A cornerstone of the electoral strategy of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine has been their sheer audacity. Much before setting targets — a la corporate world —became byword for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi okayed the idea essayed by serial technology entrepreneur and one-time associate and strategist, Rajesh Jain, to anchor the Mission 272+ project for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The strategy of using Mr Modi as a mascot worked, and the party's election machinery, which Shah put together, thereafter began working in 'Mission Mode', a style Modi copyright from his days as chief minister of Gujarat.
Some of these achieved the target while others like the party's Mission 44+ in Jammu and Kashmir in 2014 fell short but not before encouraging leaders and cadre to push themselves and reach a mark not previously achieved.
Using Modi’s Name to Convert Elections into Referendums
The BJP leadership, Modi-Shah downward, thought they could continue raising the bar and meet with success every time. Converting elections into referendums on Modi was an important element of this strategy. This time for assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana and the little-discussed bypolls in 51 assembly seats 17 states representing a microcosm of India, the party decided to push ambition to the ideological plane: the vote was sought not in the name of Modi, the 'promissory' leader but in the name of the 'delivering' leader with an unambiguous majoritarian slant.
Modi personally sought mandate in the name of what all his government had done since assuming office after re-election.
High on the list of 'achievements' of a 'daring' leader were the enactment of the law criminalising Triple Talaq and contentious amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act which enabled the Centre to declare individuals as terrorist and allows the National Investigation Agency to take control of cases falling under the domain of the police in individual states, further weakening India’s federal system.
But the real 'icing' on the cake, as Modi seemingly claimed in his speeches, was the decision to de-operationalise Article 370 and strip Jammu and Kashmir of its Special Status and statehood. Modi in one public address in Maharashtra used the derogatory doob maro (go and drown yourself) remark against opposition parties for their questioning of the step.
Voters Are Not Happy About Contentious ‘National’ Issues
The results, not just in Maharashtra and Haryana, but also across large parts of India, show that there is a strong section of voters who do not approve of these contentious steps. This marks the 'return of politics' and the 'retreat' of ideology-based politics, at least as far as local polls go.
The most significant setback for the BJP, of course, is the loss in the Satara Lok Sabha constituency, where Udyanraje Pratapsinhmaharaj Bhonsle lost to the NCP candidate, Shriniwas Dadasaheb Patil by almost 80,000 votes. Significantly, Bhonsle had won the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from the same constituency as an NCP candidate and had represented the constituency since 2009. He was among the high-profile leaders whose defection was welcomed by BJP as part of Shah's open-door policy.
The defeat underscores that both people and cadre were not enthused by this development and will certainly force the party into rethinking the unscrupulous expansion of the party by embracing one and all.
The results show that the Opposition is beginning to make a comeback in certain key states, while retaining its sway in those where it is in power. For instance, polls were held for four seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and the Congress has won three of them. One seat in Rajasthan was bagged by BJP ally, Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. It is a different matter that the RLP was founded by Hanuman Beniwal who was initially a part of the BJP and then went on to form his own outfit. The seat was won by Beniwal's younger brother, Narayan.
Opposition Revival May Be Underway
But most significant in the bypolls are performances of the Congress in Gujarat, the RJD in Bihar and SP in Uttar Pradesh to show that these parties which were decimated in the Lok Sabha polls are now finding favour with voters once again. Of the six seats in Gujarat, the BJP and Congress have shared three seats each and in Bihar, the RJD has won two seats as against one by JD(U) and one each by AIMIM and an independent candidate. For the ruling JD(U) the results were a setback because it won just one of the four seats it contested.
In UP, while the BJP has won 7 of the 11 seats, another was won by its ally, Apa Dal (S). More importantly, the SP won three seats and was a major gainer, wresting a seat each from the ruling BJP and the BSP. These seats are Zaidpur in Barabanki district from the BJP and Jalalpur seat in Ambedkar Nagar district from the BSP where the latter's candidate was initially leading but later suffered reverses and was defeated. In this constituency, the BJP candidate came in a creditable third.
The BJP after an impressive performance in Odisha in May, has yielded the lone seat to the BJD where its candidate established a lead of almost one lakh votes over the saffron party's nominee.
The BJP's 'novelty' factor, however, paid off in Sikkim where it won two of three seats that went to the polls.
The Situation in Southern States
In Kerala, although BJP has not won a single seat, its performance will provide hope to the leadership. In one seat, Manjeshwar, part of Kasaragod parliamentary seat, the BJP came a close runner-up to IUML. In other four seats also its vote share was not unimpressive.
The ruling Telangana Rastra Samithi in the southern state with its candidate Shanampuri Saidi Reddy wresting the seat by a record margin. He defeated Nalamada Padmavathi Reddy, the wife of State Congress president and party MP Uttam Kumar Reddy. The bypoll was necessitated due to the resignation of the Congress state president following his election to the Lok Sabha.
In Tamil Nadu, the results were a surprise for the beleaguered rulingAIADMK wrested the two seats of Vikravandi and Nanguneri from the DMNK and Congress respectively. With this the Edappadi K Palaniswami government became more 'safe' as its tally in the assembly rose to 125 in a House of 234.
However, the Congress' A Johnkumar bagged the Kamaraj Nagar seat in Puducherry. He was competing against All India NR Congress headed by the former chief minister of Puducherry, N Rangaswamy. The AIADMK legislature party leader A Anbalagan said the party will challenge the victory of Congress candidate. He is being accused of bribing voters and having influenced them to vote in his favour.
The results across the 17 states where bypolls were held, show that contests were not conducted on a singular political narrative like in 2014 and 2019 parliamentary polls and several states polls. With elections once again becoming disaggregated in character, the electoral terrain has thrown up prospects of returning to keener contests, a development which will keep the ruling party on its toes and force its leaders to rethink policy and strategy.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)