The results of byelections to four Lok Sabha and 10 assembly constituencies across 10 states has but one resounding message: the Narendra Modi – and Amit Shah-led BJP is not quite as invincible as it was in 2014, while a united opposition may yet be able to take the electoral battle to the party ruling at the Centre in 2019.
The parliamentary elections are less than a year away, but the immediate hackles for the BJP will be raised as it goes in for elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which are due sometime late this year. The byelection results also mean that the party, which has publicly sought to make India “Congress mukt”, will now fall back on its one and only mascot – Narendra Modi, whose brand value, though still pretty high, is fast losing sheen.
Of the four parliamentary byelections, the most stunning result was in Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh, the Jat and sugarcane belt that was the site of communal violence in the autumn of 2013, where the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) candidate, Tabassum Hasan, backed by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress, trounced the BJP’s Mriganka Singh. Besides proving to be a successful outcome of an opposition experiment in unity, Kairana has shown that mere stoking of the communal fire without fulfilling real economic expectations could prove counterproductive even if the party in power in UP and the Centre is as formidable as the BJP.
Clearly, there was more to mere opposition unity: though the BJP has now been in power in the state for slightly over a year, its government, led by the upstart Yogi Adityanath, did precious little to address the woes of sugarcane farmers, primarily Jats. This failure, compounded by the perception that the state government functioned on communal lines, brought together a section of the Jats and Muslims, who had earlier fallen out in the backdrop of the BJP’s communalist agenda since 2013, thereby re-establishing a formidable socio-political alliance. It was this non-fulfillment of expectations that a united opposition could exploit to its advantage, leaving gannah and not Jinnah as the most proximate reason for the BJP’s defeat in Kairana. Please recall that the RLD was a total washout in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 assembly elections. It appears to have rediscovered itself and found its electoral mojo back among the Jats of Kairana, if not western UP.
Far away from UP, the BJP lost a Lok Sabha byelection in Maharashtra’s Bhandara-Gondiya constituency which was won by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), ably backed by the Congress. The only consolation for the BJP, as far as byelections to Lok Sabha seats was concerned, was Palghar, also in Maharashtra.
There is, however, more to the BJP’s Kairana defeat. It comes in the wake of the setbacks in byelections to the Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary constituencies where the implacable foes, the SP and the BSP, buried their differences to together produce stunning victories. Less than two weeks ago, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) stuck together in Karnataka to push the BJP out of contention. And now add the drubbing in Noorpur assembly byelection where the SP’s Naimul Hasan won by a slender margin of just over 6,000 votes.
These victories also signal that the BJP, still in the grip of the Modi-Shah duo, would be chary of advancing the Lok Sabha elections and holding them along with the assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh this year. With these string of defeats, the BJP is now caught in a cleft stick: to advance the parliamentary polls, at a time when its electoral fortunes are seemingly dipping, could prove counterproductive. At the same time, allowing opposition unity to build up and deepen — which would, by all indications — could mean a decisive challenge in 2019 that could potentially force the RSS, which, ominously, made no comments after the byelection results, to reconsider the notion of ‘one supreme political leader’.
The opposition unity has begun to take shape at a time when the Modi government finds itself pretty low on governance-performance scores even as it completed four years in power less than a week ago. While rhetoric is a permissible political tool across most democracies, the BJP appears to have overdone on this art. Instead of a persuasive and convincing narrative, it has employed and deployed the ‘black art’ of fibbing, combining such tactics with grandiloquence, bombast and hyperbole that may have found ready buyers for a time, but more recently appears to be have been lost on people who were eager to see perceptible change. Increasingly, people are being confronted with the non-fulfillment of promises — the bane of Indian politics and politicians — and they do appear to be infected by a bug that could yet foul up the BJP’s prospects.