It is important not to over-interpret the recent by-election results.

The surprises thrown up by the latest round of by-elections in Uttar Pradesh have once again rejigged the electoral order in India’s politically most-watched State.

In recent years, politics in U.P. has been like a game of snakes and ladders. The line-up after the May 2007 Assembly election was: The Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. In a stunning reversal in the Lok Sabha election two years later, the BSP crashed to the third spot while the Congress, last seen in the State in 1989, came as if from nowhere to take the second place behind the SP. The BJP which seemed unshakable in the Ram years finished last.

Barely had the pundits finished prophesying an SP versus Congress main battle in the 2012 Assembly election, when their calculations again went haywire — this time because of the November 2009 by-elections to the Firozabad Lok Sabha seat and 11 Assembly segments.

The November 2009 reboot has placed the BSP on top with the Lok Sabha topper SP consigned to the bottom most rung along with the down and out BJP. The Congress, which pulled off an audacious victory in Firozabad and wrested the VIP constituency of Lucknow West, is seen to have consolidated its May 2009 whiz kid status. Expectedly, battlelines have been drawn afresh and current estimates have narrowed down the 2012 field to two contestants : The BSP and the Congress.

It is not an incredible conclusion. After all the BSP won 9 of 11 Assembly seats, topping its three of four score registered in the August 2009 Assembly by-elections, and the Congress took Firozabad from under Mulayam Singh’s nose, displaying just the kind of killer instinct required to win the next Assembly election. On the other hand, the SP and the BJP appear to have lost the plot: While the BJP has been a goner for sometime now, few could have expected the SP to be so comprehensively outperformed on its own turf.

And yet for the precise reason that the trend has changed so rapidly from one season to another, it would be unwise to predict how the parties would stack up in 2012. Besides it is important not to be misled by the results of by-elections which are narrow-focus contests.

More complex pattern

Indeed, an analysis of by-election results over a longish period reveals a more complex pattern than the “Mayawati-Congress rising” picture suggested by this round of polls. Statistics emerging from the exercise also give credence to the long-held wisdom that by-elections favour the ruling party. Of the 58 by-elections held in U.P in the six years between November 2003 and November 2009, the SP won 23 and the BSP 26. The rest nine seats were shared among the BJP, the Congress and others. Significantly, the SP won 20 (SP 18 and alliance partner Rashtriya Lok Dal 2) of its 23 seats when it was in power. Similarly, the BSP won 20 of its 26 seats when it was in power.

The SP chief took the oath of office in September 2003, and with that his party went on a winning spree, starting with a 3/3 victory in the November 2003 Assembly by-elections. Of the total 31 by-elections held while Mr. Mulayam Singh was in power, the SP-RLD won 20, the BSP 6, the Congress 3 and the BJP 2. The SP’s victories might have been greater had it not been for the fact that two of the by-elections were fought in the Congress backyard of Amethi-Rae Bareli. In April 2004, Amita Modi won the Amethi Assembly by-election while in April–May 2006 Sonia Gandhi famously returned to reclaim Rae Bareli.

Ditto sequence for Ms Mayawati. She came into office in May 2007, and in June 2007, the BSP won all three Lok Sabha seats for which by-elections were held. The trend continues to this day. Of the 27 by-elections held between May 2007 and November 2009, the BSP won 20, the SP 3, the Congress 2 and the RLD 1. One seat went to an independent while the BJP drew a blank. The BSP’s only significant loss in this period was the Badhohi Assembly seat to which a by-election was held in February 2009.

The ruling party’s advantage in a by-election is explained by its limited nature, which allows concentrated deployment of official machinery and resources. Two examples would suffice. In October 2004, the BSP’s Raju Pal won the by-election to the Allahabad West Assembly constituency. He was shot dead by gangsters which led to his wife, Pooja Pal, contesting the seat in a June 2005 by-election. The ruling SP fielded Ashraf, the main accused in her husband’s murder. The BSP believed that public sympathy would be with the widow. However, thanks to the SP putting all its resources into fighting the election, Ms Pooja Pal was defeated by Mr. Ashraf. In the latest round of by-elections, the BSP’s candidate Kailash Sahu trailed in Jhansi for the most part but squeaked past his nearest rival by nine votes after a recount.

It is important to bear in mind that the SP and the BSP registered impressive wins in by-elections but went on to lose the big battles: The SP lost the May 2007 Assembly election and the BSP trailed behind the SP and the Congress in the May 2009 Lok Sabha election.

Too-stark-to-miss details

Does this mean that no inferences can be drawn from the recent by-elections? No, some details are indeed too stark to miss. The losses registered by the SP this time are colossal and defy the by-election trend of parties winning in their own bastions. The SP lost three key seats in Mulayam country— the Assembly segments of Barthana and Etawah besides the Firozabad Lok Sabha constituency, contested by bahu Dimple. Firozabad, won with a margin of over 60,000 by Mr. Mulayam Singh’s son Akhilesh Singh in May 2009, and later vacated by him, ought to have been a cakewalk for Dimple, more so with an assortment of Bollywood actors and politicians lining up behind the family. But evidently the SP clan did not bargain for the Rahul Gandhi-Raj Babbar combination. .

The SP’s losses in Barthana, which was vacated by Mr. Mulayam Singh, and Etawah, his home district, are no less significant. The SP did not do well even as a runner-up, coming second in only six of the 11 Assembly seats.

What about the Congress? A closer reading of the results reveals an uneven performance which is at odds with its self image as the winner of the 2012 election. Indeed, the brilliance the Congress displayed in Firozabad and Lucknow West is offset by its abysmal showing in Jhansi and Padrauna both of which were vacated by Central ministers with considerable influence in their respective constituencies.

Nonetheless, the Congress can draw satisfaction from the visible improvement in its overall showing. The party which habitually finished last in any by-election in the State — except when a star contestant was in the fray — saw a marked increase in its vote share. What is more, the Congress got two first positions and three second positions, which is surely stupendous by the yardstick of its previous performances.

If the by-election verdict is unambiguous for any party, it is for the BJP, which has steadily declined with every election. This time it plumbed the depths: It won no seats, came second in one seat, third in three seats and fourth in six seats. But it is not the BJP alone that needs to pull up its socks. With results tending to go topsy-turvy, no party in U.P can claim with confidence that it will have its way in 2012.

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