Opinion: NDA's "400 Paar" Vs INDIA's "At Least 295" – Lesson For Congress?

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Exit polls are, at the end of the day, just that – not the real thing. While the numbers flashing on TV screens from exit polls for Lok Sabha 2024 give a staggering victory, way past 300, to the BJP, and close to or over 400 for the NDA, the opposition debunks all of them and puts forth its own prediction – 295 for the INDIA alliance.

The numbers aside, even if we were to discount the scale and merely take the direction indicated by the exit polls put out by news organisations and polling agencies, there are three key strategic failings the opposition must accept. One of those is evident in the INDIA alliance’s own 295 number.

First, while the INDIA bloc largely managed a cohesive campaign on state-by-state local discontent and dodged a presidential-style personality clash with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there was an inherent risk in that strategy. It articulated the economic and agrarian discontent in some key states, but was more dependent on local arithmetic and not building a national chemistry. It did not have a concrete face as the solution to the problem it states of a categorical strong face in power. The Congress’s manifesto offered promise, but who was the face who would deliver that promise? It was damned if it did have a PM candidate and damned if didn’t, before the elections.

In states like Karnataka and Telangana, where the Congress swept assembly polls, its campaign revolved around categorical chief ministerial faces. It’s an indication that an anti-Modi political cohesion could not convince the electorate of a stable and strong offer of change and a personality to drive it. Even in the so-called opposition positive states, like a Karnataka or a Telangana, this was a weakness.

The second, even in a state-by-state strategy, there was not a single, large or medium, direct Congress versus BJP state where the Congress could claim to defeat the BJP on all or almost all seats. For instance, even in Karnataka – which is possibly the Congress’s strongest state now – the most reasonably optimistic projection from analysts, and many within the party, was 10-15 seats. The party could not claim that it will entirely reverse the BJP’s 2019 performance of 25/28.

When the BJP announces a sweep, it really is one. Even in Maharashtra, while most observers and many exit polls indicate a revision from the BJP-Sena sweep of 2019, the opposition MVA could never claim a total sweep of even, say, 40 of 48. This, despite the fact that Uddhav Thackeray is with the Congress now. A sweep of the kind a DMK alliance could claim in Tamil Nadu, or the Congress could claim against the Left in Kerala, is absent anywhere else.

Arguably, the above two failings are reflected in the 295 figure put out by the INDIA bloc, and that is the third factor. The opposition’s number reflects a calculated aggregate of varying degrees of performance in individual states, both for the Congress and its allies.

It could be argued that the number does not reflect the confidence of a national sweep. On the other hand, the BJP’s narrative was an overwhelming national sweep. While at the grassroots it worked on a state-by-state strategy, the overall narrative was a national, “we are sweeping” script starring the Prime Minister. Despite economic and social foundations for a strong narrative, the opposition could not convince itself, let alone the electorate, of a national reverse sweep of the scale the BJP projected. This may be, ultimately, the success of the “400-paar” campaign.

There was too much repetition of the 2004 victory as an argument for the possibility of a win even without a PM face. Unfortunately, the realities have changed and after a decade of rule under one strong personality, the idea of a coalition may not seem a dependable solution, not yet. The Congress needs to do the heavy lifting in the Hindi Heartland and in the direct BJP fight states; it needs to show it can sweep one or two.

If. And it’s a big If, the exit polls numbers hold true, then it’s a south eastern jolt for the INDIA alliance and status quo, at best a continuum, in the north and west. A lesson, perhaps, that arithmetic is important, but national cohesive chemistry with a face to relate is essential. Especially with a Prime Minister who seems to have it in spades and a party that has mastered the art of converting it into numbers.

(TM Veeraraghav is Executive Editor, NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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