Shock losses

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Lok Sabha campaign promise of lowering prices of essential commodities remains unfulfilled and this is said to have played a big part in the BJP's poor showing in the byelections. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Gorakhpur, a file photograph. The BJP's central leadership suggested that the absence of the BSP helped the S.P. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

In the September round of Assembly byelections, a BJP banking on communal polarisation suffers unimagined defeats that leave the leadership searching for answers.

THE results of the byelections in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, announced on September 16, marked a stunning reversal for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). A day later, a veteran BJP leader had this to say in a private interaction with a few senior journalists in New Delhi:

“Primarily, these reverses have had a sobering effect on the BJP and the ruling coalition. The impression, in at least some sections of the party, that the spectacular triumph in the Lok Sabha elections is a permanent one has got squashed. It has also infused political energy into opposition parties such as the Congress and the Samajwadi Party [S.P.]. But beyond this overall political impact, there are crucial effects in the internal dynamics of the BJP and the NDA. For the first time in four months, there is a sense that some efforts have to be made to readjust the balance of power within the BJP and the NDA. It should give back some voice to the marginalised forces in both these entities. However, it is a moot question whether the reverses will have implications in the medium and long term for the party’s organisational structure or political plans. More importantly, will the context created by the byelections generate enough momentum for a reassertion of democratic principles and practice within the party organisation and the governance structure?”

Clearly, the leader, sidelined by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation, perceived a chance to marshal his forces and make some moves against the domination of the Modi-Shah set-up. The positions taken by the Shiv Sena in the seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP for the coming Maharashtra Assembly elections have proved him right to an extent. Indications are that senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders like Mohan Rao Bhagawat have also told Amit Shah and his team not to break the alliance with the Shiv Sena arbitrarily and to address the concerns of the BJP’s long-standing partner.

A number of close associates of the leader quoted above were of the view that the change in attitude of the BJP’s allies and of the top brass of the Sangh Parivar was not confined to questions relating to Maharashtra. The tone and tenor of discussions on the byelection results in Sangh Parivar organisations in several States and on social media platforms, they believe, has the potential to sow the seeds for new groupings within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The reasons cited in these discussions have been diverse and pertain to the reverses not only in the latest round of byelections but also in the earlier round, held in Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

In the September round, the BJP and its allies lost 14 of the 23 seats they held before the Lok Sabha elections. They lost eight of the 11 seats they held in Uttar Pradesh, three of the four in Rajasthan and three of the nine in Gujarat. Of course, a significant gain for the party was the Basirhat seat in West Bengal, but that by itself was no consolation for the losses in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and in the byelections held earlier in Uttarakhand and Bihar. The BJP and its alliance partners lost all three seats in Uttarakhand and 13 of the 18 seats in Bihar.

The general character of the discussions in BJP forums, including those on the Net, betrayed a sense of bewilderment at the sudden turn in fortunes. The reasons given in the interactions in cyberspace and in meetings were at times contradictory too. However, a Delhi-based senior activist close to the veteran leader told Frontline that despite the range of arguments and the difference in emphasis the discussions had one common characteristic: They rejected the central leadership’s official argument that local factors were singularly responsible for the defeats. “And herein lie the seeds of regrouping and new forays,” he said.

A group of BJP activists from Uttar Pradesh rejected the “local factors” theory during an interaction with Frontline. “How is it possible for local factors to come up simultaneously across Uttar Pradesh and in other States? The eight seats that we lost in Uttar Pradesh are spread across western Uttar Pradesh, Ruhelkhand, Bundelkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh. How do the so-called local factors come up uniformly in Rajasthan as well as in the States that had byelections earlier, such as Bihar, Karnataka and Uttarakhand? The leadership should introspect without giving this easy explanation,” a member of this group maintained.

The shock in the BJP and its allies regarding Uttar Pradesh is also because of the huge margins of defeat of their candidates. For instance, in Charkhari, which fell vacant because Uma Bharati resigned the seat after she won in the Lok Sabha elections, party candidate Gita Singh lost by more than 50,000 votes and ended up a poor third. Uma Bharati had won the seat in 2012 by a margin of over 25,000 votes, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP led in this Assembly constituency by over 40,000 votes.

In Hamirpur, the BJP had led by a whopping 80,000 votes in the Lok Sabha elections but ended up losing the byelections by a margin of over 68,000 votes. Even in Rohaniya, a part of Narendra Modi’s Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP’s ally Apna Dal managed to convert a lead of over 81,000 votes in the Lok Sabha elections to a defeat by over 14,000 votes. In Rajasthan, too, BJP candidates saw the huge margins of victory in the 2012 Assembly and 2014 Lok Sabha elections dissipate and they met with defeat, albeit by smaller margins than those in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP’s central leadership has suggested that in Uttar Pradesh apart from local factors the absence of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from the contest also helped the S.P. However, this argument, too, does not have any takers among the local units of the BJP in the defeated constituencies. “We know it for a fact, from the feedback we have got from each constituency, that the BSP in no way contributed to the BJP’s loss. However, it is a fact that the section of the BSP votes that gravitated towards the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections remained static this time,” said a member of the group of BJP activists who interacted with Frontline.

In this context, the reasons put out in BJP forums on the Net and outside resemble a babel of voices and are perceived by followers of the veteran leader as a development with the potential to launch regroupings in the party and the Sangh Parivar. A case in point is the discussion on the Hindutva-oriented Internet group “United Hindu Front”. Discussants from India and abroad listed several reasons for the electoral reverses. Some of these, paraphrased, are as follows: The BJP and the Modi government squandered the opportunity to use its first Budget as a political tool by ensuring the reduction of wasteful government expenditure and the tax burden. Instead of doing this, the government continued with the high-tax regime and wasteful and anti-growth policies such as the Aadhaar scheme initiated by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The discussions in the Internet forums also raised issues relating to personalities. It was argued that “nationalists like Arun Shourie and Subramanian Swamy, who would have helped the implementation of a nationalist agenda, have been kept out of the Union Cabinet, while controversial figures like Smriti Irani have found a prominent place”. There was also the argument that allocating the portfolios of Finance and Defence to Arun Jaitley did not help administration or inner-party democracy. Referring to these personality-based comments in the Hindutva-oriented Internet forums, the group of BJP activists commented that the slighting of leaders of the stature of Rajnath Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi had also caused resentment in Uttar Pradesh, especially among the upper-caste Thakur and Brahmin communities.

Over and above all this, another set of activists told Frontline, during the Lok Sabha election campaign the party and its topmost leadership raised hopes of lower prices of essential commodities, but that did not happen and “there is a complete sense of let-down on this count”. “It is important to see this as it is and address it at the earliest,” said a senior member of this group.

None of these discussions referred to the manner in which the BJP sought to advance the politics of communal polarisation by raising slogans like “love jehad”. Pointed queries to the BJP activists and leaders did not evoke any response on this count.

However, political observers such as Sheetal Singh pointed out to Frontline that one factor that seemed to have worked against the BJP, at least in Uttar Pradesh, was the overreach on these polarising issues. “The elevation of Yogi Adityanath as the chief campaigner itself was aimed at aggravating communal polarisation. Several small communal issues were raked up locally in almost all constituencies. But people, including a significant segment of the Other Backward Classes, seem to have ignored the party, which is in contrast to their position during the Lok Sabha elections,” Sheetal Singh said.

The election analyst Mathew Vilayasseril, who has closely monitored politics in north India over the past decade, is of the view that there may be reasons beyond the ones reflected in the opinions of political analysts or discussed in the BJP forums. “The byelection verdict in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh signify such a dramatic turn around since April-May 2014 that all the factors being cited from different quarters now do not fully justify it. The Lok Sabha elections had manifested an irrational hero worship of Narendra Modi and a perception about him as the ultimate solution for all social and economic maladies of the country. Something equally irrational seems to have worked in the reverse this time,” he said.

How far will the factors cited in the context of the September round of byelections impact the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana? The other big question is about the possible forays the marginalised groups in the BJP and the NDA will make in the midst of the Assembly election process. It is indeed premature to predict, though the ardent wishes of the BJP leadership for a disappearance of the byelection climate is palpable across the States.