By-Poll Results: Has the Modi Overexposure Turned Counter-Productive?

The narrative appears to be fast slipping out of Modi’s hands despite his questionable tactics of campaigning beyond official deadlines and using official platforms for making political speeches.

The big lesson from the results of the by-elections to four Lok Sabha seats and 11 assembly seats spread over ten states is that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s decline is now assuming terminal proportions. In state after state, the story is the same – seats considered bastions barely months ago, have now been breached.

The worry for the BJP is greater because the party was bested not just in seats where the opposition was united, like Kairana, but even in those like the Maheshtala assembly constituency in West Bengal where the BJP hoped to seriously challenge the stranglehold of the Trinamool Congress and set in process a concerted bid for more seats in the state in the parliamentary elections. Being runner-up is no consolation for the BJP because its politics in West Bengal is aimed at securing immediate gains and not marking long-term long presence.

A bigger concern for the party however is its continuing woes with allies. While the BJP’s oldest alliance with the Shiv Sena continues to remain in the intensive care unit, the party has added another ally to the growing list of disgruntled partners.

The loss of two assembly seats in Jharkhand, Silli and Gomia is somewhat the result of the All Jharkhand Students Union Party, a coalition partner in the BJP-led government in the state, putting up candidates against the BJP’s nominees. In 2014, the BJP had contested Gomia while the other was left for the AJSUP. This time however, BJP unilaterally decided to contest both seats. Consequently the regional party, irked by this decision, put up its candidates as well. Forget opposition unity, BJP is unable to ensure harmony within NDA. A year from parliamentary polls, this does not augur well for the ruling party.

This episode is symptomatic of BJP’s growing hubris angering alliance partners. The BJP has already lost a crucial ally in N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and this by-poll result is hardly going to attract potential allies. Moreover, Modi had boasted to this writer in 2012 that allies do not need to be wooed, “they come on their own when our winnability is high.” With Modi appearing to be losing his Midas touch, the possibility of allies forging ranks gets diminished.

Possibly, more worrying for the BJP is the failure of its successive trump cards failing in Kairana, undoubtedly the mother of all the electoral bouts in this round. Firstly, the campaign in this western Uttar Pradesh seat had a buzz of communal undertone throughout. On the other side, the decision of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and other opposition parties to field a Muslim candidate in the epicentre of polarisation, was indeed a politically brave decision.

There was a distinct possibility of the BJP gaining by its proven strategy of ‘reverse polarisation’ in seats with high Muslim electorate – Kairana had more than 35%. Additionally, the BJP candidate, Mriganka Singh, besides being Hukum Singh’s (of “will not allow Kairana to become Kashmir” fame) daughter, is representative of a political oxymoron – Hindutva modernist.

An affluent father enabled her to escape social and educational backwaters of Kairana and study at Ajmer’s prestigious Sophia College, but only to return decades later as a private sector educationist ready to parrot the most divisive slogans and speeches passed down the family and party. She contested unsuccessfully from the only assembly seat the BJP lost in Kairana in 2017 and was thereby the most natural choice in a party which runs down dynasts.

The BJP would be worried that the Hindutva card did not work either in Kairana or in the Noorpur assembly segment in Bijnor which the BJP lost to the Samajwadi Party nominee. Coupled with the failure of whipping up communal sentiments in Gorakhpur earlier this year, the party may find this strategy yielding diminishing returns.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath with BJP’s Kairana candidate Mriganka Singh and other party leaders during a rally ahead of Kairana assembly bypolls, in Shamli on Thursday. Credit: PTI

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath with BJP’s Kairana candidate Mriganka Singh and other party leaders during a rally ahead of Kairana assembly bypolls, in Shamli. Credit: PTI

How the BJP moves beyond Kairana on ways to maximise conversion of undeniably greater levels of majoritarian sentiment in society will have to be keenly watched and countered by opposition parties.

But the real worry for the BJP would be the failure of the Modi’s sleight of hand by scheduling the inauguration of the Eastern Peripheral Expressway in Baghpat a day after campaigning ended and a day before polling. Although this did not officially violate the Model Code of Conduct, ethically this is not the kind of precedent prime ministers set.

Baghpat after all, adjoins Kairana and audiences would have been brought from nearby districts including those parts where polling was due the next day. Attendees from these villages and towns would have publicised highlights of Modi’s fiery and politically charged speech. If this is not direct campaigning, I wonder what else is.

Moreover, Modi’s speech was intensely political, targeting the opposition for uniting and in the process, hindering his party and government from functioning effectively. Modi’s questionable tactics of campaigning beyond official deadlines and using official platforms for making political speeches not working would have come as a great relief for the opposition and proves that the over exposure of Modi is finally becoming counter-productive.

The task before the opposition parties is cut out for the parliamentary polls – replicate the Kairana model in as many seats as it can out of the 543 constituencies that make up the Lok Sabha. The challenge will be greater in states where there is a strong regional party with a history of antagonism towards the Congress. These will include states like Odisha where the BJP has possibly emerged as the fulcrum where sentiments are either in favour of Modi or against him.

In such a polarised state, it might be wise for parties like Biju Janata Dal and Congress to be realistic and consider what used to be called ‘seat adjustments’ in earlier times. After all, if in 1989, the Left and BJP could simultaneously work out a political relationship with V.P. Singh and Janata Dal because the Congress had to be voted out, it can be considered by them to keep the BJP out of power.

Faced with new dynamism of opposition parties – this will rise further after today’s results – the BJP and Modi is sounding more and more like a long playing gramophone record stuck in the same groove. Just as the discourse had moved beyond the Congress in 2013-14, the narrative appears to be fast slipping out of Modi’s hands. His next steps have to be watched for the yet unknown.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.