A sobering moment for the BJP

The BJP’s vote share in these by-polls declined in all the States

The BJP’s vote share in these by-polls declined in all the States  

The party’s poor performance in the recent by-elections comes as a wake-up call before next month’s Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra

The >results of the recent by-elections have sprung many surprises. Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost many seats, this defeat should neither be seen as a verdict against the policies of the Central government nor as a sign of declining trust of the people in the Central government and declining popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But it would also be equally incorrect to say the BJP should not worry about these results as they hardly affect the stability of any government.

There seem to be enough reasons for the BJP to worry as the reverses in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh seem to be contrary to past trends. The incumbent party at the Centre and its allies had won almost two-thirds and four-fifths of the Assembly by-elections post the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections in States where they were in power. The BJP’s vote share in these by-polls declined in all the States as compared to the party’s vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A deeper worry for the BJP could be that it seems to be losing momentum, as this is not the first round of by-polls where it failed to perform well. In the last two rounds of by-polls too, the BJP’s performance had been below par.

Though the Samajwadi Party (SP) managed to wrest eight seats from the BJP, it would be committing a mistake if it saw these results as an approval of the work done by its government in U.P. in the last two and half years. And although the Congress managed to win three seats each in Gujarat and Rajasthan, it would be premature for the party to identify this as a sign of its revival in these States.

Continuation of earlier trends

The SP’s victory in U.P. was in some ways a continuation of earlier trends as even after the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections, State incumbents had won 66 per cent and 46 per cent of the by-polls in States where the Central and State incumbents were different. However, it is still important to understand the nature of these victories and the possible factors behind them, as the BJP and its ally Apna Dal had won all these seats in 2012 and were ahead in 10 Assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Some seats like Thakurdwara and Bijnor can be considered to be BJP strongholds as the party has won them multiple times in the last two decades. The SP could be misjudging the results if it sees these victories as an indicator of increasing popularity for the party.

An analysis of the demographic profile and past electoral trends of the eight constituencies that the BJP lost clearly shows that the absence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had a crucial impact on the local electoral arithmetic. Our analysis shows that almost all of these seats have sizeable proportion of Dalit or Muslims voters.

The BSP seems to be an important player in these seats as it was the runner-up in five and three seats respectively in the 2012 Vidhan Sabha and 2014 Lok Sabha election (based on leads in Assembly segments). The absence of the BSP and weakening of the Congress made these direct contests between the BJP and SP. This along with the Hindutva-loaded campaign of the BJP resulted in a sharp consolidation of Muslim voters in favour of the SP. Victories for the SP in some of the Dalit-dominated constituencies such as Sirathu and Charkhari indicate that there could have also been a shift of Dalit voters in favour of SP candidates. The fact that the drop in voter turnout in these two constituencies as compared to the 2012 Vidhan Sabha election was much lower than the average indicates that despite the BSP’s absence, Dalits voted this election. The BJP’s vote share in these 11 constituencies has increased as compared to the 2012 Lok Sabha election (as the contest turned almost bipolar) but the majority of the BSP voters seem to have shifted to the SP. The increase in the SP’s vote share as compared to 2012 (27.8 percentage points) was almost five times the increase in the BJP’s vote share (5.7 percentage points).

Decrease in vote share

There has also been a massive decline in the vote share of the BJP in these States. The BJP’s vote share in the by-poll constituencies in Rajasthan declined by 10.8 percentage points as compared to 2014 and 8.2 percentage points as compared to the 2013 Assembly election. The Congress on the other hand managed to increase its vote share by 17.5 percentage points as compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. What is surprising about the BJP’s loss in Rajasthan is that this has occurred within the first year of the new BJP government coming to power. One would have expected the BJP to win all four Assembly seats as it is currently enjoying a “double honeymoon” phase in the State.

Performance in Gujarat

Similarly the party may find it difficult to justify why it lost in Gujarat in seats which are considered the party’s strongholds — it had been going strong in Khambhalia since 1995 and had won the other two seats in 2007 and 2012. Even though the BJP managed to win six of the nine Assembly seats this time, its vote share declined by more than 11 percentage points as compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Interestingly, in both Rajasthan and Gujarat, the increase in the Congress’s vote share is much higher than the negative shift of the BJP. This also seems to indicate some degree of consolidation of the opposition vote against the BJP.

The BJP should be cautious in celebrating its victories in Silchar in Assam and Basirhat Dakshin in West Bengal. Rather than considering these successes as opportunities for making inroads into these States, the party should consider them to be consolation prizes and incentives to continue expanding its organisational base.

Undoubtedly, the real winners of this round are the SP in U.P. and the Congress in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The by-polls can be considered a warm up to the bigger electoral race in Haryana and Maharashtra next month. This defeat comes as a wake-up call for the BJP before next month’s Assembly elections; the party should guard against complacency. The BJP should remember that the national wave that it had managed to create in the Lok Sabha election is not eternal.

(Sanjay Kumar is Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti, a research programme of CSDS.)

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 11:20:27 AM |

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