping will also have to make space for Stalin, fighting his first assembly election as leader of the party, although he did lead it to a sweep in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 (the DMK-led alliance won 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state). It also means the Dravidian movement, bereft of a leader after the deaths of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK’s) J Jayalalithaa and the DMK’s Muthuvel Karunanidhi, gets a new icon.
The AIADMK’s loss will weaken incumbent chief minister Edapaddi Palanisami, and perhaps pave the way for the return of his one-time mentor VK Sasikala into the party. The BJP was the junior partner of the AIADMK in the election; it has always been perceived as a party of Hindi-speaking North Indians in the state, and this loss will not help its cause in any way.
Both the DMK and the BJP dismissed the opinion polls. “We don’t rely on exit polls,” said DMK organising secretary RS Bharatiya, predicting a bigger sweep for the DMK grouping than that predicted by the polls. BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathy said there was no need for anxiety and that voters would reward the AIADMK and the BJP for the good work done by the Centre and the state in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The polls also predicted the return to power of the BJP and the LDF in Assam and Kerala, respectively. Both were anticipated.
“We never had any doubts about our continuation,” Kerala CM Pinyari Vijayan said. Senior Assam minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said he would not like to go into numbers but that the BJP and its allies would “get majority easily”.
The polls also predicted a win for the NDA grouping in Puducherry, a first for the Union Territory.
The polls were held in the backdrop of surging second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. When the polls were announced, in late February, India was seeing around 15,000 cases a day. On the last day of polling, April 29, it recorded 386,713 cases.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) was criticised for the eight-phase elections in West Bengal, which meant campaigning continued as cases continued to rise, with all parties flouting Covid-19 safety protocol. Elections in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Kerala, were held in one phase on April 6, and that in Assam, in three phases on March 27, April 1, and April 6.
Now it’s on to Sunday when all eyes will be on West Bengal.