Politics

BJP's By-Poll Losses Are a Reminder of What a United Opposition Can Do

The consistently-declining popularity of the BJP across India and the rejection of Hindu nationalism is a key takeaway of the by-poll results.

New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has continued its poor performance in by-polls. After having lost six Lok Sabha seats in the last two years, on Thursday it lost two more constituencies that it had won in 2014. Four Lok Sabha seats – Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh, Palghar and Bhandara-Gondiya in Maharashtra, and the Nagaland constituency – were up for grabs. With this loss, the BJP, minus its allies, now has 273 members in the 545-strong lower house of parliament, only one above the half-way mark.

Eleven assembly seats results were announced today. Jokihat (Bihar), Gomia and Silli (Jharkhand), Chengannur (Kerala), Noorpur (Uttar Pradesh), Tharali (Uttarakhand), Palus Kadegaon (Maharashtra), Ampati (Meghalaya), Shahkot (Punjab), Maheshtala (West Bengal) saw by-elections, while elections were held to one Karnataka seat, Rajarajeshwari Nagar, where polls had been postponed in the recently-held assembly elections. Here too, the BJP suffered massive losses.

BJP’s losses in UP

After Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the Jat leader Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) candidate, Tabassum Hassan, who had the support of both the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, has defeated BJP’s Mriganka Singh. Singh is the daughter of Gujjar leader Hukum Singh who recently died as the sitting MP. He had become infamous during his tenure for mooting the hypothesis that Hindus were being forced to migrate because of hooliganism perpetrated by Muslims.

While his theory lacked evidence and was later proven to be misleading, it had managed to polarise the Kairana region on communal lines before the state’s assembly elections. Mriganka had lost the Kairana assembly seat in 2017 but her party had fielded her in the Lok Sabha seat thinking she may draw in a large chunk of sympathy votes, because of her father’s untimely death.

Tabassum Hassan. Credit: Twitter/ANI

Tabassum Hassan. Credit: Twitter/ANI

However, that was not to be. For the first time in the last six years, a substantial section of dominant Jats in the area moved away from the fold of the BJP and voted for the united opposition candidate. This is even more significant as the candidate was a Muslim. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 had created a deep wedge between the Jats and Muslims, following which the Jats had deserted their party, the RLD, and moved towards the BJP almost en masse. Former prime minister Charan Singh had painstakingly built a Jat-Muslim alliance in the region, which continued under the leadership of his son Ajit Singh, until the Muzaffarnagar riots changed social and political equations.

The Jats, who are reeling under agrarian distress of late, voting out the ruling BJP in Kairana is not only significant politically but also socially. A look at the 2014 results shows that a large section of Jats have moved away from the BJP. Hukum Singh, a senior saffron leader, had polled 5,65,909 votes whereas the RLD, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party (which finished second) candidates together polled a little more than 5,32,201 votes. Hukum Singh would have defeated even a united opposition candidate in 2014. The by-poll result, therefore, indicates a significant anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP in western UP.

Hassan will now be the only Muslim representative from UP in the Lok Sabha.

The same political trend was also reflected in the Noorpur assembly constituency in western UP’s Bijnor district, where a by-poll was necessitated because of the death of the sitting BJP MLA in a road accident in February, 2018. Here, SP candidate Naimul Hassan has won the by-poll against BJP’s Avani Singh. In 2017, the BJP’s Lokendra Singh had comprehensively defeated SP’s Naimul Hassan, who had finished second, and BSP’s Gohar Iqbal, who had finished a close third.

The opposition won these seats even as the prime minister strategically inaugurated the Delhi-Meerut highway and held a rally in the neighbouring Baghpat a day before the by-polls. The BJP had put in all its weight behind its candidates to alter the party’s track record in by-polls. The victories for the opposition in UP will come as a convincing reminder that an united opposition may have a comprehensive edge over the dominant BJP in the 2019 general elections.

Narendra Modi at the inauguration of Delhi-Meerut expressway. Credit: PTI

Palghar and Bhandara-Gondiya

In Maharashtra’s two Lok Sabha seats too, the BJP lost one of its seats and had to fight a tough battle in the other. In the Bhandara-Gondiya parliamentary seat, from where BJP MP Nana Patole had resigned in protest over the BJP’s alleged inaction on farmers’ issues, the Nationalist Congress Party candidate, Madhukrao Kukade, who had the support of the Congress, defeated the BJP candidate, Hemant Patle.

The BJP retained the reserved constituency of Palghar. This constituency had become crucial as the its estranged ally in the National Democratic Alliance Shiv Sena too had fielded its candidate, Shriniwas Wanaga, who finished a close second. Interestingly, it had put up Wanaga, the son of Chintaman Vanga, the sitting BJP MP who died in the middle of his tenure, against BJP’s Rajendra Gavit.

Again, the results reflect poorly on the performance of the saffron party which is currently ruling Maharashtra. Mid-way through the campaign, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had run into a controversy when the Shiv Sena released a video that showed the chief minister urging all its workers to win the seats by all possible means – “saam, daam, dand, bhed (negotiation, money, punishment and division)”.

Nagaland

This constituency was vacated by Neiphiu Rio, who went on to become the chief minister of the state recently. Here, Tokheho Yepthomi, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) candidate backed by the ruling People’s Democratic Alliance – of which BJP is also a part – won against the Congress-backed Naga People’s Front (NPF) candidate, C. Apok Jamir. The win will come as a consolation for the BJP, as it is hoping to gain in the northeast to neutralise its possible losses in north India in 2019.

But the win for the BJP in the Lok Sabha was offset by its loss in Ampati, an assembly seat in Meghalaya. Here the Congress’s Miani D. Shira beat her nearest rival, the BJP-backed National People’s Party’s C.G. Momin. The seat was vacated by Shira’s father, Mukul Sangma, who won from two seats in the assembly elections held earlier this year.

With the Ampati win, the Congress now has 21 members in the 60-member assembly as against NPP’s 20 members. Significantly, the Congress has become the single-largest party in the state and it may stake claim to form the government.

BJP routed in Bihar and Jharkhand seats

What may be devastating news for the BJP is its falling strength in Bihar and Jharkhand, where it is ruling currently. In the lone assembly seat in Bihar, Jokihat, the Janata Dal (United) candidate Murshid Alam, also backed by its ally BJP, lost to the Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate Shahnawaz Alam. Shahnawaz’s borther Sarfaraz Alam, who was the MLA here, had resigned from the seat as the JD(U) MLA and won the Araria Lok Sabha by-poll as the RJD candidate.

JD(U) had gone all out to win the Muslim-dominated Jokihat seat but failed to retain the seat. Its candidate Murshid had several criminal charges against him, including ones of gang rape and idol theft. The Jokihat result shows that a substantial section of Muslims who had supported Nitish Kumar earlier has deserted him after he left the RJD as his ally to form government with the support of the BJP in the state. The by-poll was touted as a test for Kumar’s popularity as he had entrusted half his cabinet with the responsibility to win the seat at any cost; it seems like he has failed.

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav is offered sweets by RJD state president Ramchandra Purbey to celebrate party's win in Jokihat Assembly by-election seat, in Patna on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Credit: PTI

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav is offered sweets by RJD state president Ramchandra Purbey to celebrate party’s win in Jokihat Assembly by-election seat, in Patna on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Credit: PTI

Only recently, the JD(U)-BJP combine had to face losses in the Araria Lok Sabha seat and Jehanabad assembly seat.

Similarly, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, an ally of the Congress, won both the Gomia and Silli assembly seats in Jharkhand. In Gomia, JMM candidate Babita Devi won by a thin margin (1,344 votes) against her All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) rival, Lambodar Mahato. Although AJSU is an ally of the BJP, both parties had fielded their candidates in the by-poll.

In Silli, BJP’s ally and AJSU founder Sudesh Mahato suffered yet another humiliating defeat to JMM’s first-time contestant Seema Devi. Mahato had lost the seat to JMM’s Amit Mahato in 2014 but the seat was vacated following the MLA’s conviction in a manhandling case.

While the losses will come as a crude reminder of the falling popularity of BJP’s Raghubar Das-led government in the state, it also shows that the JMM-Congress combine under the leadership of Hemant Soren has shaped up well before next year’s general elections. Many surveys, including the most recent one by CSDS-Lokniti, have been indicating that the party is set to face severe losses in the 2019 parliamentary polls.

BJP may find hope in Kerala, West Bengal, Uttarakhand

Although the performance of the BJP was not up to the mark in the remaining seats too, it may gain some confidence from its performance in states where it is slowly surging. The Chengannur seat in the Alappuzha district of Kerala went to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) again. Its candidate, Saji Cheriyan, won the by-poll that was necessitated by the death of CPI(M) MLA KK Ramchandran Nair, against his Congress rival D. Vijayakumar. However, the BJP would gain confidence from the election as its candidate, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, polled more than 30,000 votes here.

Similarly, the Trinamool Congress won the Mahestala assembly seat in West Bengal convincingly. While the CPI(M), which had finished second in 2016 assembly polls, was pushed to the third position, it is the BJP which has increased its numbers tremendously and finished second. The party’s growth in Bengal since 2011 has been consistent. The party had received a little more than 3,000 votes in 2011 and a little more than 14,000 votes in 2016 but has increased its votes to more than 42,000 in this by-poll. But it still remains much behind the TMC, which has got more than 70% of the votes in the assembly by-poll.

Trinamool Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory in Maheshtala assembly by-elections, at Batanagar in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Credit: PTI

Trinamool Congress supporters celebrate the party’s victory in Maheshtala assembly by-elections, at Batanagar in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Credit: PTI

In the Tharali seat of Uttarakhand, the BJP’s Munni Devi Shah posted a respectable win against her Congress rival, Jeet Ram. She defeated him by more than 1,500 votes, which is a good margin in the hilly and sparsely-populated state.

However, the Congress retained its stronghold over Punjab by winning Jalandhar’s Shahkot, the only assembly seat that went to by-polls. Its candidate, Hardev Singh Ladi, wrested the seat from the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), which had fielded Naib Singh Kohar, by 38,802 votes. The SAD’s Ajit Singh Kohar had won the seat in 2017.

The other assembly seat that had to go to by-polls, Palus Kadegaon in Maharashtra, did not see a contest as the Congress candidate, Vishwajeet Kadam, was elected unopposed.

The Rajarajeshwari Nagar seat in Bengaluru, Karnataka, where the elections were postponed because of the voter identity card controversy, went to the Congress. Its candidate Munirathna defeated the BJP candidate, Muniraju Gowda P.M., by more than 18,000 votes.

The losses that the BJP has had to face in north India may not portend well for the saffron party, which had won a clear majority on its own in 2014. With the loss of two Lok Sabha seats, and one win in Palghar, the current strength of the party in the Lok Sabha is now 273 in the 545-member assembly, including two nominated members. This means while the BJP has a simple majority on its own but is increasingly becoming  dependent on its allies in the NDA. More importantly, the consistently-declining popularity of the BJP across India and the rejection of Hindu nationalism is a key takeaway of the by-poll results.

Note: This article was edited as the earlier version said the BJP no longer enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha as it now has 269 seats. It has 273 and enjoys a simple majority. We regret the error.