Assembly elections

Gujarat exit polls suggest the Congress surge has fizzled out – or was never actually there

Rahul Gandhi is going to have a rough first week in charge, if the polls are accurate.

When Rahul Gandhi finally takes over as president of the Congress on Saturday, he might not have much to celebrate. Every single exit poll from Gujarat, where the final round of voting concluded on Thursday, projected a comfortable victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party. All the major polls predicted more than 100 seats for the saffron party, meaning they will comfortably cross the halfway mark of 92. And though most suggested the Congress had also made gains, those appeared to be incremental, adding a handful of seats here and there. To make matters worse for the Congress and Gandhi, exit polls from Himachal Pradesh, where voting took place a month ago, also suggested the BJP is on course to take charge of the hill state.

Earlier in the month, there seemed to be a lot of energy in favour of the Congress, where its campaign slogan directly took on the BJP’s development plank and seemed to have brough many on board. The combination of demonetisation and the hasty rollout of the Goods and Services Tax, coupled with anti-incumbency after 23 years of the BJP rule, made it seem as if the Congress actually stood a chance, despite barely competing in the state in the last two polls. To add to this, the Congress stitched several alliances, bringing Other Backward Class leader Alpesh Thakore on board, while also having Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani support its efforts.

Yet, despite all that, an average of the major exit polls’ seat projections suggests the BJP will actually better its 2012 performance, adding two seats, while the Congress will be 53 seats behind the saffron party.

Vote share projections, which are usually more accurate than seat-share estimations because of the difficulty of calculating the conversion from voter sentiment into wins in the first-past-the-post system, also suggested that the BJP is holding onto its base for the most part.

Indeed, if someone had not paid attention to the campaign and headlines over the last few months, one would not be surprised by the numbers coming out of Gujarat, since they mirror what has happened in the last few elections in the state. An average of the major vote-share predictions in fact looks like a mirror image of the 2012 result.

One chart might better explain how much has happened in the last few months, however. CSDS-Lokniti, one of the better known pollsters, released a pre-election report on December 5, based on surveys done towards the end of November. This opinion poll caused a flutter because, for the first time, a serious pollster was suggesting that the Congress and the BJP were neck and neck with both at the time likely to get 43% vote share.

Indeed, that poll pointed to a huge surge in Congress support over the last three months from 29% in August to 43% by November. CSDS’ exit poll suggested a portion of those gains for the Congress have been erased, with its final estimation putting support for the BJP at 49% and Congress at just 41%. That’s a 6% swing upwards for the BJP in a matter of two weeks.

What happened in between? Well, Modi for starters. The prime minister had been visiting the state before the last two weeks of campaigning, but in that final period he was there nearly every day, constantly getting headlines and often provoking controversy. His party also brazenly played the communal and nationalist card, talking about reducing the number of “dadhi-topi” people in power and accusing the Congress of colluding with Pakistan to make Ahmed Patel the chief minister of the state. This combination – polarising rhetoric and the still massively popular star campaigner – could be responsible for the swing back in favour of the BJP.

The other possibility, of course, is also that the Congress surge may not have existed in the first place. Reportage from the state certainly suggested that there was plenty of unhappiness against the BJP, especially after so many years in power. But that did not seem to translate into outright preference in favour of the Congress, whose local unit is not exactly famed for its organisation skills or popularity. As with Uttar Pradesh, where the party managed plenty of coverage but scant few actual electoral gains, here too the Congress caught the fancy of the media with crowds turning out for Rahul Gandhi and Hardik Patel’s rallies and its campaigning doing very well online.

The CSDS report from two weeks ago was the clincher. Until then most analysts were still being safe and suggesting a BJP victory with gains for the Congress, but the report from a reputed pollster convinced more to stick their necks out. Psephologist-turned-politican Yogendra Yadav used that data to set up three projections, all of which had the Congress winning.

Exit poll data, particularly the vote share numbers, are however likely to change many minds. It is hard not to notice that the final tally does not look tremendously different from 2012 and other previous elections. Whether the Congress surge has fizzled out or was not there in the first place, however, it looks likely that Rahul Gandhi will be beginning his innings in charge on a pretty dour wicket – if that is, the exit polls turn out to be accurate.

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