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Byelection results galvanise opposition, prompts BJP to rethink strategies

As India prepares for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, these byelections serve as a prelude to what could be a closely watched battle for power.

Published : Sep 09, 2023 14:37 IST - 8 MINS READ

Samajwadi Party workers celebrate the victory of party candidate Sudhakar Singh in the Ghosi constituency byelection on September 8. The result in this byelection, where other opposition parties did not contest to make it an SP versus BJP fight, gave a glimmer of hope for opposition unity.

Samajwadi Party workers celebrate the victory of party candidate Sudhakar Singh in the Ghosi constituency byelection on September 8. The result in this byelection, where other opposition parties did not contest to make it an SP versus BJP fight, gave a glimmer of hope for opposition unity. | Photo Credit: Nand Kumar/PTI

The results of the recent Assembly byelections in seven constituencies across six States have delivered a mixed outcome. While the BJP managed to secure victory in both of its strongholds, Tripura and Uttarakhand, the opposition emerged triumphant in four States. The 4-3 result has provided a much-needed boost to the opposition, raising questions for the BJP to ponder.

The results, which were hyped in large sections of the media as a sort of referendum on opposition unity, have thrown up mixed outcomes, with the ruling party in all States, barring Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, maintaining their hold on electorates and winning the seats.

While Congress, JMM, and BJP have retained one seat each in Kerala, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand respectively, the BJP wrested one from the CPI(M) in Tripura and retained the other while losing one seat to Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

Though the BJP could take comfort from victory in three of the seven seats (two in Tripura and one in Uttarakhand), the loss in Uttar Pradesh will rankle, as the saffron party had gone into overdrive over “Bulldozer Baba” (Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath) and had started replicating the model of tough governance (often in disregard of established law) in other States: for instance, in Haryana (after the Nuh communal riots in August) and Madhya Pradesh (August 2022 post the Ram Navami violence).

Red alert for the Left

For the Left parties, the writing on the wall is clear: shape up or ship out, as they have lost to the BJP, Congress, and Trinamool Congress, respectively, in Tripura, Kerala, and West Bengal. The Left is currently in power in Kerala. In Tripura and West Bengal, the CPI(M) lost even though it was backed by the Congress, which did not field any candidate. Whereas in Kerala, the Congress candidate Chandy Oommen, son of late Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, retained his father’s seat. The Dhanpur seat in Tripura, retained by the BJP, was not in the distant past represented by CPI(M)’s Manik Sarkar (former Chief Minister) five times.

Also Read | Does the victory of Chandy Oommen in Puthuppally signal a political shift in Kerala?

By winning the minority-dominated Boxanagar seat, Tafajjal Hossain became Tripura’s first Muslim MLA from the BJP. More than the loss of the seat, the number of votes garnered by the runner-up CPI(M) candidate Miza Hossain (less than 4,000) stands out. The Congress, which ceded space to the Left in Tripura and West Bengal, may also be forced to rethink its strategy as the 28-party INDIA alliance is still in the making.

Also Read | BJP victory in Boxanagar and Dhanpur leaves the opposition crying foul

Talking to Frontline, general secretary of the CPI D. Raja, however, said that the INDIA alliance has rattled the BJP but underlined that all parties have to see realistically when it comes to fielding a candidate unitedly against the BJP. “These are byelections. State elections are coming very soon. The BJP is on the way out,” he said.

INDIA confused?

That said, the elections saw opposition parties contesting against each other, even as an opposition alliance INDIA is shaping up with a plan to ensure a one-on-one contest against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. While INDIA allies CPI(M) and Congress contested against each other in Kerala, they joined hands against another INDIA ally Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

Also Read | Trinamool’s resounding comeback in Dhupguri

In Uttarakhand, the Samajwadi Party (SP), though not a strong force, put up a candidate in what was a primarily BJP versus Congress election. Uttar Pradesh gave some glimmer of hope for opposition unity, where the Samajwadi Party successfully contested against the BJP and won the seat in Ghosi. Not only did the Congress refrain from fielding a candidate, but even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is not part of INDIA, did not contest the polls, making it a direct contest between the SP and the BJP. The BSP had asked its supporters to vote for NOTA, but the results point in another direction.

Also Read | Defeat of Ghosi’s ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’ delivers a blow to BJP

The contest in Ghosi had a striking similarity to the Kairana Lok Sabha byelection of Uttar Pradesh in 2018 when the joint candidate of SP-Congress-RLD Tabassum had defeated BJP’s Mriganka Singh, daughter of prominent politician Hukum Singh. Even then, the BSP did not field any candidate, making it a straight BJP versus opposition fight.

Senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Prasad Singh, talking to Frontline, said the results show that people have lost trust in NDA and see hope in INDIA. “A one-to-one election will definitely have its advantage, and the result here does highlight the message of unity.” But at the same time, there is another fact that people have got disenchanted with the BJP owing to the failure of the Central government to address issues like unemployment, added Singh. “In this byelection in UP, the BJP was working full steam. The Chief Minister and all other BJP leaders campaigned, but they lost.” There is a larger message of people becoming aware that real issues are being ignored by the BJP, Singh explained.

Interestingly, polls in Ghosi were necessitated as Samajwadi Party MLA Dara Singh Chouhan (who has a history of joining and deserting almost all parties in Uttar Pradesh) had joined the BJP just two months after he had won the seat on the SP ticket in 2018. The BJP fielded him in this byelection.

While the opposition parties are gung-ho over the Uttar Pradesh results and feel that this is indicative of the BJP’s impending loss in the coming Assembly elections in five States this year—considered a precursor to the 2024 Lok Sabha election—the BJP general secretary Tarun Chugh was dismissive of such projections. “People of the country have decided to make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister in 2024 to make a strong, self-dependent India,” said Chugg. “The BJP is in a strong position in all the States going to polls this year. People are fed up with the Congress’ corruption in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and that of BRS in Telangana. These parties are misleading people and have got exposed.”

Notwithstanding Chugh’s confidence, the result of this round of Assembly byelections has not been very heartwarming for the party. By winning the Bageshwar seat in Uttarakhand, the BJP has retained a constituency that was a party stronghold represented by senior leader, late Chandan Ram Das for four times between 2007 and 2023. After his death, the BJP fielded his wife Parwati Dass, who won the seat with a margin of just 2,000 votes. Last time the BJP had won the seat by a margin of more than 12,000 votes.

Also Read | Byelections in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand: A tale of diverging electoral fortunes

Things to ponder for the BJP

Buoyed over the “resounding victory” in both seats (Boxanagar and Dhanpur in Tripura), Home Minister Amit Shah said it will further strengthen the BJP’s determination to “transform Tripura into a prosperous state”. In reply, a few commentators on social media platform X tersely asked the Home Minister, “What about UP and West Bengal?”

The loss in West Bengal was all the more striking as it was a triangular contest with the Trinamool and the Left-Congress alliance fielding separate candidates. In the 2021 election, Dhupguri in West Bengal was one of the 77 seats won by the saffron party, and the byelection here was necessitated due to the death of the sitting BJP MLA Bishnu Pada Ray.

The results denote the decline in BJP’s fortunes in the State, which has set in since the party had won 16 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal that had soared its hopes of forming a government in the State. In the 2021 Assembly election, the BJP won 77 seats out of 292 seats for which elections were held. Both these were huge leaps from just three seats the BJP had won in the 2016 election and just two Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general election in West Bengal.

The “ghar wapsi” of many Trinamool Congress leaders, who had joined the BJP in 2018, has come as a rude shock to the BJP. Six of its MLAs quit the party and joined the Trinamool by February this year. The party’s performance in the rural elections in July also flies in the face of its ambitious target of winning 35 Lok Sabha seats in the 2024 election.

In Jharkhand where INDIA ally JMM’s Chief Minister Hemant Soren is facing an ED (Enforcement Directorate, which looks into financial fraud) case, the victory of his party candidate Baby Devi over the NDA’s AJSU party nominee Yashoda Devi from Dumri, has come as some good news. This is beacuse an aggressive BJP was breathing down his neck, and a result otherwise would have been widely interpreted as JMM losing public support: more so as the constituency was earlier represented by Baby’s husband and senior Jharkhand minister Jagarnath Mahto, whose death necessitated the polls.


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