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Bihar exit polls hint at all outcomes; voters may have turned smarter than netas, pundits

The Bihar election has turned into a thriller whose ending will be revealed only in the final paragraph. The exit polls were expected to give some vital clues to the outcome. But they have just kept the suspense lingering by hinting at all possible outcomes: NDA sweep, Mahagathbandhan victory and a hung Assembly.

If the crowd outside the office of a party was a clue, the BJP has won it. On Thursday night, minutes after TV channels came out with their exit poll results, the largest crowd — a few vehicles and a dozen men — was outside the BJP office in Patna’s Beer Chand Patel road. The office of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD next door was bathed in darkness and the JD(U) office across the road was absolutely silent.

The mood in party offices reflected the silence amidst top leaders of both the alliances. While the junior leaders and spokespersons made contrasting claims, both Amit Shah and Nitish Kumar stayed in wait-and-watch mode after the confusing exit polls. Shah said he will speak only after the votes are counted, while Nitish Kumar eschewed the temptation of tweeting out a victory claim. Only Lalu Prasad Yadav, with his characteristic optimism bordering on hyperbole, claimed his alliance is winning 190 out of the 243 seats in the Bihar Assembly.

Then he laughed.

BJP’s hope and fear

Kuch gadbad lag raha hai (something isn’t right),” said a state BJP leader as he walked out of TV studio in Patna. He then went on to talk about how the party’s alliance partners, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awami Morcha had failed to pull their weight. Within the BJP, there are fears that these two parties will win less than a quarter of the 43 seats — RLSP’s 23 and HAM’s two — they are contesting. The party is however optimistic of making up for this by winning 70 percent of the 160 seats it is contesting. Its internal assessment: 120-140 seats.

The BJP’s other fear is that the fifth phase of polling, held on Thursday, may have gone to the Mahagathbandhan. In this round, nearly 60 percent of the voters — the highest figure recorded in this election — came out to vote. Since the 57 seats in this round were in areas considered strongholds of the Mahagathbandhan because of a large number of Muslims and Yadavs, the record turnout indicates aggressive voting in favour of Nitish Kumar’s alliance. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, even at its peak, the NDA had led in just 17 out of these 57 constituencies. Its vote share was nearly 17 percent less than that of Mahagathbandhan. A high turnout combined with the failure of Pappu Yadav and Asaduddin Owaisi to split the anti-BJP vote could lead to the Mahagathbandhan’s dominance of this round.

The Chanakya conundrum

The only source of concern for the Mahagathbandhan was the very fountain of hope for the BJP: The prediction by Today’s Chanakya that the NDA will sweep the election, winning 155 seats. Chanakya has got several exit polls and pre-polls surveys right in the past. Its history of hitting bullseye has made the Mahagathbandhan nervous and BJP optimistic, though in private even party leaders said the survey was more bullish than its own forecast.

Chanakya has got it wrong in the past, though. In 2012, it had projected that the Congress would win the Punjab assembly polls. Earlier last year, Chanakya’s exit poll claimed that the BJP would win 61 seats in the 81-member Haryana Assembly, while others had predicted a much tighter contest. In the end, the BJP barely scraped through winning 43 seats with its allies.

Chanakya has predicted a vote-share of nearly 46 percent for the BJP alliance. This is nearly eight percent more than the votes it got in 2014 at the peak of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s wave in Bihar. The only explanation for this unexpected spike could be that most of the 26 per cent Extremely Backward Caste voters and women have voted for the NDA. We will know whether Chanakya loses its credibility or Mahagathbandhan the loses the election on Sunday.

Back to square one

Finally, if the exit polls are correct, it is time to ponder the question: What did the parties achieve in three months of campaigning, mud-slinging and resorting to casteism and communalism?

Three months ago, when the campaign began, most of the pre-poll surveys were predicting a tight contest. Some had forecast a narrow win for the Mahagathbandhan and others had suggested a narrow lead for the NDA.

Three months later they are predicting the same outcome. So, here are some more questions to ponder:

One: Is the era of fence-sitters over? If the battlelines aren’t changing much, it seems Indian voters now make up their mind several months in advance. Are campaigns a waste of time?

Two: Do Indian politicians underestimate the intelligence of voters? The two alliances used a variety of jumlas to influence voters. Beef, reservation, Mandal, kamandal, Pakistan, crackers, Diwali, shaitan, pishaach, DNA and financial packages were talked about and dissected 24×7 during the past three months.

If there has been no change in the pre- and post-poll scenarios, it is clear that what Rajesh Khanna once sang was accurate: Yeh public hai sab jaanti hai.

Pity you can’t say the same about analysts and psephologists.

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