It may be too early to conclude that the results of the recently concluded bypolls in nine states, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and to a lesser extent Gujarat, are a referendum of sorts on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 100-odd-day-old government or, conversely, signal a Congress recovery after its humiliating loss in the recent General Election.
At best, they could and probably should be seen as an early warning for the BJP and its affiliates whose impulse has been to pick the low-hanging fruit in the form of, say, appealing to the baser instincts of man a la ‘love jihad’ than to making a concerted effort to build on attempts by BJP patriarchs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani to make the BJP the natural party of governance.
Bypolls have now been held in 54 Assembly constituencies across 14 states (Uttarakhand in July; Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka in August; and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Sikkim in September) since the BJP-led NDA government came to power on 26 May. The BJP and its alliance partners had held 36 of those Assembly seats but they have managed to retain only 20 of them.
Whither Modi wave?
The BJP rode on Modi’s popularity to an unprecedented win in the General Election when it won 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, all 25 seats in Rajasthan and all 26 seats in Gujarat. Amit Shah, who has since taken over as BJP chief, was largely seen as the architect of the party’s strategy in Uttar Pradesh. Cut to September and the party suffers a setback in varying degrees in each of those states, which is why the contrast is that much starker.
In Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, which together account for 24 Assembly seats where bypolls were held, the BJP retained only 10 seats (it had 23 seats going in to the bypolls) while its ally, Apna Dal, lost the Rohaniya seat — which falls in the Varanasi parliamentary constituency held by Modi — to the Samajwadi Party (SP).
Apna Dal national president Krishna Patel only managed to garner 61,672 votes, whereas in the Lok Sabha election, Modi had polled 1.19 lakh votes from this Assembly segment alone. (Krishna Patel’s daughter Anupriya was the sitting MLA from Rohaniya when she was elected as the MP from Mirzapur.)
In Rajasthan, the Congress wrested the Nasirabad, Weir and Surajgarh seats from BJP, leaving the latter with only one win in Kota. Similarly, in Gujarat, the Congress won three seats and the BJP six.
The only consolation for the BJP was that it made its debut in the West Bengal Assembly by winning the Basirhat Dakshin seat.
Predictably, BJP spokespersons maintain that the bypolls results are not a reflection on Narendra Modi’s government or governance. They are quick to point out that bypolls in Assembly constituencies, as opposed to Lok Sabha seats, are generally fought on local issues and therefore too much should not be read into the results.
The Congress, on the other hand, claims that the verdict is a clear indication that voters have rejected the divisive politics practised by the BJP. Although some Congress office-bearers went overboard in their assessments of the party’s performance in the Rajasthan and Gujarat bypolls, the only sobering voice was that of Shakeel Ahmad, a general secretary and a spokesman of the party, who sought to suggest that although the verdict is more against the BJP than for a particular party, it would be incorrect to write it off or to say that the BJP has been rendered inconsequential. What Ahmad leaves unsaid is that the Congress was in a similar situation 10 years ago when it performed badly in the bypolls that were held immediately after the UPA came to power in 2004.
History bears it out, too. The party that wins a Lok Sabha election tends to perform below par in the Assembly bypolls immediately afterwards, especially if the Centre and the state(s) concerned are ruled by different parties or coalitions. That may, therefore, explain the BJP’s less-than-impressive performance in Rajasthan and Gujarat, where it is in power, and also its particularly disappointing tally in Uttar Pradesh, which is ruled by the SP. It is not to say that there are no other factors, or a combination thereof, that could be at play here: complacency, a lack of motivation, local issues holding sway over regional or pan-national concerns or even the choice of candidates are also known to have affected the outcome of a bypoll.
For the BJP in particular, Modi’s absence would have affected its political fortunes in the recent bypolls, too, which sends out another equally worrisome message to the party rank and file: that Modi is still the BJP’s (only?) best bet; that the BJP’s organisation and leadership in certain states are not as strong as it would like them to be; and that going forward, the services of Modi and a battery of other leaders would be required if the party wants to come good in the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir this year, Bihar in 2015 and Uttar Pradesh in 2017, among others. (In the bypolls held in Bihar in August, the alliance between and among Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress won six out of 10 seats.)
BJP campaign backfires in UP
So what went wrong for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh? At the outset, the BJP’s campaign in the run-up to the bypolls in the state saw the party employ some of the same rhetoric or tactics that one saw in the Lok Sabha election. That gambit may have worked for it then but not this time; on the contrary, it benefited the SP as the minorities voted en bloc for it even as the Dalits remained indifferent towards the BJP. For a party that was voted to power at the Centre on a hugely popular poll plank of development, the BJP chose to whip up communal passions.
For instance, Sakshi Maharaj, the sitting BJP MP from Unnao, described madrasas as a breeding ground of terrorists while Yogi Adityanath, the BJP MP from Gorakhpur, was accused of making inflammatory statements. Union minister Maneka Gandhi, in turn, claimed that money from meat trade was being used to fund terror activities. The BJP had also staged a month-long drama at Kaanth town in Moradabad after the district administration removed a loudspeaker from a temple frequented by the Dalits living in a predominantly Muslim village during Ramzan in the month of July.
Looking back, the law of diminishing returns appears to have put paid to the shrill campaign orchestrated by the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj as it clearly failed to enthuse even its own supporters. Drafting Adityanath as a star campaigner proved to be another fatal flaw as the SP conveniently exploited it to its advantage. Fearing communal polarisation, the SP and the Congress fielded few Muslim candidates; the Congress fielded two Muslims and SP one. As it turns out, the SP’s lone Muslim candidate won from Thakurdwara, defeating the BJP candidate by more than 27,000 votes.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the BJP singularly failed to capitalise on the strong anti-incumbency against the Akhilesh Yadav government, whose tenure has been marked by an unprecedented power crisis; a record number of incidents of communal tension and riots, including, but not limited to, Muzaffarnagar; and a steep rise in crimes against women.
Pramod Kumar, a professor at Lucknow University, says that the BJP probably misattributed its performance in the Lok Sabha elections in the state to communal polarisation when it was actually the development plank, strongly marketed by Modi in his inimitable style of communication, which influenced the voters.
On balance, if a political obituary for Modi and the BJP is premature, so are the assertions by a section of the political parties ranged against the NDA, particularly the SP, that the results of the bypolls indicate a strong voter preference for their respective leaderships or programmes. The SP wrested seven out of the 10 seats held by BJP (and one seat held by Apna Dal). It won the Charkhari Assembly seat, in Bundelkhand region, vacated by Union minister Uma Bharti, with a comfortable margin of more than 50,000 votes; the Congress came second and the BJP third. Incidentally, the bypolls were necessitated in the state because the BJP MLAs from all 11 seats have since been elected to Parliament.
Akhilesh Yadav, who completed 30 months in office on 15 September, says that the voters have reposed their faith in the SP in spite of the criticism heaped on the party and the government by its political rivals and media alike.
“Communal forces should draw a clear lesson from the poll verdict… the voters have rejected them and endorsed the development agenda of the Samajwadi Party government,” says Yadav.
A senior SP leader, in turn, says, “It is the end of the so-called Modi magic or wave… For the BJP, the party is over.”
However, AK Verma, who teaches political science at Christ Church College in Kanpur, counters by saying that the results of the bypolls to 11 seats can neither be interpreted as an indictment of the Modi government nor an endorsement of the Akhilesh Yadav government.
An analysis of the SP’s performance would also not be complete without first understanding the consequences of the BSP’s decision to keep away from the bypolls. In the March 2012 Assembly election, the BSP had finished second in six out of the 11 Assembly constituencies where the bypolls were held. This time, the SP managed to get some Dalit votes, particularly in the Bundelkhand region (Hamirpur and Charkhari seats) and eastern Uttar Pradesh (Sirathu seat in Kaushambi and Balha in Bahraich).
In Bundelkhand, the victory margins of the SP candidates — with more than 66,000 votes — gives a clear indication that this would not be possible without a chunk of the Dalit votes voting for the SP. Also, the Congress did not have winnable candidates in the bypolls. That meant that the BJP was in a direct contest with the SP as compared to the four-cornered contest in the parliamentary election. Therefore, the victory of the SP, whose record of governance has been uninspiring from the word go, needs to be seen in its proper context.
Verma explains that the SP’s vote share fell by only 1 percent, from 22 percent in the 2009 parliamentary election to 21 percent in the 2014 parliamentary election, but its tally of seats plummeted from 21 seats in 2009 to a mere five seats in 2014.
“The SP was wiped out by a Modi wave as it was Modi versus the rest,” says Verma. “Also, the people of Uttar Pradesh had overwhelmingly voted for Modi’s development plank and not as much for the BJP. However, Modi was missing in the bypolls and the BJP did not enthuse the voters that much. Moreover, the BSP was not in the race and the Congress’ candidates were too weak to pose any challenge to anyone. Therefore, it became a straight contest between the SP and BJP. The voters were left with not many options, so they voted for SP; it not only won by default but it almost got a walkover in eight of the 11 seats.”
The road ahead
The message from the results of the bypolls is clear: the BJP and Modi (not necessarily in that order) were elected to power by the development- and good governance-starved voter who hopes to have more of the two over the next five years. Veer away from the straight and narrow and the Modi-Shah duopoly runs the risk of committing the same mistakes first made by Manmohan Singh and the Congress and then by Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
If the slew of scams in UPA-2 came as a disappointment to a section of the middle classes that swore by Manmohan’s Teflon image, those who voted Kejriwal and AAP to power in Delhi in the hope of getting for themselves an efficient administration felt let down when he quit within 49 days.
Modi and BJP have their task cut out for them and there is neither room for complacency nor scope for hubris. As one who excels in micromanagement and pays attention to detail, Modi knows only too well that he cannot take the voter for granted or insult their intelligence. Belie their hopes and expectations and the unforgiving voter will strike back.