It is remarkable what a setback in an election can do to the morale of a party. As the trends from the Lok Sabha bye-polls in UP came in on March 14, there was nothing less than shock and awe at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) swank new headquarters on Delhi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg. “Let’s wait and watch. Let’s not jump to conclusions – these are just trends,” was what party leaders said to fob off journalists trying to squeeze a byte out of them in the morning.
But as the day progressed, it became increasingly clear that defeat was staring the BJP in its face. First it was Phulpur, where the hastily forged 'combine’ of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seemed to be racing ahead. Then came the jolt from Gorakhpur. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s pocket borough, from where he had won Parliamentary elections since 1998, had been breached. The euphoria of the BJP’s recent victory in Tripura and the inroads it made in the North East quickly evaporated as gloom set in.
Media analysts who had till the other day discounted the “opportunistic” understanding between the SP and the BSP suddenly began to talk about caste arithmetic and its relevance in UP. Others delved at length on how the battle of 2019 would be fought between regional parties and the BJP. The Congress, they said, would be out of the race. BJP leaders like UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, who had vacated his Phulpur Lok Sabha seat to join the Yogi Adityanath government following Assembly elections last year, admitted that the impact of the tie-up between BSP’s Mayawati and SP’s Akhilesh Yadav had taken his party by surprise. “We didn’t expect the BSP vote will be transferred to the SP in this manner,” he told reporters.
The postmortem of the defeat will be done in due course. But there are voices from within the Saffron party admitting that the twin defeat in UP has proven that the BJP too is vulnerable. The party’s poor performance in Gorakhpur, they point out, only reiterated that even Yogi Adityanath’s appeal could not contain the growing discontent brewing among the people. The BJP had done a lot to stir the communal pot and raise the Hindutva pitch in the state, but in the process, it had alienated the minorities and marginalised communities.
It would be simplistic, say insiders, to attribute the SP victory to merely the coming together of Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. One analysis is that the polarisation of Dalits and backward communities other than Yadavs towards the SP did contribute in a significant way to the BJP losing, but the party was also guilty of ignoring the signals from the ground. The personal equity of Yogi Adityanath or even Narendra Modi cannot yield the same returns time and again.
The reality, some party insiders point out, is that the BJP has not quite delivered on its tall promises. Demonetisation was projected as a fight against black money which would bring rich rewards for the poor. In fact, in the run up to the UP Assembly elections last year, there was a WhatsApp campaign by friends of the BJP which spread the canard that Rs 10 lakh would be deposited in the accounts of the poor. The promised money proved to be a mirage. Then a loan waiver for farmers was announced with much fanfare but it never fructified. Ditto the promise of employment for the growing number of jobless.
Added to all this has been inflation which has pushed up the price of essentials and the cost of living. Despite rosy statistics being dished out on TV, the reality is that the much-promised ‘Acche Din’ is yet to see the light of day. The results seem to show that the development plank on which the BJP has been winning election after election has suddenly lost its sheen.
The UP win and the gains made by the Rashtriya Janata Dal in the bye elections in Bihar will certainly bind the Opposition together. At the dinner for Opposition parties hosted by Congress’ Sonia Gandhi on March 13, the one common theme that emerged was that a united front of all secular parties can indeed take on the BJP in 2019. The victory in UP and Bihar will come as a big boost for Opposition unity.
It is perhaps this realisation that made many Opposition leaders point out that the Congress will have a major role in the fight against the BJP in 2019. As one BSP leader put it on TV: “The Congress may not be the force it once was in UP but it has areas of strength – in Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. In all these states it must align with the secular forces and with the Dalits to oust the BJP.”
With crucial Assembly elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh due this year, the BJP will have to rethink its strategies. As for Yogi Adityanath, he may have to stop playing the role of the party’s star campaigner and pay more attention to governance in Uttar Pradesh as well as his long-held constituency, Gorakhpur.