New Delhi: October 15 turned out to be a good day for the Congress party and its allies. With a thumping win in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency in Punjab and a significant victory for its ally, the Indian Union Muslim League, in the Kerala assembly constituency Vengara, the grand old party has reiterated the signs of resurgence it has shown in the past few months.
At the same time, the results are the product of political dynamics in the two states rather than a harbinger of change at the national level.
The Congress may take heart from the fact that it wrested Gurdaspur from the BJP after being defeated in 2014. The seat had fallen vacant after the death in April this year of actor Vinod Khanna, who had won on a BJP ticket in 2014. While ruling parties at the state level usually win by-elections, the margin with which the Congress won this time – 1,93,219 votes more than the nearest opponent, the BJP candidate – suggests a stronger grip across Punjab after Amarinder Singh steered the party to a comfortable victory in the assembly elections earlier this year.
The win also means that Singh has emerged as the undisputed leader of the state. The party has had to grapple with serious infighting within the Punjab unit over the past few years. The two poles of this internal conflict – which was often fought in the open – were represented by Singh and Pratap Singh Bajwa, who has represented Gurdaspur both as an MP and MLA many times before.
However, the central leadership of the party decided to hand over the reins to Singh and he proved his mettle in the 2017 assembly poll. The by-poll in Gurdaspur assumes significance in this context as Sunil Jakhar, an old hand in Punjab politics, current state unit party president and a trusted aid of Singh, was fielded as the Congress candidate.
The choice of Jakhar, who belongs to Fazilka district and has been representing the Abohar assembly seat for years, was met with great hostility from the Bajwa camp. But the party’s unprecedented victory means that Bajwa will have to settle for a secondary role for the moment.
With this win, Singh has not only dealt a blow to the prospects of the BJP in Punjab but has also successfully sidelined his rival camp. Gurdaspur, bordering Jammu and Kashmir, has evolved as a trade centre in the last few decades, with a large population of Hindus running several businesses even as the Sikhs remain dominant. The consolidation of both these populations under the Congress umbrella may be a negative sign for the BJP, which has been facing criticism from small and medium businessmen over what they see as the hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.
Similarly, the victory of the IUML in Vengara was a foregone conclusion as the party has always held this seat. IUML MLA P.K. Kunjalikutty vacated his assembly seat to contest the Malappuram Lok Sabha seat after its representative, the IUML leader E. Ahamed, died of in New Delhi earlier this year.
Malappuram, a Muslim-majority district, has often attracted attention because both the Social Democratic Front of India, the political wing of Popular Front of India, and the BJP, have been trying to get a foothold in the area. Both of them have often raked up communal issues to fight the United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic Front.
While IUML candidate K.N.A Khader won with more than 23,000 votes against his nearest opponent, the LDF candidate, the bulk of the votes were shared between the two parties. This effectively means that the voters have firmly rejected the politics of polarisation practiced by the BJP and the SDPI. While the UDF got 52.02% of the votes, LDF finished with 33.43%, which is a small improvement from its previous performance. The SDPI got a mere 6.89%, although it increased its presence a bit, and the BJP got only 4.57%.
Though the Congress is likely to take heart from its victories, the upcoming assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will be the first big tests for the party. In Himachal, the burden of anti-incumbency will work against the Congress while in Gujarat, it is not clear the party will be able to benefit from the growing disaffection with the BJP-ruled state government.