Mahesh Rangarajan As the campaigns closed, a slew of opinion polls predicted a closer fight than had once seemed possible. Only one survey put the Congress ahead. All showed the gap closing.
They often came without a health warning. In a two-horse race, the party with more votes ends up with a huge lead in seats; a point not lost on the BJP.
Narendra Modiís last rally found him warning of dark consequences of a Congress win. Only one poll for Outlook-CFORE gave the Congress a clear majority of just under 100 in the 182-seat Assembly.
But it is quite a hill for the party to climb. It trailed in the last general elections by 8 per cent. What Congress would need to do to win is to step into every divide in the saffron bastion.
The fine print in the polls shows just how difficult this will be. All but one poll shows the OBCs, a Vaghela target group, still tilting to the BJP. The BJPís base in the upper strata, the Patels, the trading and priestly communities is dented but still intact. The picture the polls show is a fluid, evolving one. It is possible for key changes to get under way in the final 48 hours, and these may be the clinchers.
Only one poll, the CSDS-NDTV-Frontline survey, goes a step further. It breaks up the huge and vastly diverse OBCs into Kshatriyas and other Mandal castes. The former are feeling the magnetic pull of the Congress; the latter are resisting it. If this is true, it will be a tough fight with a slight edge for the BJP.
The Congress still has reason to cheer. All surveys show recovery among its traditional voter base in the lower strata, including minorities. It is still apprehensive of polarisation in urban Gujarat, especially in the central region.
The Patels matter in all regions, but are most critical in Saurashtra, which gave the BJP a near-total sweep in 1998. The Congress has given more tickets to Patels this time, not unmindful of the fact that a Patel has sat in the chief ministerís chair for eight of the last 11 years. Still, every poll shows the Patels staying stoutly anti-Congress, though it has gained some ground.
One factor no poll takes up is that there is no credible chief ministerial candidate in the fray from Saurashtra, the most populous region of the state. Both Narendra Modi and Shankarsinh Vaghela are from north Gujarat.
Now for the health warning. The largest sample was taken by ORG-Marg. Big is not always best, but in this respect it has one significant statistic. Till a fortnight before polling, 29 per cent of the voters were undecided about which party they would pick. This may explain the fever-pitch rallies of the last few days, with both parties pulling out all stops.
No poll can possibly measure the impact of emotions that have been central to Gujarat in 2002. The VHPís high-voltage campaign has been contained only by the strictures of the Election Commission.
But the entire election has been dominated by Modi, his style and aggressive stance towards all who stand in the way of his partyís bid for a record third outright win.
The normal electoral cycle would suggest a Congress win is on the cards. Four-and-a-half years in power is enough to expose conflicts in a ruling party, alienate large segments and enable a rival to stitch together the votes needed to stage a comeback.
But the BJP is very much in the running because of the combined appeal of Modi and the imagery of the Godhra attack. In turn, the Congress is banking on a mix of caste loyalties, anti-incumbency and the hope that Gujaratis will vote for stability and peace.
Is a hung House at all possible' Only one poll, by The Week, hints at such an outcome.
Gujarat has had a hung House only once in 1975, when the 12-MLA-strong Kisan Paksh of Chimanbhai Patel went against the Congress and in favour of the Janata front.
The chances are there will be a clear winner. Who it will be and whether it will be an inch or a mile only time will tell. The polls have been helpful, but none can take away the suspense of the verdict of the people.