The successive by-election defeats of the BJP in the Hindi heartland – first in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and now Uttar Pradesh and to an extent in Bihar — point to a discernible disillusionment of the voters with the BJP while also signifying a virtual end to the long honeymoon of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the electorate.
Clearly, Modi’s dream run was for a more-than-usual period, but warning bells are ringing and if the BJP does not shed complacency, it could be in for rude shocks in the crucial general elections in 2019. Some would argue that State by-elections are no index of a Central government’s popularity; they are fought essentially on local issues and that Modi’s typical campaign blitzkrieg would turn the tables on the Opposition in the crucial Lok Sabha polls. But, it can hardly be denied that the warning signals can be ignored by the BJP only at its peril.
The defeat handed out to the BJP by the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine in the Lok Sabha by-election in Gorakhpur in what was seemingly a pocket borough of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has sent shock waves down the spine of the BJP bosses. Yogi had won the seat five times in a row and was being touted as unbeatable. Over-confidence indeed did him in as did the tenaciousness of rivals Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati.
In the other UP Lok Sabha by-election in Phulpur, the SP candidate supported by the BSP trounced the BJP by an even bigger margin. Phulpur was once Jawaharlal Nehru’s seat, but in 2014, it had passed into the hands of BJP’s K P Maurya, who is currently the State’s deputy chief minister.
That the Congress, which once held sway over the country’s most populous state, has been reduced to a virtual non-entity in the two by-elections in UP is hardly a compensation for the BJP. It is just that the Congress has ceased to count with the BJP and then the redoubtable regional parties ruling the roost in the electorally significant state of UP.
The by-elections in UP reaffirm the cardinal truth — that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is rapidly going downhill and its primacy as the party leading the conglomerate of opposition parties will increasingly be called to question by regional forces. So pathetic was the Congress performance in Gorakhpur and Phulpur that it is no better than an also-ran.
The mauling of the BJP earlier in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections was an early warning that the BJP’s main trump card lies in the disunity of the opposition and that a combined opposition is something the party has to be wary of.
In more recent times, it was misplaced euphoria over victories in the North-East, especially Tripura that lulled the BJP into a false sense of complacency. No amount of explaining away the defeats in UP and Bihar can help the BJP pull its boot strings. The BJP has to understand and appreciate ground realities — that polarising voters along communal lines is no substitute for sustained good governance.
There is no denying that the masses in the countryside are feeling betrayed with policies like demonetisation eating into the impoverished farmer’s meagre savings as are the youth in general with a chronic lack of job avenues created under the NDA regime. The tall promises the BJP made in the Lok Sabha and Assembly campaigns are haunting their leaders today.
In Yogi Adityanath’s citadel of Gorakhpur, the failure of the government to treat the issue of the large-scale child deaths in hospitals on a war footing has cost the BJP dearly. The government Medical College in Gorakhpur was in the eye of the storm last year after dozens of rural children died there of encephalitis within a space of a few days. Though the child deaths due to encephalitis have been taking place for four decades, today’s electorate is more acutely conscious of its rights and the government’s wrongs than ever before.
The inexperienced Yogi Adityanath was at sea in administering the State and there was a bureaucracy that was undercutting him while paying lip service to him. The Narendra Modi government showered him with blind faith and exaggerated kudos with the result that he lost his head.
It is vital that the Modi government does not fall into the same spell of arrogance that the erstwhile Congress-led UPA regime fell into. After the series of monumental failures that the Khattar government in Haryana was responsible for, it needed to be shown the door. Likewise, the message to Yogi Adityanath must be loud and clear — to perform, maintain communal peace or be prepared to be replaced.
A lot would, of course, depend on the SP and the BSP maintaining the camaraderie and keeping their alliance intact in the little over a year that remains for the parliamentary polls.
The Bihar challenge is no less daunting for the BJP. Having lost the Araria Lok Sabha election and the Jehanabad Assembly seat to the RJD of the jailed leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Nitish Kumar-led State government has nothing to smile about. The BJP has won the Bhabua assembly seat, but that is small consolation.
As it prepares for the 2019 general elections, the BJP has much ground to retrieve. Though it is in the saddle in 22 states across the country, it has to stave off anti-incumbency through an imaginative approach. The by-elections have given the opposition a new hope but capitalising on the advantage gained would be no mean task. Agreeing on a rival to Modi, who can forge and cement an alliance, would be a tough goal with too many claimants and not enough talent.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books