Advantage Mr Modi

In a political scenario as complicated as India’s, it is not always safe to rely on exit polls. They have frequent problems with sampling, and with extrapolating from vote shares to seats. The exit polls have not been accurate in two of the last four Indian general elections. Even elsewhere in the world, elections are never over until the last vote is counted — and sometimes dozens of exit polls are wrong, as demonstrated by the surprise victory by the incumbent government in Australia, which overturned every prediction by exit and opinion polls. That said, when almost all the exit polls share a particular trajectory, as has happened in the case of those for the 2019 general elections — which have been released now that voting has ended — the chances are that they are based on an underlying trend. Even a heavy discounting of exit poll accuracy cannot take away from the conclusion that the National Democratic Alliance is likely to return to power with a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha.

If this is the case, several conclusions could be drawn. The first is that assembly elections — such as those in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — are not good predictors of a Lok Sabha election, in which nationalism became a major campaign factor. In addition, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is sufficient to lift his party even in states where its local leaders or governments had become unpopular. Many predicted that there would be a difference in how people voted once Mr Modi himself was “on the ballot”, as it were, and the exit polls seem to bear out that belief. Mr Modi’s image as a decisive leader who takes decisions based on the national interest in that case would have outweighed the Congress’ focus on pocket-book politics. The Congress’ policy prescriptions seemed designed to focus on discontented sections of society — but it continues to be handicapped electorally by the fact that Rahul Gandhi, even if much improved as a campaigner, does not have the stature to be a serious challenge to Mr Modi’s popularity. According to the exit polls, the Congress will do marginally better than its stunning defeat in the 2014 elections, but it will remain a distant second to the BJP. The grand old party will have to do some serious introspection about leadership gaps.

If the polls are correct, and the NDA wins a second term easily, Mr Modi, who rose to power in 2014, promising to deliver faster growth and job creation and has been waging a tough re-election battle against the backdrop of an economic slowdown and rural distress, should seize the political capital he will have built up through a victory and translate it into long-delayed economic reforms. It will be necessary to employ some fiscal prudence, now that the general elections are over, and to address both structural and cyclical factors plaguing the Indian economy. The time for boosting the NDA’s performance is over — it will be time to acknowledge the scale of the task required to meet Mr Modi’s goal of a decent society by 2022. This will require speedy changes to many laws, including those governing labour and employment; it will require ensuring that continuing hassles for manufacturing and exporters are removed, and it will require a focus on education and skilling. The politics is hopefully now done — the action should be all on the economic front.