By Brij Bhardwaj
It was a wake-up call for the ruling BJP and a beckoning opportunity for opposition parties to check the seeming invincibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his principal strategist BJP president Amit Shah - backed by a formidable election machinery and deep pockets - provided they pool resources and form a joint front.
Such a combination has to include regional parties and the Congress party. After all, the BJP captured power with only around 31% of all votes cast in 2014.
This was the message from a bypoll for two Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh and one seat in Bihar in March. The BJP surprisingly lost in both. It included the Gorakhpur seat, which the BJP had won six times with huge margins. The same was true about Phulpur, once the constituency of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Both constituencies were considered pocket boroughs of UP’s strongmen, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya, who had to vacate their parliamentary seats after joining the government in UP.
The regional RJD’s victory in Bihar is equally important as it came despite Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, being in jail. The BJP was backed by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The biggest losers in these bypolls are the chief ministers of U.P and Bihar, Adityanath and Kumar. It is rare that a chief minister loses a bypoll when his party is in power in the state. Adityanath, once being portrayed as a big vote catcher for the BJP and a possible potential successor to Modi, has lost his shine, having failed to save his home turf of Gorakhpur which voted for him five times. The BJP which had gone to town hailing its recent state victories in the Northeast, which elects only around two dozen members to the Lok Sabha, has cause for worry as U.P and Bihar had elected 90 BJP members to the Lok Sabha in 2014.
These bypoll results came not long after the party’s lacklustre performance in Gujarat, where it just managed to scrape through to a simple majority, and suffered by-election electoral setbacks in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
The lesson is clear - problems created by demonetisation, hasty implementation of GST and farmers distress are catching up with them in the heartland.
The BJP has been guilty of raising hopes which were difficult to fulfil. For instance, there was no way that they could bring back the illegal assets held abroad by Indians and put a few lakhs of rupees into the accounts of every Indian as Modi had promised before the 2014 elections.
Equally difficult were promises like creating crores of jobs or doubling the income of farmers. On the other hand, farming distress has increased during BJP rule, leading to suicides in large numbers. The situation has reached a point where farmers’ agitations in favour of demands like a fair price for their produce and loan waivers are being raised forcefully in different states.
What started in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Tamil Nadu took the shape of a mass movement in Maharashtra when over 60,000 farmers marched 80 km to surround the Maharashtra Assembly in Mumbai. The Maharashtra government had no option but to negotiate with farmers and concede their main demands. There is no doubt that in days to come BJP will have to pay a heavy price for farmers’ distress and failure to fulfil the promises it made.
It is not only the major opposition parties which are accusing the BJP for their failure to keep the promises they made but also their own NDA allies, like the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal. Telugu Desam has left the NDA.
Observers say the opposition now has the opportunity to defeat the BJP, or at least give it a real fight, provided only that they can join hands and offer an alternative agenda. Such a combination has to include regional parties as well as the Congress.
In states like Karnataka and Kerala in the south, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa in the west, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the north, the Congress alone can challenge the BJP. Regional parties are strong in states like West Bengal, U.P, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
(The author is a political commentator)