Four months into its second innings, the grandeur of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is starting to fade — if last week’s by-elections results to the state legislatures are any indication.
Fifty-two assembly constituencies across 13 states went to polls earlier this month and the results came in last week. The Congress won 10 and its allies bagged five. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored in 12 and its allies in another seven.
By-elections are often influenced by local issues and the candidates involved, and do not necessarily reflect the larger political mood, last week’s results have certainly cast a shadow over some expectations that followed the Lok Sabha poll results.
Many believed — within and outside of the party — that the Congress is reviving in Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar would soon follow.
On the contrary, the party couldn’t win any of the four seats where by-elections were held in Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party won them all, in stark contrast to the drubbing it took in the April-May Lok Sabha polls.
In Bihar, where the largest number of assembly seats — 18 — were polled, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party together won 10. This came just when political rivals and analysts were ready to write their obituaries.
“When I and Laluji are together and the alliance worked well on the ground, we are the dominant force in Bihar. Those who wrote us off were doing it too soon,” said Ramvilas Paswan.
A Congress leader from Bihar admitted that Lalu and Paswan’s comeback “may not be good news for us,” because they have taken up the political space that the Congress was hoping to capture.
“The results from Bihar are more significant than that in UP given that the state would go for assembly elections next year,” said Zoya Hassan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Lalu and Paswan worked hard after their setback in Lok Sabha elections and it paid off.”
The biggest setback to the Congress was, however, in Gujarat, where BJP won five of the seven seats that went to polls. Congress had previously won six of these seats, but couldn’t retain them because of infighting within its local units.
The BJP’s show in Gujarat also undermined its detractors’ claim that the Hindu nationalist party was fast sliding after the debacle it faced in the Lok Sabha polls. The party also held did well in Karnataka and Uttarakhand.
The only consolation for Congress came from Tamil Nadu, where the party and its ally DMK won all five seats. But that was after the main opposition AIADMK boycotted the elections.
While the bypolls brought no cheer, the October 13 assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Arunachal Pradesh — all ruled by the Congress or a Congress-led coalition — will be a real test for the party and the UPA.
The bickering that shadowed the seat-sharing talks between Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra is indicative of a larger problem that the UPA faces in its second innings.
“During our first tenure, the shared interests with our allies were much bigger -what we call the chemistry. This year’s elections made us much stronger but at the same time the allies are more suspicious of us,” says a top Congress leader who did not want to be quoted. “UPA-I had reached an equilibrium quickly. UPA-II is still unstable and looking for that equilibrium.”