The results of bypolls in 29 Assembly and three Lok Sabha seats across 13 States and one Union Territory are a mixed bag for the BJP and Congress even though there is much cheer in Mamata Banerjee-led TMC in West Bengal whose performance proves that it has complete grip over the State. However, the poll outcome has lessons for each political party. Parties can ignore this only at their own peril.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
The by-elections happened on 30th October for 29 assembly seats and three Lok Sabha seats panning in 14 states and Union Territories was being referred to as a test to inquire the ‘mood of the nation,’ especially when the NDA Government has faced severe criticism for Covid mismanagement that led to the massive second wave of the virus and economic downturns in which the general inflation is notable. But the results declared on November 2 have shown a mixed outcome where both the ‘big parties’– the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – have a reason to smile and the regional parties too garnered their share. As the saying goes ‘devil lies in details;’ a state-wise analysis of the poll-outcome will provide the political print that emanates from it.
The Congress has gained in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka where it wrested seats from the BJP but also suffered major losses in Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Meghalaya. In the final tally, BJP won seven assembly seats while its partners Janata Dal (United) won two in Bihar, United Peoples' Party Liberal (UPPL) had two in Assam, Mizo National Front won one in Mizoram and National People’s Party won two in Meghalaya. More or less the UPA and the NDA have maintained their previous tallies but there is more to it than what meets the eye.
Congress’ complete control in Rajasthan
The Congress party has won both the seats that were previously with the BJP – Vallabhnagar and Dhariawad. Ashok Gehlot had interpreted the result of the by-polls as a vote for his government and took Congress’ tally in the 200 seat Assembly to 108 now. But that’s not the end of the story. The victory also implies that Sachin Pilot’s position has been further eroded as Ashok Gehlot has emerged stronger.
The outcome is also a cause of worry for the saffron party. In Rajasthan, which is known to flip governments every five years, Congress’ comfortable victory on both the seats that were held by the BJP previously indicates that there may not be an anti-incumbency at the present and the saffron party needs to get its house in order by eliminating the internal feud in state leadership by the time next Assembly elections knock the doors.
Wind reversal in Himachal Pradesh
The results of Himachal Pradesh is an eye-catcher in these by-elections. The Congress party that has been largely leaderless after the sudden demise of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, has made a clean sweep against the ruling BJP. The grand old party has won the MandiLok Sabha seat as well three Assembly constituencies – Arki, Fatehpur and Jubbal-Kotkhai.
There is a triple cause of embarrassment for the BJP. First, it’s the home state of party President JP Nadda. Secondly, the BJP had swept the Assembly polls with about two-third majority in the 2017 elections and routed the Congress completely in the 2019 general elections before this loss had occurred. Third, Mandi is also the home turf of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur who had put his personal capital on this Lok Sabha seat. Congress trumped Thakur simply by fielding Pratibha Singh– ex parliamentarian and wife of Virbhadra Singh.
Analysts say that these by-polls were spread over eight districts; hence, it was no less than a referendum for the state before the fresh assembly polls that are due in November 2022. That’s exactly one year from here. “The mere fact that BJP failed to win a single seat is proof of a strong undercurrent against the ruling government on the issues of poor governance, rising prices and youth unemployment,” says Diwan Singh, a Delhi-based political analyst. The Chief Minister has himself held that the fuel costs were the key reason for the defeat and it was among the top agenda items for the Opposition in the Mandi parliamentary by-elections.
They also say that two things are imminent to happen here onwards. First, a chorus is expected to grow in the BJP for the removal of Jai Ram Thakur as the CM. Second, a war for the leadership may intensify in the Congress after the spectacular win. The party should be wary about mess that has already plagued in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where it has governments.
Political pundits opine that the BJP needs to have talent search in the mountains as well. The life, culture and issues of this topography is different from other parts of the country where it has tall, trusted and experienced leaders. They apprise that though Uttarakhand has not gone for any by-polls this time but the outcome there too wouldn’t be much different from Himachal. But one thing is clear that the by-polls results have provided an opportunity for both the parties – for the Congress, to take the momentum further by strengthening the state level organisation and for the BJP, to close the loopholes in time before the Vidhan Sabha elections arrive. In a way, the state is expected to witness a close contest.
Regional parties carve out their share
The regional political parties continued to have their share in the democracy that is characterised by the multi-party system. In Andhra Pradesh, the YSRCP, not unexpectedly, has won the sole seat of Badvel with a massive margin of 90,000 votes. Also, for the first time, Shiv Sena has won a parliamentary seat outside Maharashtra – in Dadra and Nagar Haveli – which is a Union Territory.
In Haryana, there is a peculiar political development. OP Chautala’s son Abhay Chautala has secured the Ellenabad seat that was left vacant by his resignation. This means that Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) is not done yet in the state. Also, farmer’s protest was expected to dent the BJP but in this election INLD got 43 per cent votes and the BJP was not far behind that received 39 per cent. The election is also a reminder to Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar that ‘corruption and nepotism’ may not be the right issues in the state as the BJP had been banking upon and voters’ preferences could be different that the party needs to figure out.
In Bihar, JD(U) won both the seats of Kusheshwar Asthan and Tarapur comfortably. It was being held after the state’s recently held Assembly elections that had Lalu Prasad Yadav been out of prison, the NDA wouldn’t have a chance. But in these elections, despite Lalu’s presence and involvement, the NDA had wrested both the seats. This becomes more important because the difference of seats between the NDA and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led alliance is not much in the state Assembly.
JD(U)’s Aman Bhushan Hajari registered victory from Kusheshwar Asthan by defeating RJD’s Ganesh Bharti by a margin of over 12,000 votes. In Tarapur constituency, RJD’s Arun Kumar failed to trump Rajiv Singh from JD(U).
The graph of the BJP continues to rise in the North East, a region where the saffron party once had no presence. In this election the party, along with its allies, has swept all nine seats leaving the Opposition stand empty hand.
Saffronised Assam and Madhya Pradesh
As expected, the by-poll results of Assam and Madhya Pradesh have been pacifying for the BJP. The NDA has swept all five seats in Assam with massive margins on all - Gossaigaon, Bhabanipur, Tamulpur, Mariani and Thowra. Three seats were won by the BJP while the rest two were taken by its ally UPPL. Immediately as the results were announced by the Election Commission, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed, “The election results are a loud endorsement of people’s faith in NDA government.” He also added that he can't rest yet.
Madhya Pradesh had three Assembly constituencies and one Lok Sabha seat for the contest. The BJP has won the two Assembly seats namely Jobat and Prithvipur and the Congress secured Raigaon. What is interesting is that BJP secured both the seats from the Congress and the Congress snatched BJP’s Raigaon.
As far as the Khandwa Lok Sabha seat is concerned, the saffron party has kept it with itself. In total, the result was not respectful for the Congress party. It has been learnt that MP state in-charge Kamal Nath has met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi after the poll debacle as the high command is not happy with the result in MP in particular. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Chief Minister and the state stalwart, has displayed that his political capital is intact when it comes to Madhya Pradesh and he is not going anywhere soon.
Message from the south
In Karnataka, new Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai won the Sindgi assembly segment but the BJP lost the Hangal seat to the Congress. Karnataka has its own story to tell. The by-polls have provided crucial insights on the standing of the three main political parties in the state in the run-up to the 2023 Assembly elections.
Both the seats that were in the contest are dominated by the Lingayat voters. The saffron party had been successful in rallying the support of the Lingayat community in its favour in the Sindgi constituency of Vijayapura district. Sources say that this was mainly possible due to the efforts of the Lingayat stalwart and former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa. On the other hand, in the constituency of Hanagal in the Haveri district which is the ‘home district’ of Basavaraj Bommai, the party couldn’t garner enough Lingayat support and Congress trumped there. Political pundits say that this is evidence that the BJP in Karnataka is yet to find a leader to fill the shoes of Yediyurappa and has the actual capacity to rally votes of the Lingayat community in the Lingayat-dominated seats. Bommai too is a Lingayat but he comes from a smaller sub-community and this has its own hindrances.
Political analysts say that the Hanagal result has put the saffron party in a fix on whether it should go for the 2023 Assembly elections with Bommai as the leader or it should start looking for a leader who has greater Lingayat clout. Also, a weak Bommai translates into a strong Yediyurappa who would like to make himself a super-Chief Minister of the state; and the BJP high command may not like that.
The other key reason for the BJP loss in Hanagal is even worrisome. The BJP party cadre was more or less disconnected from the people of the constituency when there was a massive Covid surge. On the other hand, the Congress candidate Srinivas Mane had earned a great deal of goodwill for helping the people during the pandemic. “But Mane’s victory doesn’t mean that the Congress is on a recovery path. The party in the state is marred by intense factionalism between state Congress chief D K Shivakumar and former CM Siddaramaiah,” says Diwan Singh.
The key loser is Janata Dal (Secular) that bagged just over two per cent votes in the by-polls irrespective of the fact that HD Kumaraswamy was the Chief Minister of the state just a while ago and had done immense campaign against both the Congress and the BJP, attacking them vehemently. His father and former Prime Minister HD Deve gowda, after the polls’ results, said that he will undertake a tour to gather support for his party for the 2023 Assembly elections.
Karnataka’s adjoining state Telangana has sprung one more surprise – the lone seat out for polls has gone to the BJP which means that it continues to make inroads in the state. BJP candidate and former minister EatalaRajender won the Huzurabad assembly constituency with a margin of about 24,000 votes. The margin is massive enough to send a signal to both Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) head and Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao and the Congress state unit.
In the recently held Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections, the BJP ate TRS vote share and seats, and emerged with seats that were almost equal in numbers to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). Before that, in the 2019 general elections, it had won four seats which were one more than the Congress'. With this speed, the saffron party may soon replace the Congress as the key challenger to the TRS Government and the new government in waiting. The by-election was necessitated in Huzurabad after EatalaRajender resigned following his removal from the Cabinet. Rajender had then quit the TRS and joined the BJP. The gist of the political story in the Telugu land is that Congress was the boss of the united Andhra Pradesh but is reduced to no player in present Andhra and lesser player in Telangana. After Karnataka, Telangana looks like the second cherry about to drop in BJP’s mouth in the south.
TMC tightens grip in West Bengal
Mamata Banerjee continues her stellar performance in her state as her party wins all four seats with a staggering vote share of over 75 per cent. Out of these, two were with the BJP. Political analysts hold that the results will give more power to Mamata to portray herself as a key challenger to the NDA in Delhi.
The state is now perfectly swinging between two – the TMC which rules and the BJP which is the challenger. The Congress and the Left parties continue to be rejected from the electorate.
“The news is not as bad for the BJP. Usually, the party in government wins by-elections as they have both resources at hand and the momentum. The bad situation would have been if the Congress and the Left parties were successful in coming close to the BJP in terms of vote share,” says Sanjeev Chatterjee, a political analyst from West Bengal. He adds, “The results are a cause of worry for the Congress across India, let alone Bengal.” He maintains that Mamata’s strength also implies that BJP’s route in 2024 may be easier because she will try to corner the Congress with more force.
Time to look beyond ‘Modi magic’
Narendra Modi is a great enhancer but his personal charisma alone cannot win a state for the BJP. There is no alternative to governance. Himachal CM Jairam Thakur’s comment that the by-poll result was effectuated by the rise in the fuel prices and the hilly states feel more pinch of it than other areas – shows a stark reality. His words indicate that even Modi can’t take the issues faced by the electorate in daily lives lightly. This is the key reason why the petrol and diesel prices were slashed just after the by-polls results and before Diwali. The Congress party took a dig at the Centre on the reduction of the fuel prices. P Chidambaram held that, “The results of the 30 Assembly and three LS by-elections have produced a by-product. The Centre has cut excise duties on petrol and diesel.”
Experts say that the Centre must find other means to augment revenue and not depend on a single commodity for its earnings. “You are giving free vaccinations, free ration to 80 crore persons and massive infrastructural push to allow the economy to expand, but can’t burden them through fuel prices as it has a dynamo effect on the price of other articles. It’s risky even for the government,” says Diwan Singh.
The states’ leadership of the BJP must begin to take the ownership and perform if they wish to see their party is in command of their respective states. Those who maintain a connection with the masses and play on governance cultivate the fruits of it; be it Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam or Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh.
One has to keep in mind that despite Modi’s general elections sweep in both 2014 and 2019, BJP lost the elections of Delhi miserably just after twice. It lost three key states of Rajasthan, MP and Chattisgarh; lost Karnataka. The present BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka are just managed ones. The party failed to get a majority in Haryana despite aggressive campaigning by Modi and Khattar was forced into an insulting alliance with Dushyant Chautala.
Both Khattar and Thakur should remember that Himachal, Haryana and Punjab have a running culture. Modi has not been able to breach the fort of Punjab; not even in the massive wave of 2019 that was ridden on nationalism even though Punjab is a border state and sends most soldiers to the armed forces. The present protest by the farmers has put the northern India against the saffron party. Even today, the situation is such that Modi finds Punjab a tougher nut to crack than Tamil Nadu or Kerala perhaps.
The by-elections result is a gentle reminder to the non-performers that governance is now an ‘electoral issue’ and the most important things are no-more least-talked about.