Narendra Modi has reaped a bumper harvest in the form of two sets of stunning by-election verdicts ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting in Goa. The BJP did not just make a clean sweep of the six seats for which by-polls were held in Gujarat (two for the Lok Sabha, four for the Assembly), it wrested them all from the Congress. In the second case, there was no BJP triumph; if anything, ally Janata Dal (United) failed to wrest the Maharajganj Lok Sabha seat in Bihar from the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Yet this defeat compels attention because in a situation of continuing conflict between Nitish Kumar and Mr. Modi, any reversal for Mr. Kumar unavoidably gets projected as a victory for the Gujarat Chief Minister. What happens next is fairly predictable. Mr. Modi will go to the BJP’s forthcoming conclave in Goa as a bigger hero — if such a thing is possible given that party cadres already worship him. This in turn will make it difficult for the national executive to entirely avoid a discussion on Mr. Modi’s future. Even if the BJP leadership puts off a final decision, which in any case is the jurisdiction of the party’s Parliamentary Board, one thing is for certain. The more vocal voices in the BJP will pitch strongly for Mr. Modi, asking that he be declared the face of 2014, and possibly urge the leadership to even go ahead and dump the JD(U).
But are by-elections a reliable indicator of the voter mood in the general election? For all the seeming magnificence of the Gujarat results, they were neither unexpected nor do they foretell a country-wide 2014 story. By-elections held in close proximity to a Lok Sabha or Assembly election tend to follow the same pattern. Secondly, two of the six seats in Gujarat were captured by defectors from the Congress with their own considerable votes. The Porbandar Lok Sabha seat was won by Vitthal Radadia who held it as a Congress MP until December 2012 when he opted to contest the Assembly election. Mr. Modi might not want to remember that just last year, Mr. Radadia was caught on camera pointing a gun at a toll booth attendant. The loss of Maharajganj is admittedly a setback for Mr. Kumar who had fielded a minister on the seat. However, the victor, the RJD’s Prabhunath Singh, was with the JD(U) until 2010 and had won it twice before on the JD(U) ticket. That by-elections do not lend themselves to easy generalisations is also evident from the victories registered by the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in three other contests held in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra respectively. Of course, when politicians, and analysts, have a larger agenda, they will want to miss these nuances.