Thursday's exit poll predictions are in line with a barely discussed phenomenon that has been evident for some time. Apart from BJP, there's only one other party that is catching popular imagination across India and fast expanding its national footprint. If Aam Admi Party (AAP) manages to snare Punjab — as anecdotal evidences and poll projections seem to suggest— there will be two likely, immediate outcomes.
One, still-nascent AAP will emerge as the sole national alternative to BJP. Two, Arvind Kejriwal will become Narendra Modi's biggest challenger in 2019.
Before I analyse the outcomes, let us first take a look at AAP's projected performance in Punjab and Goa, two states where it contested this year.
In Punjab, pollsters are unanimous on the demise of SAD-BJP alliance but divided on AAP's prospects. While India TV-CVoter predicts comfortable majority for AAP in the 117-seat Assembly with somewhere between 59-67 seats, ABP-CSDS projects a hung Assembly with AAP getting 36-46 seats and Congress becoming the single largest party with 46-56 seats. Psephologists from India Today - Axis My India foretells a comfortable majority for Captain Amarinder Singh's troops but two others, Today's Chanakya (54) and India News-MRC (55) predict a dead heat in Punjab with nothing to separate AAP and Congress. The magic number in Punjab is 59.
Even after applying statutory exit poll disclaimers, it seems fairly certain that in Punjab, AAP will either form the government on its own or fall just short — a staggeringly successful causatum for a party that was floated only in 2012. Think about it. Under less than five years of its existence, AAP now rules a quasi-state in Delhi and is poised to clinch power in a full state.
In Goa, pollsters have predicted a modest debut for AAP with somewhere between 2-4 in the 40-seat Assembly with India News-MRC being the most optimistic at 7. But even AAP may admit that it didn't directed even a fraction of its strategic attention, human capital and resources in Goa that it did in Punjab led by a belief that amid the bipolarity of SAD-BJP and Congress, it has oodles of space to grow. Getting even a couple of seats under the belt in Goa is not a bad outcome in this context.
If this is the immediate reality, the larger picture reveals that AAP is hastening the call that Narendra Modi gave in 2014 of a 'Congress-mukt Bharat'. Except in Punjab, where the grand old party is defying its nationwide decline through Captain Amarinder's leadership and determination, everywhere else AAP is extending its national footprint at the cost of Congress.
Kejriwal's invective might be directed at Modi, but his actions are proving perilous for the Congress instead which — if exit poll projections hold on Saturday — now stand on the verge of being erased from every pocket of its once considerable power and influence except in Karnataka. In Bihar it is but a junior partner in the ruling coalition, a true reflection of its current sorry state.
Politics abhors vacuum. While BJP's star is undergoing an astonishing rise under Modi who is quickly turning the 'party of traders' into one with rural poor as its core support base (a tectonic shift that brings durability to its rise), Kejriwal is capturing the opposition space with alacrity.
AAP hopes to wrest power in Delhi civic body polls this year and has grand plans of extending its base beyond Punjab, Delhi and Goa into states such as Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and even Gujarat where it has started building up structural capabilities and has already sounded out Hardik Patel. It is the only party, apart from BJP, which is not bound by geography and is not limited by a caste or community fault lines. This is the traditional space enjoyed by Congress which is hampered both by lack of strong leadership and lack of a powerful narrative.
Therefore, much of AAP's expansion will terminally end Congress's role as the national alternative to BJP and given Kejriwal's trajectory, pitchfork him into the national stage as Modi's most credible rival.
Make no mistake, Kejriwal's anti-Modi belligerence will take a quantum leap if AAP wins Punjab. It would also mean that his brand of confrontationalist politics is paying dividends so one may expect a threefold rise in friction and invective in the near future. It may mean a further lowering of poll rhetoric but hey, everything is fair in love and politics.
Updated Date: Mar 10, 2017 17:42 PM