THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY is acquainted with shock defeats. A year of its massive victory in the 2014 General Election, it was routed in Bihar. Since then, it has gone from victory to victory, ultimately ensconcing itself in 22 state capitals by 2018. There have been defeats, too, along the way in places as different as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab in various bypolls and Assembly elections. But what happened in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh and Araria in Bihar on March 14th can only be described as a bolt out of the blue. The parliamentary bypoll results of UP in particular have sent alarm bells ringing in the party.
On paper, the defeat in Gorakhpur—the Lok Sabha seat that BJP’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath vacated—is not as bad as it seems. In a low-turnout election (47 per cent polling), the BJP garnered 47 per cent votes, down by roughly five percentage points over what it polled in 2014 (51.8 per cent). A small swing in a low-turnout election should be no cause for panic. But these numbers are deceptive and should not be a source of comfort for the party. Look at the qualitative facts. The BJP lost in Gorakhpur, Adityanath’s bastion. In Phulpur, the seat held by Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, the BJP lost by a whopping 59,460 votes. The vote swing against the party from 52.4 per cent of the vote in 2014 to 39 per cent now amounts to 13.4 percentage points.
For a party that prizes its grit and ability to fight for every seat—from panchayat to Parliament—any loss naturally gets magnified more than it would be for any other party. But what makes matters worse is the fact that Gorakhpur has been held by the BJP for seven terms in a row. Much of this has had to do with the ability of the local religious institution, the Gorakhnath math, to transcend caste divisions in this constituency. So much so that Gorakhpur is famous—or infamous—for the political chant, ‘Gorakhpur Mein Rehna Hai Toh Yogi Yogi Kehna Hai’ (If you want to stay in Gorakhpur, take the name of Yogi Adityanath). That the loss took place when the chief of the math was also the chief of India’s most populous elevates the loss to one of huge symbolic proportions.
At a deeper level, the BJP defeat points to a much larger malaise. For one, the state unit of the party seems to be in disarray, in marked contrast to the national party that presents the picture of a well-oiled machine. The corollary of this is the lackadaisical approach with which the election was contested. One may dispute the cause and effect sequence here, but the effects were obvious: from candidate selection to the mechanics of the campaign, all of it betrayed a lack of top-level attention. For one, BJP candidate Upendra Dutt Shukla, a relative lightweight, is a Brahmin. To pick him in a constituency dominated by Nishads says something about the party’s approach this time to the question of ‘social engineering’. The massive 2014 victory in UP was not just due to promises of development and the party’s religious appeal, but also the careful attention paid to local caste equations. The BJP and its urban support base may not like the idea of pandering to caste sentiment, but that is the reality of post-Mandal India to which every political formation must accede—some less, some more, but accept it each needs to.
Then there are other factors that queered Adityanath’s pitch. In a state as lawless as UP, his campaign to nab or even eliminate criminals and to put an end to the menace of cheating during examinations has not gone down well with the electorate. This may sound as a hopeless excuse, but anyone who knows the UP countryside knows what this implies when the time comes to ‘punish’ holders of power. To top it, the Chief Minister has not done anything to dispel perceptions that a ‘Thakur raj’ is back. In a state where transfers and postings of officials are the surest sign of who controls the levers of power, Adityanath has been rather reckless on this front. If his idea of placating Brahmins was to give ‘their man’ a nomination for the Gorakhpur constituency, it speaks volumes of his political acumen.
It will be a leap of faith to link the results of these three bypolls in very different constituencies to the 2019 General Election. There is simply no procedure—predictive or analytical— that allows one to do that. But one thing is evident, even more starkly: the BJP’s reliance on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bail it out of sticky situations everywhere across India, from the banks of the Tapi to those of the Rapti. For a party that rules 22 states now, this single fact should be a big worry, elections or no elections.