Traditional wisdom suggests a higher turnout is an anti-incumbency vote while a lower turnout is a vote for the status-quo — a vote for continuity. A careful analysis of electoral outcomes and turnouts in several hundred Assembly elections suggest there is hardly any strong correlation of any kind. Turnouts have increased and governments have been voted back, and vice versa. Even if we believe in this age-old theory of turnout, which was true to a great extent at the constituency level during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the turnout so far in the six phases of elections does not help us to understand which way the wind is blowing in these elections. The turnout increased by 1.5 per cent in the first phase, 2.4 per cent in the fourth phase and in the fifth phase it increased by 2.1 per cent, while it declined by 1.8 per cent during the third phase of the election. In the second and the sixth phase it remained more or less the same. As there have been only marginal changes in turnouts in the different phases, it may not be easy to give meaning to these turnouts after six phases of the election.
Given this complex nature of turnouts, one could only say with some degree of certainly, even though polling in six of the seven-phase election is over, voting remaining only in 59 of the total 541 Lok Sabha constituencies for which elections are being held, (with elections countermanded in Vellore and East Tripura) it would hard to say that the 2019 elections are over. As in cricket, the match is not over till the last ball is bowled; similarly, the elections are not over till the last vote is counted. This is not merely a saying; it has been a reality both in cricket and in elections. Only last Sunday, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, the Mumbai Indians won the final match on the last ball when its bowler Malinga got Shardul Thakur of Chennai Super Kings leg before wicket (LBW). This was not the first time that had happened. India lost a thriller to its arch-rival Pakistan when Pakistani batsman Javeed Miandad hit a six on the last ball being bowled by Indian pacer Chetan Sharma. While last Sunday, the team that was batting lost, India lost when its team was fielding.
In the past, even elections have been decided only after the last vote was counted (C.P. Joshi lost by one vote during the 2008 Assembly elections in Nathwara, Rajasthan, to the BJP’s Kalyan Singh Chouhan). Governments have fallen in Parliament when the last vote was counted (Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998). Congress candidate K. Ramakrishna won the Anakapalli Lok Sabha seat in Andhra Pradesh by just nine votes during the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. There have been other instances when elections were not decided till the very end. The way elections for the six rounds have been completed, it gives me a sense that parties did not take any chance till the very end. Since they know every vote counts, they made all efforts to establish a connect with the masses and tried to woo every voter. The high-pitched campaigns which often end up with parties only criticising the other party is an indication of how parties try their best to win voters to their side.
Even though all the pre-poll surveys released before the first phase of voting indicated the BJP being ahead of the Congress by a comfortable margin, the BJP never seemed to have become complacent and left no stone unturned till the six phases of voting and also going into campaign for the seventh phase. In the speeches which Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered during his various rallies, Mr Modi kept shifting from one issue to another while keeping the issue of nationalism at its core, by reminding voters about what the government did in Balakot and Pulwama. During the first few phases when the whole of South India went to vote along with some constituencies of UP, Bihar and West Bengal, there were constant references to the Mahagathbandan as Maha Milaawat, with the sole objective of highlighting the weaknesses of these regional leaders, as their popularity is limited only to their own state. The campaign shifted to Maa Beta bail par hai, Rajiv Gandhi, corrupt number one, Bofors, the picnic on INS Viraat and other issues related to the Gandhi family.
Some might see this changing of the goalposts by Mr Modi several times during the campaign as a sign of the uncertainty of the BJP, while others may even mention this as his nervousness, but I think like a good cook who would like to serve a mix of different kinds of food in between while serving the food which one likes most regularly, and he wanted to acquaint voters with various issues one after another with a strategy to maintain a momentum in the campaign for two long months. Yes, the tone of the campaigning became shrill at times but, in my opinion, that has helped the BJP to maintain its edge over the Congress in the Hindi heartland states where the BJP was in a direct fight against the Congress, and restricted the decline in the support base of the BJP which many expected in states like UP, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar or Jharkhand, where regional parties managed to form alliances. I do get a feeling that it has also managed to make substantial inroads in some of the states like West Bengal and Odisha where it did not perform well in 2014.
But this story of the BJP’s enjoying an upper hand or making inroads seems limited to the North Indian Hindi states, the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra and in the east (West Bengal and Odisha). The party seems to have failed to make its footprint in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; Karnataka being the only exception. Even if the BJP may not have been able to make inroads in the South, the party seems to be the frontrunner in 2019. Having stabilised its support base in Karnataka as evident from its voteshare during the last few elections, it could only hope to make further inroads in the South.