Cover Story

Ebbing away

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with party leaders Amit Shah (right), Lal Krishna Advani and Sushma Swaraj at the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on March 23. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Modi meets N. Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, in New Delhi on January 12. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party supporters celebrate with posters of party chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati after the party’s victory in the byelections to the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats, in Lucknow on March 14. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath campaigning in Phulpur in Allahabad, on March 8. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi poses for a photograph with opposition leaders before the dinner party at her residence on March 13. Photo: PTI

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with her Telangana counterpart, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, in Kolkata on March 19. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

The byelection results from the Hindi heartland are the latest signal that the mood is turning among voters who pitched the BJP into power with a huge mandate in 2014 and the aura of invincibility around Narendra Modi and his regime is fading.

“TIME was when almost the entire Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and large segments of the organisations in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar were absolutely persuaded by party president Amit Shah’s 2014-15 proclamations on uninterrupted BJP rule at the Centre for the next 50 years. Even those who factored in unforeseen political challenges in the future had little doubt that the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah would have an easy ride at least for 15 years. But such conviction is a thing of the past.” These forthright observations were made by a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh to Frontline three days after the party suffered shock defeats in the byelections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur.

Roller coaster

“The overwhelming sense that prevails in the party as well as in the larger Sangh Parivar at the moment is that we are in a sort of a political roller coaster. We have the great highs one moment and then the abysmal lows. The month of March 2017 encapsulated this roller-coaster ride. First we recorded a historic win in the Tripura Assembly elections, trouncing the well-entrenched Communist Party of India (Marxist), but that high did not last long,” he said. “In about 10 days we suffered stinging defeats in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and Phulpur, constituencies held earlier by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya respectively. While Tripura was wrested by us ending the 25-year-old Left Front regime, we were forced to surrender our 27-year-long absolute domination of Gorakhpur to a loose alliance of the Samajwadi Party [S.P.] and the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP]. While the coming together of the S.P. and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh led to our defeat, in neighbouring Bihar, our revived alliance with the Janata Dal (United) did not bring any new benefits to us as the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal [RJD] retained the Araria Lok Sabha constituency and the Jehanabad Assembly seat. Indeed, you never can take the Indian electorate for granted.”

The leader, once a star campaigner in the Ayodhya Ram mandir agitation, a long-standing core issue of the Sangh Parivar, was surrounded by a number of his supporters as he spoke to this correspondent in Lucknow, and every one of them was in agreement with his analysis. Frontline caught up with some of these supporters in Delhi, a day after the announcement of the Rajya Sabha election results from Uttar Pradesh. A senior Sangh Parivar activist in this group followed up on his leader’s erstwhile comments and said that the BJP’s political roller coaster had once again hit a high in Uttar Pradesh through the Rajya Sabha elections. The party won nine Rajya Sabha seats from the State on March 23. The BJP’s strength in the Assembly assured its victory in eight seats, but it managed to win another seat by engineering cross-voting from the opposition, including by members of the BSP, the S.P. and the Nishad Party. The BJP also managed to secure the support of a clutch of independent MLAs to ensure the BSP candidate’s defeat.

However, this Sangh Parivar activist group, though happy with the Rajya Sabha election results, was aware that managing a victory in a Rajya Sabha election through backroom manoeuvres is in no way a measure of public opinion. One of them said: “Amit Shahji has been quite adept at these manoeuvres and this was proved in the capture of power in States such as Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. But the reports we are getting on the developing ground situation in the Hindi heartland States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh affirm that the popular mood is definitely turning against the BJP. The party is witnessing a steady erosion of support in this region on account of a variety of factors ranging from the persistent agrarian crisis, the economic hardships faced by the common people on account of the chain effects of demonetisation and GST [goods and services tax] reforms, and the general failure to live up to the high expectations generated through the rhetoric of leaders like Modi.” The members of the group had little doubt that this is bound to reflect as a significant reduction of seats for the BJP in the 2019 general election.

‘A warning’

However, the official position of the BJP, as expressed by Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah, is that the defeats in Gorakhpur and Phulpur were essentially a matter of electoral arithmetic and the party’s failure to gauge the voter aggregation potential of the S.P.-BSP alliance. But this view has been countered extensively, both by the political adversaries of the BJP and by segments from within the Sangh Parivar. The former Ayodhya campaign stalwart and his followers said even if what Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah were saying were true, why electoral arithmetic did not work in favour of the BJP and the JD(U) in Bihar should be looked into. “The fact of the matter is voters in the Hindi heartland States are giving us a warning and we need to face it squarely and objectively without taking recourse to convoluted logic and lame excuses,” he said.

The BJP’s vote share in Gorakhpur and Phulpur exemplified the point made by the senior leader. The vote share of the BJP fell by 1,04,495 votes in Gorakhpur from the 2014 count and by a massive 2,20,102 votes in Phulpur. Equally notably, the S.P.’s Pravin Kumar Nishad polled approximately 50,000 more votes in Gorakhpur than the total votes that the S.P. and the BSP had got in 2014. In that election four years ago, the S.P. had got 2.26 lakh votes and the BSP 1.76 lakh votes. This would have added up to 4.02 lakh votes. Nishad polled some 4.56 lakh votes this time. Evidently, there were at play factors beyond just electoral arithmetic. This climate becomes all the more daunting for the BJP since a mere arithmetical aggregation of S.P. and BSP votes of the 2017 Assembly elections shows the two parties ahead in as many as 50 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State. So, if this arithmetic is getting supplemented by an emotive appeal, a potential S.P.-BSP alliance is likely to make rapid strides in Uttar Pradesh’s electoral politics. Projections on the basis of a cumulative vote share assessment of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results are that the S.P.-BSP combination has on an average a lead of 1.45 lakh votes across 57 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP and its allies lead in 23 seats by an average of 58,000 votes, a sharp fall from the 71 seats that the BJP won on its own in 2014; two seats were won by its allies.

Beyond electoral arithmetic

There are similar perceptions about the developing political situation in other spheres, especially among the opposition parties. General discussions among the public also mirror this point of view, albeit with disconnected and sporadic manifestations. Akhilesh Yadav, S.P. president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, is, however, of the view that the phenomenon of voter dissatisfaction with the BJP regimes at the Centre and in the States is fast acquiring big proportions and is bound to spread nationally in due course. He is of the opinion that Gorakhpur and Phulpur were merely precursors. He added that the level of voter dissatisfaction is such that even partners of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were impelled to openly criticise the BJP leadership, including Modi and Shah, on one count or the other. Akhilesh Yadav asserted that efforts to portray the BJP defeats in Gorakhpur and Phulpur as the mere fallout of electoral arithmetic is a mechanistic assessment that fails to take into consideration the larger social, economic and political context marked by misrule, the human misery caused by that misrule, and the people’s reaction in different parts of the country to it. (See interview on page 8.)

Certain other political signals seem to uphold Akhilesh Yadav’s observation. One of these has come in the form of the Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) decision to leave the NDA and move a no-confidence motion against the Modi government. The TDP has been a prominent ally of the BJP in southern India since 2014. Another sign, albeit with relatively less political import, was in the objections expressed by Om Prakash Rajbhar, chief of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, NDA constituent in Uttar Pradesh, against the BJP’s anti-farmer policies and Yogi Adityanath’s style of functioning.

Several political observers are of the view that the manner in which the BJP’s Parliament managers have sought to counter the no-confidence motion—moved also by the YSR Congress Party, another regional outfit from Andhra Pradesh—underscore a sense of panic that seems to have come up within the organisation after the byelection results in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. Ashok Kumar Sinha, a political analyst based in Varanasi, said: “The party seems to have unleashed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [AIADMK], which has become completely servile to Modi and Shah after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s death, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi [TRS] to continuously disrupt Parliament on some pretext or the other so that the no-confidence motion cannot be taken up. It seems that like the second edition of the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government which ruled from 2009 to 2014, the Modi Ministry at this stage is desperately seeking to run away from parliamentary inspection. The debates on the no-confidence motion would have been telecast live and this too could have added to the government’s discomfiture.” He was also of the view that such desperate filibustering could ultimately aggravate voter disenchantment with the Modi government.

The opposition parties, including the principal opposition Congress, have also reinforced attempts to rally anti-BJP forces. While the Congress laid out its plan of action in a special plenary (see separate story), the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress is seeking to stitch an alliance of regional parties. Mamata Banerjee is in touch with a clutch of regional leaders, including Akhilesh Yadav, Tejaswi Yadav of the RJD, Shibu Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Chandrasekhar Rao of the TRS. While none of these discussions and initiatives has resulted in concrete political and organisational structures, they are all being advanced on the premise that the BJP is no longer in the position of strength that it enjoyed in 2014. Leaders such as Akhilesh Yadav have repeatedly asserted that the current climate calls for well-planned and calibrated moves that would involve the task of mobilising people on the ground, stitching up sensible coalitions and finally converting all this into votes through the deployment of an efficient electoral machinery.

In the Rajya Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh, the S.P. and the Congress had announced support to the BSP candidate Bhimrao Ambedkar. The BJP leadership, including Yogi Adityanath, saw in the situation a chance to make mischief between the allies. The Chief Minister even made statements to the effect that a loss for the BSP candidate would not be taken lightly by the party supremo, Mayawati, and this would ultimately split up the allies. However, in the press conference that Mayawati addressed soon after, she made it clear that the alliance would continue. She added that the BSP saw through the BJP’s dirty tricks and vile political games and horse-trading. “Your games will not win,” she warned the BJP.

The senior Ayodhya stalwart was of the view that the net tangible result of the BJP’s roller-coaster ride was that the aura of invincibility around Modi and his regime had been broken and the high projections of “Mission 350 plus” that was originally announced by Amit Shah would have to be brought down to realistic levels. In terms of internal manoeuvrings in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, he pointed out, Yogi Adityanath’s stock had taken a big beating. Projected last year as a potential successor to Modi, he has been exposed as an inefficient and ordinary “non vote catcher” leader who cannot even retain his own pocket borough that he had literally lorded over for decades. That, of course, does strengthen the Modi-Shah duo a bit and consolidates Modi’s position as the only vote catcher in the BJP, but that is little consolation, especially since the Hindi heartland States account for approximately 200 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha.

Urban voters ditching BJP?

The senior leader also pointed out that the uncharacteristically low turnout in the urban areas that was noticed in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections was particularly disconcerting in the context of prospective electoral challenges. In Phulpur, the urban Assembly segments of Allahabad North and Allahabad West recorded voting percentages of 21.65 and 31 respectively, while Gorakhpur City had 33 per cent voting. The BJP is known traditionally to be an urban-centric party, and what this showed was that while the rural antipathy towards the party continued, its urban core base was resolutely refusing to rally behind it. “This is one of the core factors that aggravate the jolts in the roller-coaster ride. It remains to be seen how Modi and Shah will tackle this. Certainly empty rhetoric cannot contain these jolts,” he said. There is widespread agreement with this observation among the Sangh Parivar rank and file.