Even as the BJP was basking in the glory of its recent election victories in three northeastern states, it turned out to be a different story in Uttar Pradesh where the party suffered severe setbacks in two high-profile Lok Sabha bypolls on Wednesday.
Winning elections in Uttar Pradesh has always been projected as real, bold victories, be it in general elections or Assembly elections or byelections. There may be other Hindi-speaking states in the north, but the two words 'Hindi heartland' has generally meant Uttar Pradesh, also called the cow belt.
UP has also generally been the state where the PM's constituency was located. That could have been the reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to retain Varanasi and give up Vadodara seat from his home state of Gujarat in 2014.
When the BJP won 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats from Uttar Pradesh in 2014, adding a lot of substance to its eventual numbers,the party had reasons to preen, and feel relieved. And to keep that momentum going, BJP president Amit Shah and his team, as well as Prime Minister Modi worked overtime in the state in the second half of 2016, to get the victory they did in March 2017, when the duo picked out saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, who was then MP from Gorakhpur for the fifth consecutive time, to be the chief minister.
When the saffron party lost Gorakhpur on Wednesday, it was symbolic not just of people rejecting Adityanath's work as chief minister, or the Modi government's acts of omission and commission, or the BJP.
In the political space that for decades rested with the Gorakhpur Peeth, new occupants have come in: the Samajwadi Party hand-in-hand with the Bahujan Samaj Party.
These truly strange bedfellows are expected to be game changers who will be capable of upsetting Shah's apple cart and calculations come next summer and Lok Sabha elections 2019. Gorakhpur, which fell vacant when Adityanath moved to the chief minister's residence in Lucknow, is not the only byelection where people have voted against the BJP. They have done likewise in Phulpur constituency, which was vacated by UP Deputy Chief Minister and former state BJP unit president Keshav Prasad Maurya.
If these two seats of the BJP, represented by its biggies, going to rivals in the parliamentary byelections, is not hard hitting enough, what is?
It is a fact that since the Lok Sabha elections of 2014—that brought BJP to power with a clear majority for the first time in 30 years—the party has won but one of 8 parliamentary byelections.
The lone win was in Vadodara, vacated by Modi when he decided to retain Varanasi after winning both seats. The Lok Sabha bypolls the BJP lost included Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh where the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government will soon complete 15 years! The losses included the Gurdaspur seat in Punjab where late actor and BJP leader Vinod Khanna was extremely popular. The other seats were Alwar and Ajmer in Rajasthan, where the BJP had won 25 seats out of 25 in 2014, but have now been wrested by the Congress.
And along with Gorakhpur and Phulpur in UP, the BJP has lost the Araria parliamentary constituency in Bihar to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, whose chief, Lalu Prasad Yadav, is in jail. This despite the BJP leaders suggesting just a couple of days before elections that if BJP does not win Araria, it will signal the entry of ISIS in the region.
That polarising may have worked or not worked for the BJP!
The RJD has also won the Jehanabad Assembly seat byelection, defeating the JD(U) candidate hand picked by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the NDA. Voters, it could be interpreted, don't care for Nitish in the company of BJP.
The BJP's only win has been in Babhua, which the party retained.
Congress national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted, “2017-18 Report Card of BJP is 0/10—BJP lost all 10 LS byelections in 2017 & 2018. By-Poll results have given clear message that Ppl are angry with BJP for its arrogance & misrule. 2017-Amritsar,Srinagar, Malappuram,Gurdaspur 2018-Ajmer,Alwar, Uluberia,Gorakhpur,Phulpur,Araria.”
Coming as these results do less than a fortnight of the northeast Assembly election, which seemingly gave the thumbs-up to the BJP for the first time, there is reasonable sense in brushing aside the BJP's claim that the northeast results indicate the way the country will go in 2019. There is reason to believe that there are fewer takers for Prime Minister Modi's eloquent speeches loaded with development promises, while skirting all the promises he had made on the corruption front. In the Hindi heartland, people have waited for the promised jobs and found they have not come in the last four years.
But a big factor wrapped in Wednesday's results is that an anti-BJP alliance is possible, and it can defeat the BJP. It also indicates that the BJP has so driven others against the wall, that a person like Mayawati will not mind joining hands with her otherwise bête noire, the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party. The results also prove that RJD with Lalu in jail is not a spent force, and that Nitish with Modi and Shah is not a hot item.
Above all, it shows that there is nothing like the Modi magic or Achche Din in the distance. Indian elections are all about arithmetic based on many factors, as much as it is about Shah trying to woo or buy over people who represent winning parties, in order to break them—the recent example being Naresh Agarwal who hopped from the SP to BJP.
Keshav Maurya says the BJP will introspect. Tejashwi Yadav, acting president of the RJD, believes the results show that people want an anti-BJP alliance at the national level.