Anatomy of bypolls: Lessons for Opposition, BJP and why losses could end up helping Narendra Modi in 2019

The BJP's losing streak in by-elections continues. It is an interesting paradox because while party is at the pinnacle of its prowess and strongest-ever space in history, it also has a surprisingly vulnerable underbelly. The results have expectedly triggered a rash of speculation in both spectrum, and based on one's ideological bias, commentators are either writing off the results or writing off Narendra Modi.

United Opposition? PTI

United Opposition? PTI

Bypolls rarely work as a barometer for upcoming Assembly or Lok Sabha elections, as political scientists Gilles Verniers and Rajkamal Singh have argued in Indian Express. They fall outside the thematic representation of larger ideological battles. Be that as it may, bypolls do hold several lessons that the BJP and Opposition parties would do well to consider.

Keeping these lessons in mind, it is possible to suggest two hypotheses. These are not predictive analyses but assumptions based on past and current political trends. The first one is obvious. The Opposition has worked out a formula to challenge the BJP juggernaut. The early shoots of this strategy were visible during the Phulpur and Gorakhpur by-elections. It was firmed up during the post-poll alliance to deny BJP power in Karnataka. In Noorpur and Kairana, the strategy has seen a wider implementation where caste and community arithmetic was carefully hammered out.

In Uttar Pradesh's Kairana, for instance, which the BJP took as a prestige fight and ran an intense campaign led by chief minister Yogi Adityanth, the SP 'loaned' a Muslim candidate whose family wields enormous clout in the constituency, to Jat-based party RLD. The aim was to renew the Jat-Muslim consolidation that had been the formula of RLD's success in western Uttar Pradesh for a long time. Tabassum Hasan was supported by SP, BSP, Congress and the AAP while BJP fielded deceased MP Hukum Singh's daughter Mriganka who was defeated by 49,291 votes. This is as good an example of Opposition Unity Index as any.

Questions will be raised on whether this social coalition or Opposition unity may hold but assuming that it does and if replicated elsewhere, this strategy may seriously challenge BJP in upcoming state elections where the saffron unit will additionally fight anti-incumbency issues. The success of the coalition in Kairana may enthuse sceptical Opposition partners such as Mayawati to lower her scepticism and commit to a united front. The win will certainly energise Opposition cadres. That is no less significant.

Certain other signals are also notable. Congress leaders are upbeat despite the party's loss in Palghar— the only Lok Sabha constituency that it contested alone—which resulted in forfeiture of deposit. However, it is showing willingness to "play second, even third fiddle to ensure that the BJP does not repeat its 2014 or 2017 performance in UP", writes Aurangzeb Naqshbandi in Hindustan Times.

The second hypothesis is counter-intuitive. The rise in Opposition Unity Index could work in favour of Narendra Modi in 2019. It is worth reiterating here that bypoll losses are not an "advantage" for BJP under any circumstances. A loss is a loss, not a win and BJP would have been far better off winning these polls instead of losing them. However—to the extent that these trends can be analysed—some factors that were crucial in by-elections might not apply in 2019 when Indians will vote to choose a prime minister or might catalyse certain developments that could work to BJP's advantage next year. Let's go through the reasons.

One, there is no correlation between a party's performance in by-elections and Assembly or Lok Sabha polls. Since 2014, BJP "has only managed to win 5 out of 27 Lok Sabha bypolls held between 2014 and March 2018." Its five wins have come in seats where it was the incumbent — which means the party merely retained power on five occasions and failed to snatch a single seat from the Opposition.

During this four-year period that the BJP bled Lok Sabha seats, other parties have performed better. The TMC, BJD, SP, Congress, NPP, TRS and Muslim League all managed to retain their seats. The best performance came from Mamata Banerjee who managed to retain all four seats that went to polls between 2014 and 2018.

And yet, despite this miserable performance in bypolls, the BJP holds power either on its own or with an alliance partner in 20 of India's 29 states (the number reached 21 briefly when BS Yeddyurappa took oath as chief minister but later had to resign). As NDTV points out, "the last time a political party had such a massive political footprint across India was 25 years ago when towards the end of 1993, the Congress held 16 of (then) 26 states — 15 on its own and one in alliance."

To put this in perspective, when Modi took oath as the prime minister in 2014, the BJP was in power in just seven states. This ought to tell us that when the elections are hyper-localised, the BJP has performed poorly but when the canvas has become bigger, the saffron unit has invariably held an advantage. 2019 obviously won't be a local election.

Two, bypoll turnouts are traditionally low and that seems to be a major factor in BJP's losses. Both in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the BJP suffered on this count. The situation was no better this time. BJP's vote share has also come down substantially in Lok Sabha bypolls from the 2014 high. In Kairana, it polled 46.5 per cent votes compared to over 50 percent earlier. The BJP is presumably failing to enthuse its core voters to come out and vote during by-elections. While this may indicate the nature of its voter base and even some grievances at the local level against the leadership, when the referendum is on Modi in 2019, this trend may get arrested or even reversed because as a brand, Modi's value far outstrips that of his own party's.

"Modi is punching above the weight of his party. That is, he is more popular than his party's brand. For this reason, Modi's incentive is to presidentialise the 2019 election while the Opposition's objective is to localise it," Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Milan Vaishnav told Rediff in a recent interview.

Which brings us to the third point. The nature of bypolls makes the result incumbent on the relative strength of candidates and caste-community calculation of a particular seat. Much is being made of JD(U)'s loss to RJD in Bihar's Jokihat Assembly seat but it was on expected lines. Though it is being touted as a shock loss for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar whose party was the incumbent, in reality, this result was unexceptional. JD(U) was always going to lose this Muslim-dominated seat once Kumar joined hands with BJP. RJD's win was a foregone conclusion.

Similarly, the Bhandara-Gondiya LS seat in Maharashtra, where BJP lost to NCP-Congress coalition, owed to the decisive role played by influential rebel MP Nana Patole who had criticized Modi and walked over to Congress last year. These factors, however, become unimportant when the mode of election becomes presidential and the strengths and weaknesses of local candidates are subsumed within the strengths and weaknesses of the supreme leader.

"The BJP knows the personal popularity of Modi gives him the natural advantage in any clash of individuals on the national stage. And it has cleverly made both the Congress and the state satraps defensive about not having a natural leader at its helm that can commandeer a disparate collection of parties," writes Barkha Dutt in Hindustan Times.

Four, the back-to-back bypoll losses have put the BJP on the defensive. Its leaders are scrambling to explain the losses and are banking on the well-flogged theory that bypolls are not a referendum on Modi. However, this might not be a bad position for the BJP to be in as it gets ready for the 2019 home run. The party is less likely to suffer from complacency issues (always a danger when any party assumes such national dominance), Amit Shah will find it easier to keep local leaders honest and cadres might feel more motivated to prove a point.

This points also extends to the RSS whose difficult equation with Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a major reason for BJP's loss in 2004. (See here and here).

Complacency can strike a fatal blow to a party's chances. In 2003, the BJP had done exceedingly well in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh state elections. An elated Vajpayee called for early elections. The rest is still the stuff of major research and explanation.

Five, BJP's defeat in bypolls has expectedly sparked a mood of major triumphalism among the Opposition camp and Modi's ideological rivals in media. There is no shortage of bites from leaders and columns from commentators announcing the "end of Modi". This mood is likely to continue till 2019. While this is inevitable in a democracy, there is a possibility that this may result in a reverse consolidation. This is because the prime minister still remains an immensely popular leader and the Opposition mantra of "anything to somehow stop Modi" makes for a message that is reactionary, negative and devoid of any constructive agenda.

Modi knows this, and he will play on it. He channelled his inner Indira Gandhi last year during an election rally in Lucknow: "Wo kehte hain Modi hatao, main kehta hun 'kala dhan hatao (They say remove Modi, I say, remove black money)." We are headed for interesting times.

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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2018 17:21:51 IST

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