New Delhi: With just a week left before results of five assembly polls are out, the Congress and the BJP appear confident yet a little wary of the high voter turnout. Not only is the reputation of incumbent chief ministers and likely prime ministers of the two national parties at stake, but the results could also impact the Lok Sabha polls only about six months away.
High voter turnout in three of the five states that have gone to the polls so far - Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram - has led to varied interpretations and given the contesting candidates some anxious moments. While the Congress is viewing the high voter turnout in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as a sign of voter anger and anti-incumbency, the BJP is reading it as an overwhelming affirmation in its favour by young and first-time voters.
According to officials, Chhattisgarh recorded a polling percentage of over 75 percent, Madhya Pradesh of over 71 percent and Mizoram about 82 percent. Rajasthan is voting Sunday and Delhi will cast the ballot Dec 4.
The BJP and the Congress are the main contenders in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In Delhi, it is a triangular contest between the BJP, Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
The poll outcome in five states is crucial for the BJP and the Congress who desire to form the next government at the centre. For the BJP, it is as much a popularity test for its chief ministers Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh - as the litmus test for its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who is the party's lead campaigner.
The election results would also reveal if issues of price rise and corruption, frequently raised by the BJP in its rallies, have traction with the voters.
The five assembly elections are equally significant for the Congress as the party's base has gradually shrunk in the Hindi heartland states. Congress leaders said they have closed in on the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and have a good chance of forming the government in Chhattisgarh.
They reckon Rajasthan to be the toughest among the five states going to the polls, and believe the Congress pitch in Delhi has been queered by the perceived undercurrent of support for Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP overcoming its initial leadership problems to project a professional doctor in Harsh Vardhan as its chief ministerial candidate.
A 2-2 outcome in four Hindi heartland states would suit the Congress as it could then claim that Modi's much-flaunted campaign had not yielded dividends. It could also target Modi as a leader who has limited influence outside Gujarat.
But a 4-0 whitewash by the BJP or even its 3-1 score in the Hindi heartland would demoralise the Congress ranks and raise questions about Rahul Gandhi's leadership. He is widely seen as the Congress's prime ministerial candidate though the party has not made any official announcement. BJP leaders feel the party will need at least a 3-1 score to gain momentum for the Lok Sabha polls.
In the assembly polls, the BJP tried to make it a Modi vs Gandhi battle, but the Congress trashed the comparison saying that India is not a presidential form of democracy. Comparisons between the two leaders, nevertheless, continued to be drawn in the media.
Aditya Mukherjee, professor at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the Congress had not been entirely successful in blocking off comparison between Modi and Gandhi. The Congress should make up its mind whether Gandhi would be its prime ministerial candidate, he said.
"Congress should do much more. They need to catch the bull by the horns. They are not able to make up their minds," Mukherjee told IANS.
He said reports in a section of media tend to suggest that Modi was able to create a wave for the BJP, but there was another reality to it: Modi was "a better crowd puller than Rahul" but was "a divisive figure" for large sections of electorate.
Referring to errors of history Modi made in his speeches, Mukherjee said his initial charm may have begun to wear off.
BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said the party's prospects were "very bright" in the five assembly polls. "Our campaign is going on very well. There is very positive response from voters," she said. The party will retain Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and wrest Delhi and Rajasthan from the Congress.
Sitharaman said it was wrong to presume that higher voter turnout will work to the disadvantage of the party's governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. "There was high voter turnout in Gujarat assembly polls also," she noted.
Congress spokesperson Meem Afzal said the party would win all five states. "In three states, the picture is clear and everyone feels we will win. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, we will do better than in the last elections," Afzal told IANS.
Over 116 million voters were eligible to take part in the elections in the five states. For the first time, the voters are being provided with a "None of the Above" (NOTA) option on the ballot papers and electronic voting machines.
Counting of the ballots cast in the four Hindi heartland states will take place Dec 8 and in Mizoram Dec 9.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India-Marxist, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal-United and Nationalist Congress Party are among parties which have fielded candidates from some constituencies in the five states.