Kairana bypoll results blot BJP’s election playbook ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha test
The results of the latest round of by-elections to the Lok Sabha before the 2019 general elections, a set of nine assembly by-elections, and an election for one assembly seat in Karnataka delivered a major political setback to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), raised questions about the sustainability of its electoral dominance, and generated much cheer in the opposition ranks on Thursday.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won two of the four Lok Sabha bypolls (Palghar in Maharashtra and the sole seat in Nagaland) and only one of the 10 assembly seats (Tharali in Uttarakhand). The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), in alliance with the Congress, won the Bhandara-Gondia parliamentary seat in Maharashtra.
But in what is being seen as the most politically significant outcome, and a boost to prospects of opposition unity, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a small regional Jat-dominated party centred in Western Uttar Pradesh, led by the father-son duo of Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary , won the Kairana Lok Sabha seat. The RLD was backed by the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the party candidate, now Kairana MP, Tabassum Hasan, was an SP leader till she filed her nomination. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress too supported Hasan, in what became a successful joint opposition political bid against the BJP’s Mriganka Singh.
The Kairana victory comes two months after the BJP lost the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls to the SP, which was backed by BSP. Kairana is a western UP town which has witnessed communal polarisation since 2013. The BJP had comfortably won the seat in the 2014 elections.
The opposition interpreted the verdict as a defeat of the BJP’s ‘communalism’ and the revival of the Jat-Muslim political coalition which had broken down after the riots.
“They (BJP) have been exposed and people understand their design. They divide people on religious and communal lines and also tried to vitiate atmosphere here. They raised the issue of Jinnah which had nothing to do with Kairana,” Hasan said.
Chaudhary, the RLD leader, said ganna (sugarcane arrears have been a major issue in the region) prevailed over Jinnah, in a reference to the political controversy over the portrait of Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah at the Aligarh Muslim University.
The BJP argued that bypolls are fought primarily on local issues. In recent interactions with journalists, party chief Amit Shah had said, “When voters know that their decision will impact state and national government formation, they vote differently. Bypolls are fought on local issues.”
But while officially, the party said the results would have national impact, BJP leaders privately expressed worries. “More than Jat-Muslim unity, shift of the non-Jatav Dalit voters away from us is a cause of worry. They voted for us in the last two elections,” a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh.
Dalits account for 21.2% and Muslims 19.2% of Uttar Pradesh’s population. “The arithmetic was against us,” the MP added, asking not to be identified.
Another UP-based BJP leader said that PM Narendra Modi had addressed what was almost a ‘campaign rally’ in Baghpat a day before Kairana but still could not swing the verdict. “We can’t live in denial. The opposition coming together is a major challenge. Amit Shah has said we have to win 50 % vote share to beat them but that is not easy.”
In Kairana, the BJP won 46.5% of the votes.
A third BJP functionary, however, emphasised that BJP had retained a respectable vote share. “Here, people elected an MP. In 2019, they will elect a PM. When the contest is between Modi and there is no one else from the other side, people will swing back. Wait and watch.”
Maharashtra proved to be a mixed bag for the BJP. While it was able to defeat the Shiv Sena in Palghar, in a tough contest, thus showing that under chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, the BJP has emerged as the clearly dominant player in the old BJP-SS equation, it lost to the NCP (supported by the Congress) in Bhandara-Gondia.
But what emerged as an equal blow to the BJP were the assembly results.
It lost both seats in Jharkhand; the SP won the Noorpur assembly seat in UP; the Congress won a seat in Meghalaya, defeating BJP’s ally National People’s Party, and thus became the single largest party in the state assembly; the Rashtriya Janata Dal defeated BJP’s ally, the Janata Dal (United), in Bihar’s Jokihat; the Congress displaced BJP’s ally, the Akali Dal, from Punjab’s Shahkot assembly constituency. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Trinamool Congress retained their electoral dominance in Kerala and West Bengal, winning a seat each. The Congress also comfortably won the RR Nagar seat in Karnataka.
“The by-election outcome reminds us of what is possible if there is opposition coordination. The Uttar Pradesh loss is particularly significant since the BJP has lost a string of by-elections after Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as chief minister,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice chancellor of the Ashoka University and a political commentator. He added: “The results also indicate that PM Narendra Modi’s personal electoral hold is ebbing.”
The impact of the bypolls is more symbolic than substantive, said Milan Vaishnav, a political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Historically, bypolls have been driven more by local factors than larger state or national trends. Symbolically, however, these bypolls provide a shot in the arm to the opposition. They are a confidence booster at a time when state by state, anti-BJP fronts are quickly emerging,” Vaishnav said.
The results, he added, will boost the morale of the cadre of the opposition parties, help them in fundraising,and feed an anti-incumbency narrative .