If you had expected the exit polls to provide any clarity on how the voters exercised their franchise in Karnataka, you would be in for a disappointment.
The way to look at the glass half-full, however, was that in the exit poll supermarket on television channels, there was an exit poll to fit every need. While six of the eight exit polls predicted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the single largest party, two put the Congress in the lead and political parties could pick and choose whichever suited them best.
However, while that approach may have worked on TV debates, with no clear answer, there is hardly any other option but to wait for Tuesday, 15 May, when the Election Commission will reveal the final numbers.
Why is It Difficult to Predict the Outcome of Exit Polls?
For starters, an exit poll in a state that has a single phase election is fraught with risk. Because there is very little time to fit in voices of those who vote late in the evening after 5 pm.
Also, the analysis is too hurried so there is a risk of going wrong with the vote share to seat conversion.
The India Today-Axis My India poll that puts the Congress clearly in the lead says there are as many as 30 seats where the winning margin would be between 2,000 and 4,000 votes.
A few seats going the other way is enough to upset the apple-cart of the projected winner.
Secondly, the methodology adopted by the agency is critical. Axis My India had a sample size of 70,000 respondents, with samples collected from each of the 222 constituencies that voted on Saturday.
Many agencies sample only 60-80 odd constituencies and extrapolate it to the entire state. In Karnataka, where different regions vote differently, this is fraught with risk.
But if the exit polls convey one fact, it is how close the contest was. Travelling through Karnataka, it was obvious that the two sides were pretty evenly matched. While the kind of anti-incumbency one would expect for a government that had lasted for five years did not exist, the BJP also did not have the kind of wave that propelled it to power in 2008.
It was a wave-less election and, to a large extent, it boiled down to how good or bad the voters thought the report card of the government was, the individual candidate and to an extent, his caste.
The exit polls also showcased how the Karnataka election was a mirror cracked.
Talking to people on the ground, it was obvious that a voter in the Old Mysuru region had nothing in common with someone in coastal Karnataka, since both were grappling with entirely different issues.
It was as if six different elections were taking place in Karnataka. The exit polls bring out how the three parties – the BJP, Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) – are faring very differently in different regions.
How Are the BJP, Congress and JD(S) Received in Karnataka?
The BJP clearly is doing very well in coastal, central and Mumbai-Karnataka regions. The Congress is seen doing well in Bengaluru, Old Mysuru and Hyderabad Karnataka regions. It is this divided house that makes it seem as if Karnataka has polled in favor of a hung verdict.
Till 30 April, the Congress was seen as the party in pole position.
However, if the exit polls are anything to go by, they indicate that the BJP managed to surge ahead. Evidence on the ground and voices from both parties suggested that the momentum began to shift with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 21 public meetings.
If the BJP indeed wins Karnataka or emerges as the single largest party, it will once again confirm Modi's position as the saviour of the party from tight positions in Assembly elections.
Whichever exit poll you go by, there are some common takeaways. One, the Lingayat decision by the Siddaramaiah government that was meant to be a gamechanger, did not quite work that way.
All the polls suggest the BJP will do well in the Mumbai-Karnataka region, which is largely Lingayat territory.
One will need to see the final results to know whether even the 10 percent Lingayat vote shift that the Congress was expecting, took place or not.
The other takeaway is that coastal Karnataka has returned to the saffron fold, after the debacle of 2013. Since 1991, this has been a BJP stronghold and the kind of communal polarisation one saw in the 19 seats in the three districts would mean the party, with the help of Sangh Parivar, would look at this as the template to follow in sensitive areas in other states as well.
The exit polls also give hope to the JD(S), that it may still need to play kingmaker.
These elections are a make or break for the JD(S), a party which is often derided as a Deve Gowda and Sons party.
It would want both the Congress and the BJP to end below three figures and then to be in a position to bargain with either or both of them.
Remember, the JD(S) is an astute political freelancer that shares power with the Congress in the Bengaluru municipal corporation and with the BJP in the Mysuru municipal corporation.
The story of this election is likely to be settled in two regions – Old Mysuru and Hyderabad-Karnataka. For the Congress to return to office, it will need to best the JD(S) in southern Karnataka and the BJP in the erstwhile Hyderabad Nizam territory.
Away from the Indian Political League, on a day when the exit polls provided no clarity, the Royal Challengers Bangalore defeated the Delhi Daredevils. Given how this election has been fought on the slogan of Kannadiga identity and son of the soil versus the Northern imports, this was an interesting development.
On Tuesday, the country will know if Karnataka voted for a peaceful five-year-long Test match-like innings or a Twenty20 arrangement of power between different parties. Time for some Power Play.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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