“We have cleared all our dues to the banks by cash” said a self styled steel industrialist from Ludhiana, “our customers who buy steel from us have adjusted the money by depositing for future sales” he further explained. This was just days before Punjab went to polls and this is how the industrial hub of Ludhiana had coped with demonetization. “Almost every bank manager has made 20 to 30% profits on our cash holdings” quipped another trader from the city. By election day, Ludhiana was almost back to pre-November 8th levels in terms of business activities, including cash dealings. Even vast numbers of the local labour force had profited by acting as money mules for rich industrialists and politicians. Thus ‘Notebandi’ which has had a huge impact on the socio-political dynamics of different parts of India was almost a non-event in the land of five rivers. The poor were cynical about its impact on black money while the rich simply found ways to circumvent the system. Therefore demonetization failed to provide any political traction to the ruling Akali-BJP alliance and proved to be another blind alley. In fact, there were 5 major turning points over the last 9 months that shaped Punjab’s political trajectory leading up to February the 4th;

  1. The fake polls done by some dubious pollsters proclaiming 100 seats for AAP was used by the party ecosystem brilliantly to build a narrative of an Aam Aadmi Party sweep in the state along the lines of Delhi. This campaign built on fake polls actually gave AAP a lot of bandwidth in the Malwa region and has not been analyzed deeply by many political pundits
  2. Navjot Singh Sidhu leaving BJP affected the party cadre’s morale to a large extent. His eventual joining hands with Congress under the leadership of Amrinder Singh did make some difference to the fortunes of the grand old party of India
  3. The split in AAP with Sucha Singh Chhotepur leaving the party and a large number of party functionaries quitting after alleging massive corruption did affect AAP’s chances in the middle of the campaign, but somehow the opposition failed to take full advantage of this
  4. Kejriwal’s pro-Pak statement and AAP’s cynical campaign across the state after India’s surgical strikes on POK was another major opportunity that the opposition, mainly BJP, failed to capitalize on. At that point of time, there was a great deal of anger among Punjabis but Kejriwal got away with it simply because of opposition’s strategic incompetence
  5. Notebandi and its lack of impact on Punjab was probably the final nail on the Akali-BJP coffin. The ruling alliance simply didn’t recover after this and kept sliding with each passing day.

It is with this background that after having conducted three rounds of pre-poll surveys, team 5Forty3 set out for the final exit poll on February the 4th. We tracked 14 of the 22 districts in our exit poll in order to understand how Punjab had actually voted. In the Malwa region AAP did perform much better than expected and should emerge as the number one party there. In the rest of Punjab consisting of Doaba & Majha, Congress party did emerge in pole position, while it was number 2 in Malwa. The Akali-BJP alliance failed to retain any of the 3 regions as a result of 10 year anti-incumbency. Yet, Punjab election remained a 3-cornered fight throughout the election season and that is why it is proving to be a pollsters’ nightmare. The fact is that Punjab has never seen fully multi-cornered contests and has steadfastly remained bipolar in electoral terms. Therefore there are no historic math models which can be used as baselines to project the current electoral trends. While the main contest, especially in Malwa, could have been between Congress and AAP on most seats, SAD-BJP alliance is a strong 3rd poll and can upset a lot of calculations of the frontrunners. 

The one finding that our poll shows is that Congress’s trend line has remained consistent throughout the last couple of years. Of course there could have been a lot of internal variations and attritions and additions owing to changes but most of these changes seem to have cancelled out to maintain a consistent vote-share around the 33rd percentile. So it was clear from day 1 that for AAP to challenge Congress, it had to take a major chunk of alliance votes among Jats and also BJP’s core Hindu voters. This is where Kejriwal could have erred by not taking in somebody like Navjot Singh Sidhu. What we also know for sure is that the Sangh ecosystem was working for the Congress party covertly in many districts so a large part of Hindu vote must have shifted from the BJP to Congress.

Akalis did try to make a fight of this election and Sukhbir Badal even used some drastic last minute tactics of bringing together various Deras to support the ruling alliance. The Dera Sacha Sauda announcement 2 days before polls gave some straws for the SAD-BJP to hang on to, but it was a case of too little too late. The core problem of the alliance was lack of coordination between the 2 parties at the ground level. Moreover, BJP despite having great expertise and a solid support base in the Social Media networks failed to counter the high octane AAP campaign on WhatsApp and Facebook which was a major handicap in the electoral narrative process.

We believe there are some 28 close contest seats in Punjab this time and whichever party manages to win a majority of those would go on to reach within striking distance of a clear majority. Indian elections generally produce clear mandates these days unlike the 1990’s when most verdicts were hung assemblies. Yet, we are consciously giving a hung verdict in Punjab simply because it is a very tough election to call. Of course, if Congress outperforms our projections by even 1 or 2 points, it can get a clear majority in the assembly. In fact, there are 2 distinct reasons why our vote-to-seat conversion algorithms have come up with these seat share numbers;

  1. Punjab an inherently bipolar state is seeing a multi-cornered contest for the first time which is unprecedented at every level and that is why we believe there is a greater possibility of a hung verdict due to the electoral math
  2. AAP when it first rose to prominence in Delhi elections of 2013, the electoral verdict was an unclear one. We believe that AAP is seeing a similar trajectory in Punjab wherein it has disrupted the regular politics but probably doesn’t yet have the full capacity to win the entire state on its own