In a huge blow to the BJP just a year before the next Lok Sabha elections, the party has lost Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls to the SP-BSP duo in Uttar Pradesh. BJP also failed to wrest the Araria Lok Sabha seat in spite of all their big claims and a weakened RJD after Lalu’s jail term.
What is more humiliating is the fact that both the seats in UP were represented by their top two men, the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and the Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, and were both won by huge margins (3 lakh+).
After the big losses in Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan in February, this comes as a rude jolt to BJP and throws the contest for 2019 wide open.
Mahagathbandhan Poses Stiff Challenge
In UP, bua (Mayawati) and bhatija (Akhilesh) joined hands to take on the BJP, with BSP extending support to SP candidates. Both the parties ran a pilot project which could take the shape of a mahagathbandhan in UP for 2019. BJP, which was leading in Gorakhpur by 1.36 lakh votes in 2014, after aggregating BSP and SP votes, lost the seat by 21,881 votes. In the Phulpur seat, BJP, which was leading by 1.44 lakh votes in 2014, still lost the seat by 59,613 votes.
BSP has again proved its ability to transfer its votes to its alliance partners. The grand alliance has made a dent in the BJP's vote share: -5 percent in Gorakhpur and -13 percent in Phulpur, indicating the loss of a section of its anchor – the OBC support base.
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Some Dalits who voted for BJP in 2014 appear to have gone back into the BSP fold. It has a dedicated set of voters in each constituency, which is its biggest strength.
This victory may finally give shape to a SP-BSP grand alliance in which the Congress may also join. BJP won one-fourth (71) of its overall tally (282) from UP in 2014. Any loss of seats in UP will directly affect BJP’s ability to cross the halfway mark in Lok Sabha in 2019 and also Modi’s chances to return as Prime Minister even if BJP emerges as the single largest party.
The fact that the alliance partners BSP and SP were able to transfer their votes seamlessly will pose greater difficulties for the BJP.
SP and BSP on a combined basis got just 1.5 percent less votes than BJP and allies in 2014. If one adds Congress, the grand alliance could lead BJP by 6 percent vote share. While the alliance is not all about arithmetic but also about chemistry, BJP’s experience in Bihar and now UP suggest otherwise.
The social coalition of Dalits, Adivasis, Yadavs and Muslims, (51 percent of the population) which this grand alliance hopes to create, would pose a significant challenge to the upper caste, Jat and OBC vote block of BJP (49 percent of the population).
‘Grand Alliance’ Still in the Reckoning in Bihar
In Bihar, the RJD and Congress alliance have held onto the Araria Lok Sabha seat (by 61,988 votes) and Jehanabad (by 35,036 votes) assembly seat despite the RJD party patriarch Lalu being in jail. While Jehanabad is a minority-dominated seat, BJP was hopeful of winning the Araria Lok Sabha seat (15 percent Muslim voters) which it had won in alliance with JDU in 2004 and 2009.
BJP and JDU were leading by 75,265 votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The results suggest Nitish has lost significant support among the minority community because of his re-entry into NDA. JDU lost 1/3rd of its votes to RJD.
While the RJD candidate benefited from the ‘sympathy factor’ owing to his father’s death, Lalu has been able to consolidate his vote base among the minorities, Yadavs and OBCs, alleging a ‘witch hunt’ by the BJP as is evident from a 5 percent increase in vote share in Jehanabad.
NDA won 31 out of 40 seats from this state and is the key to the party’s fortunes in 2019.
Anti-BJP United Opposition Could Repeat 1977
BJP’s loss in these bypolls gives a fillip to the efforts of the Opposition to form a broad anti-BJP alliance. Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner for leaders of 20 regional parties yesterday at her residence to kickstart the process. These parties (excluding Left) together recorded 36 percent vote share in 2014, higher than the NDA’s vote share of 34 percent (excluding TDP and Shiv Sena). BJP’s consecutive wins, state after state, and its recent performance in Northeast has made regional parties jittery.
A 1977-like situation, wherein the entire Opposition came together to take on Indira Gandhi, cannot be ruled out. This time though, BJP and Congress would reverse their roles. Congress could lead this front against Modi. The time is ripe for any such alliance. Mamata Banerjee as well as Naveen Patnaik are facing the challenge of a rising BJP in their states.
In Karnataka, Congress is sweating it out against BJP to save one of its last big turfs. In Kerala, BJP’s strategy is to up the ante against the communists, like in Tripura. Two of the top allies of the BJP – Shiv Sena (18 seats) and TDP (15 seats) – may contest independently. The entry of the JD(U) in NDA will complicate the seat-sharing arrangement in Bihar which could force smaller allies like LJP and RLSP to leave. Jitan Ram Manjhi has already left.
Takeaways for BJP in 2019
The BJP cannot ignore these warning signals. It struggled in Gujarat. It has marketed its Northeast victory as historic, but the fact of the matter is that these three states have only five Lok Sabha seats. Big sections of society – traders, farmers and youth – are increasingly losing patience with the BJP.
Its claims of ‘achche din’ have not translated into reality, with these groups protesting all across India. The majority of the population doesn’t understand and care about GDP growth, FDI, fiscal deficit etc, which PM Modi boasted about in the two interviews he gave. The BJP has got its messaging wrong and risks falling into a fiasco similar to ‘India Shining’.
The fact that it rules 22 out of 31 states is a double-edged sword. It risks facing double anti-incumbency in these states. State leaders can’t push blame to the Centre for non-performance, and similarly, Modi can’t push blame on party’s/ally’s state leadership for not delivering.
To conclude, one year is a long enough time in politics. Everything was hunky-dory for the BJP till about a month ago. Two consecutive losses in its den have turned things upside down and thrown open the contest for 2019. Nothing is certain in politics. If the Opposition is able to overcome its differences and form a mahagathbandhan at the national level, it could pose a serious challenge to Modi.
(Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker turned political commentator, strategist and consultant. He is co-founder of LoudST and author of ‘Battle of Karnataka’. He can be reached @politicalbaaba. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)