Who will win the 2019 general elections? I was asked this question yesterday by two friends separately; one is a journalist who lives in London and the other, who happens to be an academician, living in Atlanta (the USA). My simple answer was – “let us wait till May 23”. But that did not satisfy them as they knew that I was avoiding the answer. Being my long standing friends (one worked once as a colleague in Delhi in the same newspaper and the other is a university-mate), both not only “demanded” an answer but also urged me later to write what I told them. So, this column is about what I told them.
As an observer of Indian politics, I must make it clear at the outset that the dominant section of the political reporters and analysts (they include academicians, think tanks, former civil servants, and NGOs) based in Delhi in general and places like the Press Club of India and India International Centre in particular, were never up to the mark in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. They doubted whether Atal Behari Vajpayee would return in 1999 after his one-year old government was voted out in a confidence vote in parliament by one vote. In 2004, they predicted an easy victory for Vajpayee. In 2009, in the wake of the attack on Mumbai (26/11), they did not give any chance to the incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh much of a chance. And in 2014, they thought that notwithstanding all the scams surrounding the Singh government, Modi, “a highly polarising figure” , would not succeed outside Gujarat and that BJP veterans would not allow the “outsider Modi”( who was never a part of the Delhi-establishment and even a member of Parliament) to succeed in becoming the Prime Minister.
If most of our Delhi-dominated elite-political commentators are usually proved wrong in predicting the poll outcomes, it is essentially because they think that the rest of India will vote the way they would like vote themselves. The story of the professional pollsters, those who conduct opinion and exit polls, is a little different, however. No two opinion polls are alike. Even exit polls do not necessarily reach the same conclusion. Some of them have been right, some have been nearly right, and some have been way off the mark.
Take the opinion polls in 2014. ABP News-Nielsen predicted a big surge for BJP (which had 116 in 2009) from the last election, taking the seat count for the National Democratic Alliance that it led to 233. The CNN-Lokniti gave the BJP 172-80. Times Now gave NDA 227 of which BJP was to have 202. The NDTV –Hansa research gave the NDA 275, with BJP at 226.
And when one came to the 2014 exit polls, Times Now gave the NDA 249, CNNIBN_CSDS Lokniti gave the alliance 270-82, India TV gave it 289, ABP News Nielson had 281 for the NDA and News24 – Chanakya predicted 291 for BJP alone out of 340 for the NDA.
The 2014 lesson is obvious. Except the Chankaya, none of the pollsters who conducted exit polls were able to gauge the public mood for Modi or the BJP correctly. And as regards the opinion polls in 2014, though every pollster did talk of the NDA emerging as the largest block, none fathomed that the BJP alone would get the majority of 272 on its own. The point thus is that the BJP led by Modi performed better than what was expected by them.
How instructive this lesson can be in 2019 elections that we are undergoing? Since we have to wait for the exit polls till May 19 (exit polls in 2014 were better for Modi than the opinion polls), only opinion polls can be indicative for now. I am going by the opinion polls that were carried out between in between January and April, 2019( one was released on April 8 , though), and these are : Times Now gives NDA 279, Jan ki Baat gives it 310 and India TV predicts for it 275. The rest – ranging from News Nation to the Republic TV to India Today to ABP to Zee – gives the figure of 231 at the lowest and 270 maximum.
If in 2014, the opinion poll figures went up in actual results, will the same happen this time too? Given the fact that the Modi government has not seen any major setback in the last two months because of any adverse judicial verdict, surfacing of any major scam or any major foreign policy/ security setback (on the contrary, it has scored a huge victory over the declaration of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and the successful Anti Satellite test), the NDA-figure should further go up in the ultimate analysis. That is the logic or common sense.
One also should take into account the fact why Modi’s figure defied many opinion polls (not the trend though). And that was the range and intensity of his electoral campaigns. He had made the 2014 poll virtually a Presidential poll by covering every nook and corner of the country and addressing public rallies. He had conducted 425 rallies between September 2013 and May 10, 2014(the last day of the campaigning).
He has almost repeated the same feat this time too. Going by the Hindustan Times, by the time Modi’s campaign ends on May 17(the last phase of the polling), he would have addressed 130 odd public meetings since March 28, the day he started his campaign in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. The shorter number of rallies this time should be seen against the background that this time Modi is the Prime Minister and he needed time for day-to-day governance and the fact that his campaign is of only of about 50 days. But what is important is that as in 2014, the 68-year old Prime Minister has managed to address two rallies this time; in fact, there have been days when he has addressed three rallies in more than one state.
Logic and common sense based on above thus suggest that people of India are going to give Narendra Modi a second term as the Prime Minister. But if you go by the atmosphere created by the dominant or elite political commentators in Delhi, who, incidentally, are pathologically Modi-haters, this is not going to happen. The fact that one is surrounded by these people, there are indeed doubts in one’s mind. Unlike the situation in 2014, these elite analysts and commentators (who traditionally happen to be Leftist/liberal/seculars but ultra-reactionaries with regard to their total domination of the country’s intellectual discourse and the accompanying privileges) are in a formidable position today in the field of social media. They are hyperactive in face book, twitter and whatsapp in spreading the information that there is a powerful undercurrent throughout the country against Modi and that he has already lost the battle to the combined opposition.
How does one gauge an undercurrent, which, all told, does upset all logic and calculations? Here, our Modi-hating elite-pollsters do not give any reasonable answers. Secondly, undercurrents can also be in Modi’s favour, as was the case in 2014.
Left to myself, I must admit that I do not know anything about the prevailing undercurrents. I only can cite few personal interactions during this election. In Odisha, the cook in our house at Bhubaneswar told me that come what may , she and her family would vote for Modi’s “kamal”, because the country is safe in his hands, though she also said for the assembly election she would tick on ‘conch’ ( the election symbol of Naveen Patnaik’s ruling BJD) as she gets subsidised rice. The other day when I was returning home from Delhi airport, the cab driver said that it was his last trip for the day as he had to catch the train in the morning to go to his village in Jharkhand to vote for Modi, “who knows how to deal with the terrorists.” My car cleaner, a dalit, has taken leave from me for one week on the ground that he was going to his village in Medinapur in West Bengal to campaign and vote for Modi.
And as I write this, one of my reporters sends me the leave-application for four days, beginning on May 18, saying that he would be at Kolkata to vote on May 19 (the last day of the polling); he is a huge fan of Narendra Modi, incidentally. Yesterday, I met two gentlemen from Udaipur (Rajasthan) who said that they have voted for Modi, though few months back they had voted for the Congress in the state. Like our cook in Bhubaneswar, they said that state and national elections were different. A professor- friend from Varanasi, a Modi-critic, rang me this morning to say that the entire eastern UP seemed to be with Modi.
I do not know whether to describe these encounters as undercurrents in favour of Modi, the same way my encounters with friends in Press Club and India International centre being viewed as anti-Modi undercurrent. But one thing is clear. And that is the fact that this election is devoid of any concrete issues – it is a referendum on Modi. Either one is for Modi or against Modi. And if the undercurrents will reflect this phenomenon then may I venture to predict the outcome?
If the undercurrents are against Modi, then the BJP will not touch the figure of 100. But if the undercurrents are in his favour, then the BJP alone will reach the near 300- figure, let alone the NDA. Nothing in between.
By Prakash Nanda