In mid-March when we had made our first assessment of all the pre-poll numbers across India, one state which was staring at a blank for BJP was Punjab. Traditionally, BJP contests three seats here and leaves out the other 10 to its longstanding alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal led by the Badal family. This time around, it looked as if BJP would draw a naught in these three seats, until even as late as mid-April (when already two phases of elections across the country had been completed). Then, things changed dramatically, virtually overnight. This is the key difference between the old BJP and the new BJP, for the party now does not give an inch of space without fighting for it.
Sunny Deol has come as a lifesaver for the saffron party in Punjab at exactly the right time. His roadshows and connect with the people has literally resuscitated a moribund party and given it new vigor. Just like mass leaders are rare in the political landscape, especially at the national level, genuine mass superstars have also been rare at the box-office of Indian film industry. In fact, there have been only two real mass superstars in India in the post Amitabh Bachchan era – Sunny Deol throughout the 90’s and Salman Khan post-2000’s. There are small time film distributors in the East Punjab territory who still have life-size cutouts of Sunny Deol blockbusters like Border and Gadar in their homes and shops simply because these films made them a fortune “that could last seven generations”.
Sunny Deol’s entry has not only given BJP an edge in Gurdaspur which was previously won by another actor Vinod Khanna for four times, but has also revived the chances of the party in the neighboring Hoshiarpur where union minister Vijay Sampla was dropped due to non-performance and sitting legislator Som Prakash was given the ticket instead. Punjab, which should have been literally a clean sweep for the Congress party is now witnessing pitched battle in at least half-a-dozen seats.
In the neighboring hill state of Himachal Pradesh (which also happens to be my home), the situation is completely reversed. After losing the state assembly election in late 2017, the Congress party is in complete disarray. “We have lost elections in the past too, but this time it is catastrophic. The party is in existential crisis, I am not sure we will survive till 2022 (when the next assembly elections are due)” confessed a powerful former minister in the erstwhile state Congress government recently to me. “I am weighing my options too, there is simply no future for us now here” he concluded with a lot of bitterness.
The state of the Grand Old Party in this hill state is quite alarming. For instance, take the case of Kangra LS seat, which was offered to at least three different leaders, but all of them refused to contest, until finally, the party leadership persuaded sitting MLA Pawan Kajal to contest from here. Even now, many of the Congress leaders are either not working for the party’s victory or are even helping the BJP. Similar is the situation in other seats too and despite the year-old state government not being very high on the popularity metrics, Modi is the default choice for a vast section of this Himalayan society.
Overall, of the 59 seats that are voting in the final phase of elections today, BJP had won 33 and its NDA allies another 7 with a combined vote-share of 39% in the 2014 elections. Congress and UPA had managed to win five seats with a combined vote-share of 22% last time around. Interestingly, two seats on which NDA partner RLSP had won in Bihar now stand reversed as that party is now part of the UPA, while one seat on which JDU had won and grouped as “Others” is now in the NDA fold. This is the state of Bihar at play where except the RJD and BJP all other parties can mix and match in any which way to combine their respective vote-shares.
Once again in Bengal, in the deep south considered as the core stronghold of Mamata, the TMC had swept all 9 seats that are voting today. After the massive Amit Shah roadshow in Kolkata and the resultant violence, the atmosphere is charged up here and it is now virtually a fight to finish. On this final day of polling in Bengal, we are looking to discern these four patterns.
It goes without saying that more than anywhere else, it is in the 32 seats of four Hindi Heartland states that BJP’s stakes are the highest. For the party to have any chance of repeating its 2014 show, it cannot afford to lose even a single seat here – in other words, the saffron party will have to win every seat that it is contesting in these four states in the final phase of elections today.
Five years ago, on the final day of polling, I had been in Kashi witnessing the NaMo wave firsthand in the oldest continuously inhabited city of the world. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me to see the political transformation of this ancient civilization. One could literally sense the anticipation and expectation in the air of Kashi on that day five years ago. It was as if India knew that she was on the verge of a new dawn and she was benignly smiling at us psephologists and pollsters and pundits, for a transformative wave was about to hit us. I leave you, on this final day of polling, with the image of the final Ganga Aarti before the Modi era began on the evening before Kashi voted in 2014.