Sometimes the writing is on the wall, but people just refuse to see it. Before the campaign began for the 2022 assembly elections, it was clear that Yogi Adityanath was well-placed to win Uttar Pradesh and that the Congress had shot itself in the chest in Punjab. While other states were in play — Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand — the two biggies seemed done and dusted.
And yet once the campaign started, too many of us took our eyes off the writing on that wall. We were told that Dalit voters in Punjab were flocking to the Congress because of Charanjit Singh Channi’s appointment as chief minister. Others even said (well not ‘others’, let’s rephrase that: some deluded Congress-people said) that Navjot Singh Sidhu was now the most popular leader in Punjab.
Years of watching elections have taught me not to pay too much attention to on-the-spot analyses by reporters in the field because, contrary to popular notions of the accuracy of grassroots reporting, they often get it wrong. It is not that they are bad reporters or that they are swayed by their own views. It is more that when you report from the heart of a state, you sometimes miss the big picture and draw conclusions only from what you have seen.
For instance, many reporters over-estimated the Channi factor only because he seemed like such an unaffected guy. In UP, they caught a real trend but overestimated its significance. There was no doubt that Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity was on the rise as the crowds at his rallies demonstrated. But was this enough to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had won the last assembly election by a landslide?
Clearly, it wasn’t. And yet the reporting did not always reflect this reality. Journalists sometimes forget that even if six out of ten people they meet hate a particular party, it does not mean that the party in question will lose. In our electoral system, 40 per cent is often all that is needed for victory.
Signs clear all along
Because I am so sceptical of ground reports when it comes to elections, I used to put my faith in pollsters. In recent years, however, even the pollsters have often let us down. They all told us that the 2021 Bengal election was going to be close and many even predicted a BJP victory. How can any polling organisation miss a landslide of the kind that Mamata Banerjee won in Bengal? And yet, they did.
Still, experience has shown me that pollsters are less wrong than we journalists often are. So, when I called two pollsters I respect, early on in the campaign and heard their assessments, I decided to go with their views. Yashwant Deshmukh told me that the Congress was in terrible shape in Punjab and that the Samajwadi Party (SP) had not done enough to win UP. Sanjay Kumar was more forthright. The BJP could lose up to 80 seats in UP, he said, but there was no doubt that it would win. On Punjab, he said, there was an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wave and both Channi and Sidhu would lose their own seats.
As the results went on to demonstrate, the pollsters had it broadly right all along.
Political parties have access to better and more detailed polls than we do. But, except for the BJP, they hardly ever pay them the attention they deserve. Instead, they trust what their workers and chamchas tell them and rely on their own readings of crowds at election rallies. And mostly, they get it wrong.
But if we had actually looked at the writing on the wall, we would have realised that while Akhilesh was doing very well (his vote share has gone up enormously), the combination of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath was still going to hold on to power. In Punjab, it was clear that there was a huge desire for change. But the Congress did nothing to satisfy that desire by encouraging dissidence within its state unit — first by propping up Navjot Singh Sidhu as the alternative and then trying to ineffectually play caste politics with the Channi appointment.
Modi stays, Yogi rises
The big lesson from these results is that Narendra Modi is Teflon-coated. His popularity is bullet-proof. Issues such as the handling of the Covid pandemic, inflation and unemployment do matter. But most voters do not hold the Prime Minister responsible. They believe he is doing his best. Mostly this is because, more than any other politician, Modi has his finger on the pulse of the people. For instance, there may have been nothing unprecedented about the recent evacuation of Indians from Ukraine. But people who point out that India has done this before miss the point. Nobody has done it with so much hype and drama as Modi. In the process, he has further cemented his image as a man who will do everything in his power to help Indians.
Most analysts now attribute Modi’s popularity to three factors: Communal polarisation, hyper-nationalism and a slew of welfare measures. This is an accurate assessment but it ignores his personal popularity and the fact that, in crucial Hindi-belt states, people seem to trust him and respect what they see as his sincerity.
If these trends hold (and there is no reason to believe that they will not), then the BJP is chugging comfortably along to another term in office. Yes, it will not fare as well in states where there are strong regional identities (the South, Punjab, Bengal and perhaps Maharashtra) but the votes from the Hindi belt will be more than enough to carry it through.
Two other factors must be considered. It is now clear that the Gandhi siblings, while decent and genuinely committed to fighting the BJP, have zero political instincts. No Congress leader in history has lost as many elections as Rahul Gandhi has. Priyanka Gandhi’s involvement in UP made no real difference and in Punjab, she contributed to the magnitude of the party’s defeat. As her detractors say, she has finally won an election. But she won it for AAP.
More intriguing is the future of Yogi Adityanath. It is now clear that he is the second-most popular leader in the BJP after his victory. During his first term, he may have owed his accession to Amit Shah. But after this triumph, he must believe that he won the election in his own right.
So far, the BJP leadership has consisted of the towering figure of Narendra Modi aided and abetted by Amit Shah. There has been no one who is even remotely in their league. That has now changed and it will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.
But the important takeaways of this round of elections are: One, don’t be swayed by ground reports. They may be accurate. But they rarely give you the full picture.
And two: Narendra Modi is going to be around for a long time. Get used to it.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.