In hard times, anything positive can serve as a morale booster. After coming under attack from both within and outside during the last few months, the Bharatiya Janata Party found cause for cheer in the results of the by-elections to some State Assemblies. The party won seven of 12 seats, most significantly five of the seven seats in Gujarat, a stronghold where it had turned in a below-par performance in the Lok Sabha election. It won one Assembly constituency in Uttarakhand, a State where it had lost all the five Lok Sabha seats. The seventh seat came from Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-ruled State, but here the score was tied 1-1 with the Congress. By themselves, the by-elections do not amount to a great deal. In both Gujarat and Uttarakhand, the party of the Hindu Right enjoys a majority in the Assembly, and the results of the by-elections do not alter political equations. But the principal opposition party — which is trumpeting its win in Gujarat’s Jasdan, a constituency it has not represented since Independence — would like to place these results in a larger context, both in terms of time and space. Clearly, the psychological value of the outcome of the by-elections outweighs everything else.
Which is to say that at the national level, the gains have lifted the spirits of the BJP leadership that is still struggling to cope with a second successive defeat in the 15th Lok Sabha election. Besieged by dissidents of all hues, it can now use these hopeful pointers to buy time and ward off challenges from the second rung. After the Jaswant Singh fiasco, and continued sniping from Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, the leadership of L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh came under threat. Chief Minister Narendra Modi too was blamed for the national debacle and the lacklustre performance in Gujarat. All three were under some pressure to demonstrate that voters had not given up on them. Although it is difficult to see the results as a turn-around, the senior office-bearers in the BJP can now use the psychological boost to strengthen their position within the organisation, at least for now. Mr. Rajnath Singh has been able to claim, with some credibility, that the by-elections have shown that the party was not losing ground in States ruled by it. As for the Congress, the political cockiness, the ‘we-don’t-really-need-allies’ attitude, and smugness over the troubles in which opponents have found themselves will be hard to sustain as the realities of a fragmented polity and a changeable popular mood begin to assert themselves and the delicious scent of an unexpected triumph fades. The Maharashtra Assembly election will be the next, and more significant, test.