Last Tuesday’s bypoll results will come as a shock to the BJP not just because it lost several sitting seats in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, but also because the party has lost vote share in most states, not just in comparison to the Lok Sabha elections of April-May but even in relation to the performance in the last assembly polls in these states.
Out of the 32 assembly seats across nine states, BJP won 12, Samajwadi Party eight, Congress seven, while TDP, Trinamool Congress, AIUDF and CPM bagged one each. One seat in Sikkim was won by an Independent.
Coming soon after two rounds of defeats — the first the Uttarakhand election and the second in the bypolls in Bihar, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh — this round of defeats, the worst so far, could strengthen the perception that the Modi magic is on the wane and people are getting restive over the delayed redemption of his “achche din” pledge
Uttar Pradesh: The biggest setback is, of course, in UP where the party and its ally Apna Dal lost eight of the 11 seats won in the 2012 assembly polls. The BJP has not been able to build up on the momentum of the Lok Sabha triumph (where it won 71 of the 80 seats on offer) that clearly hasn’t happened with the alliance’s vote share declining by a massive 10.7 percentage points in these last four months.
The SP, in sharp contrast, has gained 28.2 percentage points since the last assembly polls, in which it had won a majority in the state, and 26.3 percentage points since April-May. According to the Indian Express, “to what extent this is because of the absence of the BSP from the poll fray is difficult to say, but the fact is that Mayawati’s party had a vote share of only 14.5 per cent in the Lok Sabha polls and 20.2 per cent in 2012 in these seats”.
Some observers interpret the result in UP as an outcome as a defeat for the politics of polarization. The party ran a shrill and polarizing campaign against the “appeasement of Muslims” by the ruling Samajwadi Party and racheted up emotions against inter-community marriages — dubbed “love jihad“. The attempt at “polarization” which saw party casting Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath as its star campaigner, obviously did not pay the expected dividends.
The drubbing has been attributed to a weak organisation and has also given rise to talk within the party about “wrong selection of candidates.” Party insiders said at several places, local MPs were not taken into confidence which alienated them. Also, unlike in the LS election when special focus was on OBC leaders and candidates, no prominent OBC leaders like Uma Bharti campaigned
The ruling Samajwadi Party has performed well. But according to analysts, the voters may not have given a thumbs-up to the Akhilesh Yadav government. Certainly, wresting seven assembly seats from the BJP, especially after the latter’s spectacular performance in the general election in May, marks a great comeback for the SP. Yet Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav may need to do much more if he wishes to consolidate the gains when the state goes to vidhan sabha polls scheduled two years from now. The party has shown it has the organisational machinery to mobilise votes but that would be useful only if it also has a governance record worth defending.
Rajasthan: In Rajasthan, the BJP lost three of the four seats where it had swept assembly elections. The three seats it lost were won by Congress, a party still nursing the wounds of the heavy defeat it suffered in May, boosting its morale after it appeared to have hit an all-time low. The seats it lost are scattered across the state, and Congress was not expected to win more than one.
Observers blamed the losses in Rajasthan on sabotage, pointing out that the party leaders who quit the seats after getting elected as MPs were unhappy because the BJP leadership refused to assign the seats to their wards. Misgivings about some of the decisions taken by Vasundhara Raje government — such as labour reforms and the bunching of schools — were identified as another reason.
With the Congress winning three of the four assembly seats in the recently held byelections in Rajasthan, state party president Sachin Pilot has silenced his detractors and proven his political acumen – and is now eyeing the civic and panchayat (local body) polls later this year or early next year.
“It is a big victory. Traditionally no other party except for the ruling party has won byelections with such a majority in the state. Pilot has really emerged as a hero for the party, which was in complete disarray before the election,” J P Sharma, a keen political watcher, says.
Pilot, then minister of state for corporate affairs at the centre, was appointed in January, a month after the Congress lost power to the BJP in Rajasthan after winning just 21 of the 200 seats in the state assembly. He lost his Ajmer Lok Sabha seat in the April-May general elections that also saw the Congress make way for the BJP. The Congress couldn’t win even one of Rajasthan’s 25 Lok Sabha seats.
Gujarat: In Gujarat, the BJP won six of the nine seats, but if the 2013 Assembly election is the reference point, the tally is down by three. The Congress is still playing catch up in Narendra Modi’s home-State, but the signs are ominous: the BJP could be slipping in Gujarat, the State it had presented as the governance model for the rest of the country
The loss of three Gujarat seats was attributed to the fact that this was the first time in a dozen years that neither Modi nor Amit Shah chose to campaign for the party. With the party eclipsed by the dominating presence of the duo, their absence rendered it vulnerable to the Congress
The results from Rajasthan and Gujarat must worry the BJP. The Congress has done well and won six of the 13 seats Clearly, the grand old party, though rudderless at the Centre, is in the reckoning in these states.
West Bengal: The BJP had success in West Bengal where it won Basirhat South seat defeating Trinamool Congress (TMC). This is quite a feat considering Muslims account for 63 per cent of the electorate in the seat, which had remained an acknowledged CPM stronghold till the other day. The party finished second to TMC in Chowringhee seat suggesting that saffron forces may have established a political beachhead in a state.
More importantly, Swapan Daasgupta, senior journalist, writing in the Asian Age says “in a state where party organisation and voter mobilisation plays a greater role than in northern, central and western India, the BJP, despite its lack of a robust organisation, was able to keep its vote share broadly intact”. The BJP’s good showing, according to him has been viewed as a significant morale booster for that section whose support for the ‘poriborton’ (change) promised by Ms Banerjee has turned to exasperation and hostility”
At the same time, the Congress vote has fallen considerably. But, despite the fact that the byelections have demonstrated that while the Congress is in terminal decline, it still has a nuisance value in many areas. By suddenly waking up to the dangers posed by “communal forces”, Ms Banerjee may suddenly discover the virtues of re-ingratiating herself with the Congress, more so given the extent of panic in the Trinamul Congress as the Saradha investigations inches its way to the top of the political pile.
There is a churning happening in West Bengal that needs to be very carefully monitored in the coming days.
Three Cs – complacency, controversy and communal campaign – and the lack of another C – charisma – undid a resurgent but over-confident Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the bypolls for 11 assembly seats. In fact, the verdict will could reinforce the argument that the Lok Sabha victory was largely due to the prospect of Modi leading the central government, while this appeal gets diluted when Modi is personally not in the picture. It also shows up the party’s organizational weakness in states like UP.
The message from the by-elections is that voters choose local leaders and issues and the BJP failed to connect with them. As a party, it is still not equipped to deal with the regional parties and the Congress in states where they fight against each other. This once again reinforces the view that it was Narendra Modi and not the party that won the Lok Sabha elections
Sawapan Daspgutpa agrees: “The kindest thing that can be said of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s indifferent performance in the series of byelections since the general election last May is that they are a pointer to the significant role played by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in ensuring the decisive Lok Sabha outcome”.
According to him, Indians are voting differently at the national, state and local levels, thereby making life more challenging to the political parties. “The reasons why the byelections of the past two months have produced results that diverge significantly from the Lok Sabha polls are, therefore, not prone to uniform explanations. What is however clear is that the BJP vote has fallen — albeit unevenly — in almost all the states where byelections have been held. The only state where this decline was less markedly felt was in the two byelections to the West Bengal Assembly”.
Analysts say the setback could encourage the “old guard” and others in the BJP who are unhappy over being left out of government. The defeat will most certainly encourage the Shiv Sena, with whom BJP has engaged in hard seat-sharing negotiations, not to lower its ante. To that extent, it has also raised the stakes for Modi and BJP’s new president Amit Shah in the upcoming Maharashtra and Haryana elections.
The Hindu interprets the results differently: “No one will claim that these results indicate a sudden onset of nationwide disenchantment with the Modi government at the Centre or with the BJP as a party. But several developments have taken place in Uttar Pradesh since the Lok Sabha election, including a renewed thrust by some of the middle-rung leaders against religious conversions and the so-called ‘love jihad’. The vote in the Lok Sabha polls for the BJP was a vote for change, a vote for improved governance and development. A return to the politics of polarisation was certainly not what was expected of the party. The big message in this round of by-elections is that the BJP cannot take the voters for granted. People were quick to gather behind Mr. Modi’s promise of growth and development. But if he cannot deliver on his promise or if his party returns to its politics of communal polarisation, they will just as quickly move away”.
Noted analyst Vinod Sharma agrees that the by-elections results “cannot be over-interpreted as a pointer to the national mood where the Narendra Modi phenomenon sustains broadly. But the party needs serious introspection on the brazenly divisive campaign it ran in UP, where it’s eyeing power in 2017”. The politics of polarisation “generated apprehensions that the PM looked the other way in tacit approval of the Sangh’s strategy to make Hindus vote as a monolith.
In conclusion, the impact of the outcome could be greater than the sum of its parts — it is a clear message that the BJP no longer looks as formidable as it did in May.
Congress cannot be dismissed
The Congress has done well, crucially without its big guns, just four months after its worst performance in the Lok Sabha elections. The results perhaps show that the Congress can afford to be less dependent on its ‘high command’ in poll campaigns if it can build a strong regional leadership. Another possible takeaway for the grand old party is campaign formulas can also work well if they are not centrally dictated.
The Congress also fared well in the last two rounds of bypolls.
But the party has not turned around its electoral fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, the state which matters the most in Indian politics, and cut a sorry figure in West Bengal, but there are big positives from Gujarat and Rajasthan. The party’s morale will be up after wresting a total of six seats from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf Gujarat and Rajasthan — also BJP-ruled — and retaining one seat in Assam.
This success comes ahead of the assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra.
Analyst Saubhadra Chatterji says “these victories give the Congress a chance to retain its relevance in the opposition space. The combined results of all three phases of bypolls, coming at a time when the party is struggling to be the leader in the opposition quarters, perhaps indicates that no anti-BJP alliance is complete without Congress.
In UP, the disastrous show for the Congress that saw its double-digit impressive showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls dwindle to just two seats (Amethi and Rae Bareli) in the May 2014 general elections, continues as the party drew a blank in the recent bypolls for the 11 assembly seats. Party leaders admit they did not “expect a windfall” in the bypolls, but they say in private and in public that they are dismayed at the wipeout.
What seems to be worrying the party rank and file is not the fact that the contest in all seats was between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates, but that the vote share of the grand old party has been going down with every passing poll.
Nirmal Khatri, president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC), admits that though they anticipated the BJP to do poorly, they had not braced for such a fall in Congress prospects. “The outcome is indeed saddening, we have become victims of the tactics of the state government and the people of Uttar Pradesh have been sandwiched between a communal BJP and casteist forces like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party,” he added.
Senior Congress leader Seraj Mehndi, however, takes comfort in the fact that the BJP was “cut to size” by the ruling Samajwadi Party. BJP state spokesman Vijay Bahadur says the electoral prospects of the Congress will continue to nosedive until it plays the B-team of the Samajwadi Party, not pit candidates against the first family of the Yadavs, or fight its own battle.
The next milestone: Haryana and Maharashtra
The focus after the by polls will be on Maharashtra and Haryana that go to the polls next month. The Congress was voted to power in these states in the 2009 Assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha election this year that saw a Bharatiya Janata Party wave sweeping through the two States. No analyst expects the Congress to return to power in Maharashtra or Haryana, but for the BJP, any showing that falls even marginally short of its vote share in the Lok Sabha election would be seen as a setback and as a reflection on the performance of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The Congress won just one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, and in Maharashtra, in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party a total of only six of 48 seats. The Hindu says “clearly, the Assembly elections are for the BJP to lose” since both the governments have little to show in terms of performance”.