Days before TV news channels unleashed a barrage of widely varying Exit Poll predictions, Praveen Chakravarty, who heads the Data Analytics team of the Congress party, came up with a gentle warning. Beware, he told the gullible public at large, “80% of exit poll seat predictions for all parties in large state elections since 2014 were wrong”.
He backed up his statement with a chart contrasting exit poll claims with actual election results. The accuracy level of leading polling agencies reads as follows: CVoter 15%; Chanakya 25%; Axis 38% and CSDS 0%.
However, the dismal strike rate of the agencies and the anchors who stage-manage the Exit Poll burlesques apart, Sunday’s prime time projections unwittingly revealed more than what was probably intended.
Even casual observers may have noted over the past few days a subtle change in the demeanour of BJP stalwarts, most noticeably the Prime Minister himself. His silent participation in the press briefing in which he meekly surrendered the limelight to his party president was, to say the least, uncharacteristic.
Narendra Modi’s willingness to play second fiddle to Amit Shah suggests that he knows something that his ardent admirers in the mainstream media do not seem to have realized as yet. That his public image has taken a bruising, that his party has lost ground in heartland States, that Rahul Gandhi has gained in stature and standing and that voters in many parts of the country have called his bluff.
He knows that even if he wins a second term – as all the starry-eyed Exit pollsters are sanguine he might - it will be a pyrrhic victory as far as his image of himself is concerned. His dream of being accepted by the masses all over the country will be shattered.
Sunday’s Exit Poll numbers have validated his worst fears. The BJP’s overall performance has been patchy at best. Even the most loyal and best paid polling agencies have indicated that BJP would fall short of expectations in several States. Worse, he would be burdened with pesky allies like the JD(U) and Shiv Sena who are projected to do better than he would have liked.
The writing is on the wall. Even if the NDA partner parties were to collectively get past the halfway mark of 272, as the pollsters and TV panelists dubiously claim, Modi knows that as the Prime Minister of a motley coalition he will not be able to ride roughshod over his allies as brazenly as he did during the last five years.
Even more galling is the fact that the Modi charm did not click in two States which mattered a lot to his personal self-image and where he and Amit Shah had pulled out all stops. Even the more flattering Exit Polls have not been able conceal the numbers that indicate that the BSP-SP combine could win more than half the contests in Uttar Pradesh. In West Bengal, despite all the resources deployed and grubby tactics employed to break her, the Trinamool chief seemed poised to bag the lion’s share of the seats,.
The truth is that it became clear to Modi at the fag end of the election campaign itself while he was addressing public rallies in Diamond Harbour and Dum Dum that he would not get more seats than Mamata Banerjee. Similarly, he could tell from the lukewarm response of the crowds at Azamgarh and Jaunpur that he had not been able to counter the Mayawati-Akhilesh gathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh effectively enough.
Contrary to the popular perception, although the Exit Polls project a verdict in favour of BJP-NDA, for Modi himself the message is clear: his wings have been clipped.
It was probably to deal with this realization that he undertook the sojourn in the caves of Kedarnath, even before votes were cast in the seventh phase and elections were still in full swing.
It might have been an attempt to reassert his status but it is providing ammunition to the Opposition - the brazen arrangements made for a red carpet welcome at the holy site and shocking television coverage of him in meditation mode are being viewed as disdain for election laws.
Muddying the waters further is his unverified claim that he had obtained the permission of the Election Commissioners for his well-publicized trip to a religious place. Prima facie it could be held as grave violation of the election code since the polling process was still ongoing - candidates are liable for disqualification for lesser offences.