Modi magic: Why Indian exit polls predict record BJP win

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 73, appears poised for a rare third term and is likely to be re-elected with a thumping majority, exit polls showed on Saturday evening, hammering the opposition alliance in the world’s largest democratic vote ever.

If the official results due Tuesday, June 4, back up these polls, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not only come through unscathed by widening inequality, record-high unemployment, and rising prices but might fare better than the last election in 2019. Never before has any prime minister in independent India won three straight Lok Sabha elections with improved numbers each time.

At least seven exit polls released by Indian media organisations predicted that the BJP and its allies would win 350-380 seats of the 543 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament.

Refusing to ponder on the exit polls, the opposition INDIA alliance – a group of more than two dozen political outfits hoping to remove the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian government – maintained a stoic confidence that they would secure a majority on counting day.

Exit polls in India have a patchy record and past surveys have both underestimated and overestimated the numbers of different parties. However, they have mostly correctly predicted the larger trends in the last two decades, with some exceptions. Nearly a billion Indians were registered to vote in the giant seven-phase elections that were spread over six weeks and concluded on Saturday evening.

“Modi is extraordinarily popular. Everything about this BJP campaign was about Modi for a reason,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR). “There were certain narratives that emerged that suggested people were upset with the government but translating that into seats was always going to be challenging.”

BJP expands into new areas

While INDIA is projected to do well in the country’s southern states, most exit polls suggest that the BJP may pull off stunning breakthroughs there too.

Several exit polls predict the BJP could bag two to three seats in Kerala, the last stronghold of the Indian left where Modi’s party has never won; while the BJP may win one to three seats in Tamil Nadu, where it drew a blank in the last elections. These wins, if they materialise, could give the BJP a foothold in opposition bastions where it has struggled for decades.

The BJP and its allies are also expected to retain their seats in Karnataka: The BJP won 25 out of 28 seats in the state in 2019. And it could emerge as the single biggest winner in Telangana. Those results would represent a dramatic setback for the opposition Congress party, which leads the INDIA alliance and won state legislative elections – defeating the BJP – in both Karnataka and Telangana only last year.

“The gains in the south are surprising. And predictions suggest a massive gain,” said Asim Ali, a political commentator. “Even if the BJP doesn’t get as many seats [as predicted in the exit polls], the rise in their vote share is a big swing.”

Meanwhile, the BJP is expected to sweep in its stronghold states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The opposition alliance is expected to make marginal gains in Bihar and Rajasthan, both states the BJP had almost swept in the last election, and in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab.

Sudha Joshi, a 76-year-old voter from Chittorgarh, in Rajasthan, did not move her eyes away from her smartphone as news anchors shouted over each other about a “thunderous mandate” for Modi on Saturday evening. She got the smartphone last year under a welfare scheme run by the then-Congress government of the state.

Last December, Rajasthan voted out the Congress and brought the BJP back into power in the state.

Joshi’s political allegiances have changed too. Born in 1947, when India got its independence, Joshi has never missed a chance to vote, she said. A traditional Congress voter, Joshi said she had lost hope in the Nehru-Gandhi family that dominates the party and instead came to see a leader in Modi.

“In 2014, when Modi stood for the first time, I could see a leader who would take India to international heights,” she said, exultant over the exit polls. “We are satisfied with his governance because he is a religious person like us, a true patriot.”

Her views mirror a broader sentiment, say analysts.

“A large section of society, with a guy like Modi at the top – someone “you can believe in” – can only imagine him as a leader today,” said Sircar, of the CPR. “The BJP owes its success to Modi’s popularity.”

Zafar Islam, a national spokesperson of the BJP, said that the exit polls reflect that the voters “appreciated the BJP’s model of governance, welfare schemes and the vision of PM Modi”.

“The ease of living has improved for the people under Modi’s leadership and that’s why we are looking forward to a historic verdict,” he told Al Jazeera.

Five more years of BJP’s dominance?

Modi’s re-election campaign was punctuated by fearmongering, in which he, and the BJP, continuously projected the prime minister as a saviour of the larger Hindu population against an opposition conspiracy to benefit Muslims, whom he referred to as “infiltrators” and “those with more children” in campaign rallies.

With an estimated population of 200 million, India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim community after Indonesia and Pakistan.

The opposition, meanwhile, tried to corner Modi on questions of social justice and equality. That theme struck a chord with Vikrant Singh, a 21-year-old political science student.

If the election results back up the exit polls, Sircar noted that India is looking to another five years “under the centralised coalition of Modi and Amit Shah”, referring to the country’s home minister, who is largely seen as the prime minister’s deputy.

“This BJP only knows that way of working: a government where the power is centralised completely at the top.”

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