Bypoll results do not guarantee Opposition unity in the polls to come
Bypolls do not normally hog national headlines unless they can change the fate of a central or state government. The results of the bypolls for Lok Sabha and assembly seats after Thursday’s vote count will do neither. But they have acquired an unusual salience because they show the way the wind is blowing and could result in a reconfiguration of political alliances during the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
There are two significant takeaways of these elections. There are unmistakable indications of the erosion in the support base of the BJP in the Hindi heartland states which contributed significantly to its brute majority in the Lok Sabha after 2014 elections. Second, they have endorsed the hypothesis that the seemingly unstoppable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut can not only be halted but also pushed back if the Opposition unites.
Of the four Lok Sabha seats under contest, the BJP could win only one (Palgarh, Maharashtra) it contested, losing the prestigious Kairana (UP) to Rashtriya Lok Dal and Bhandara Gondia (Maharashtra) to Nationalist Congress Party.
The loss in the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency is, perhaps, the most humiliating. It was won for the BJP by the late former Union minister Hukum Singh by securing more than 50% vote share — more than the total votes of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal candidates, contesting separately while the Congress opted out. The party had fielded Singh’s daughter in the hope of the sympathy vote. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had addressed a public rally nearby a day before polling when campaigning was supposed to be over despite Opposition protests to the Election Commission, which allowed it as a pre-scheduled event. For the BJP nothing seems to have worked.
Kairana, coincidentally, is the sixth loss for the BJP in the post-2014 Lok Sabha following its earlier defeats in Phulupur and Gorakhpur in UP and Alwar and Ajmer in Rajasthan. It no more enjoys a majority on its own in the lower house of Parliament.
The fact that the party failed to win any of the seats in earlier by-elections held in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Bihar — states it rules on its own or with allies — shows that the sentiment is not confined to one state.
This must cause worry for the BJP, which acquired the bulk of its 2014 brute majority from these north Indian states, especially as assembly polls are due in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
For the Congress, it opens a window of opportunity. It has now to focus on maximising its gains in these states where it is locked in a bipolar contest with the BJP. Only if it has a sizeable number of seats in its kitty from this lot will the party stand a chance of emerging as a player of significance at the national level during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
While the bypolls have demonstrated the efficacy of the non-BJP parties combining their synergies in electoral politics, the pathway to forge a grand anti-BJP alliance is not free of obstacles.
An SP-BSP-Congress-RLD alliance will have the look of a mahajot in Uttar Pradesh, and galvanise Opposition parties elsewhere to make the most of any anti-BJP sentiment. But the parties opposed to the BJP must also start working on a common minimum programme that they will implement if voted to power. Ideological divides will have to be papered over and tactics reworked in the quest to stop the BJP from getting a second consecutive term.
This will also require the Congress to give greater political space to smaller parties. Likewise, the regional parties opposed to the BJP will have to learn not to be over-ambitious. Recent developments in Karnataka show that this process of accommodation has started. How things shape in the future, however, is still up in the air.
Yogesh Vajpeyi is a senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal