Gujarat had hinted at it. Recent by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had corroborated it. And now, the outcome of the latest round of by-elections in UP and Bihar has confirmed it. The BJP is losing its support and Prime Minister Narendra Modi his brand equity. The loss of all three Lok Sabha by-elections – two in UP and one in Bihar – has punctured the euphoria in the BJP over the stunning win in Tripura and creditable show in two other north eastern states recently.
The victory in the by-poll for the two Lok Sabha seats in UP – Phulpur and Gorakhpur – in particular have sent the clearest possible indication that the honeymoon of the public with the BJP is now well and truly over, at least in the Hindi heartland. After all, Phulpur, the constituency once represented by Nehru, was won by the BJP’s KP Maurya for the first time ever in 2014 – and that too with a whopping margin of over three lakh votes – while Gorakhpur was the seat represented by Yogi Adityanath five consecutive times since 1998 (and by the BJP for the last eight times) before he took over as UP Chief Minister a year ago. One could underplay the BJP losses in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by attributing them to anti-incumbency because the governments in these two states were in the last year of their five-year term. But no such excuses were available in UP where BJP swept to power with an unprecedented 312 seats in a House of 403 only last March. The victory of SP candidates Nagendra Singh Patel in Phulpur and newcomer Prabin Kumar Nishad in Gorakhpur has proved that a lot of water has flown down the Ganga since the BJP swept the polls last year. No wonder Yogi Adityanath, dubbed the ‘strongman of Gorakpur’, could no better than come up with the lame excuse that his party had underestimated the impact of the unofficial SP-BSP alliance. The more plausible reason for the BJP’s defeat is the disillusionment of the voters with the kind of blatantly communal and upper caste agenda the Yogi government has pursued since coming to power.
The twin defeats in UP has particular significance for the BJP because it is this state that had given it the absolute majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with an incredible 73 out of the 80 seats in its kitty. The defeat also showed that the BJP, which had swept the polls both in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2017 Assembly elections in a multi-cornered contest, is highly vulnerable when the major political forces in the Opposition come together – something that was evident even during the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar at the height of Modi’s popularity. If, as is highly likely, the Congress comes on board, UP could well spell doom for the BJP in 2019. Though Mayawati had made it clear that the understanding with the SP was only for this round of by-elections, the results would force both sides to come together to fight their common enemy in 2019.
The results in Bihar, if anything, were even more of a setback for the BJP than the outcome of the UP by-elections. The fact that the RJD emerged the winner in the by-election for the Araria Lok Sabha seat and the Jehanabad Assembly constituency despite the BJP-JD (U) alliance and without party chief Laloo Prasad Yadav campaigning showed that the people of Bihar, who had voted resoundingly for the Mahagathbandhan in 2015, have not taken kindly to Nitish Kumar ditching his erstwhile partner and jumping on to the BJP bandwagon. The victory in the Bhabua Assembly seat is poor consolation for the JD (U)-BJP combine in the state.
It is of immense political significance that the morale-boosting victory for the Opposition comes just hours after leaders of 20 parties met at Sonia Gandhi’s residence to draw up a blueprint for the 2019 elections. The wins in the politically crucial states of UP and Bihar, which account for 80 and 40 seats respectively, is just the shot in the arm that the fragmented Opposition needed as it gears up to face the next elections. Not only will it convince the Doubting Thomases within the Opposition ranks about the vulnerability of the BJP when faced with a united Opposition, it may even force some of the BJP’s present allies to start thinking whether it would be politically prudent on their part to stick to the NDA anymore given the way political wind appears to have changed course. The TDP has already withdrawn its ministers from the government while others like Ramvilas Paswan, the eternal alliance hopper, may follow suit.
It would, however, be premature to write off the BJP on the basis of the results of a few Lok Sabha and Assembly by-elections. With governments in 21 out of the 29 states, it still remains a formidable political force. And while Modi’s charisma may have waned considerably since 2014 when he swayed the electorate with his slogans of ‘Sab ka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ and ‘Achhe Din’, he still retains his ability to be a force multiplier for his party. If the BJP draws the right lessons from the series of defeats and embarks on a course correction, it can still trump the combined Opposition in 2019.
For a clearer picture of whether the BJP has indeed learnt the right lessons from the latest round of defeats in the Hindi heartland and is willing and able to apply the required correctives, however, one will have to wait for the outcome of the next round of Assembly elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.