Bypolls and the BJP – do the trends since 2014 suggest a constant decline?

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a thumping 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The Congress was reduced to a historic low of 44 seats. Since then the BJP strength has since been reduced to 274, with the party losing 4 by-polls and 4 by-polls yet to be conducted in the seats it held in 2014. Congress has won all these 4 seats from the BJP.

Each by-poll however has its own story. There have been 27 by-polls for different reasons to this sixteenth Lok Sabha. It is instructive to look at the profiles of each of these 27 seats, starting with 1989 Lok Sabha election. The year 1989 is significant because it is with this election that the BJP started making a dent at the national level. So how various parties fared since 1989 gives a good picture of relative party strengths in each seat.

Let us look at these elections by year.

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2014 By-polls

Soon after the Lok Sabha polls, first set of by-polls were conducted in late 2014. There were 5 seats which went to polls again. The details of these five seats are below:

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Vadodara in Gujarat has been a traditional BJP stronghold. As the Prime Minster Narendra Modi retained his Varanasi seat and resigned from Vadodara, BJP won the seat again easily retaining most of the 72% vote share. Similarly, Mainpuri has been a Samajwadi Party (SP) stronghold. As the party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav resigned, the new Yadav scion Tej Pratap Singh won the seat easily, increasing the vote share for SP by 6%.

BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde passed away in June 2014, which led to the Beed by-poll. His daughter Pritam easily retained the seat, significantly increasing the BJP vote share from 51% to 70%. The Kandhamal seat in Odisha, which was formed after the delimitation exercise in 2009, saw a by-poll due to the death of the sitting Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP. While BJD retained the seat increasing its vote share from 50% to 61%, the BJP pushed the Congress to the third spot, going from 13% to 23% vote share.

In Medak in Telangana, K Chandrasekhar Rao vacated his seat as he took over as the Chief Minister of the new state. His party Telangana Rashtra Samiti won the by-poll easily.

All in all, there were no major surprises in the 2014 by-polls.

2015 By-polls

There were three by-polls in 2015, details of the seats as below:

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In Warangal in Telangana, the TRS retained the seat it won in 2014 easily. In Bangaon in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) won again without surprises.

The first by-poll shock for the BJP was in the Ratlam-Jhabhua constituency in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The party had won 27 of the 29 seats in MP in 2014, so this was a keenly watched contest. However Ratlam (earlier Jhabua) has been a stronghold of the Congress since 1980. Congress candidate Dileep Singh Bhuria won the seat from 1980 till 1996. Kantilal Bhuria then held the seat for the party from 1998 till 2009. In 2014, the BJP poached Dileep Singh Bhuria to contest against Kantilal Bhuria and won the two-cornered fight by 10% margin, polling 50.4% against Congress’ 40.4%. As Dileep Singh Bhuria’s death necessitated the by-poll, Kantilal Bhuria wrested his old seat again, in a perfect inversion of votes, polling 50.2% as against 41.9% for the BJP.

2016 By-polls

2016 witnessed 5 by-polls across the country and none of them produced any great surprises:

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In Lakhimpur in Assam, a poll was necessitated as the sitting MP Sarbananda Sonowal took over as the CM of the state after a BJP win. The party retained the seat maintaining its 55% vote share.

In Tura in Meghalaya, veteran leader PA Sangma passed away. His son Conrad contested on the Nagaland People’s Party ticket and retained the seat won in the past by his father and his sister Agatha.

In Cooch Behar in West Bengal, the TMC won easily increasing its vote share from 39.5% to 59%. The BJP was also a big gainer going from 16.3% vote share and third place to 28.3% vote share and second place.

In Tamluk in West Bengal, TMC again won easily against the main opponent Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM which maintained its second spot. The BJP vote share went up from 6.4% to 15% but the party remained in the third place.

The Shahdol election in MP was interesting. This has been a strong BJP seat for a while. This election was necessitated as the veteran party leader Dalpat Singh Paraste passed away. The by-poll was held just days after demonetization, when the country was in turmoil, adjusting to the lack of cash in the system. The Congress campaigned heavily with Jyotiraditya Scindia camping in the constituency for several days. The 25% win margin of 2014 was reduced significantly, but the BJP retained the seat with 6% vote share difference.

2017 By-polls

Last year saw 4 more by-polls in 3 different states as below:

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In Srinagar, Farooq Abdullah snatched the seat won by him and his son Omar in the past from the rival Mehbooba Mufti’s party. This election saw poor polling with just under 90,000 voters exercising their right to vote in the face of militants trying to disrupt the polls.

In Malappuram in Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League retained its stronghold with ease. The CPIM mounted a strong challenge, with the BJP retaining its 7% vote from the 2014 election.

The two big battles of Punjab saw Congress go one up on the BJP. In Amritsar, the by-poll took place after Amrinder Singh was nominated as the Punjab CM. In the tri-cornered fight against the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Congress retained the seat again easily. The BJP had already lost in the assembly election in the Shiromani Akali Dal alliance, and with its star local Navjot Singh Siddhu defecting to the Congress, the writing was on the wall.

Gurdaspur was a loss for the BJP. Its MP, veteran actor Vinod Khanna passed away, leading to the by-poll. The party chose to nominate a relatively unknown local leader who eventually lost to the Congress strongman Sunil Jakhar in a no-contest. The BJP went down from 46.2% vote share to 35.6% vote share. But the real story in Gurdaspur was the meltdown of AAP. In 2014, Khanna won with a 13% margin with AAP polling 16.6%. While Khanna was a big name candidate, Congress had won the seat as recently as 2009, and his 2014 win came through vote division as AAP was in fray. In the by-poll, AAP went down to 2.7%, and the entire anti-BJP vote consolidated.

2018 By-polls

This brings us to 2018, which started off on a poor note for the BJP courtesy the two defeats in Rajasthan. This year will see 10 by-polls as below, 3 of which have taken place as of now:

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In Uluberia in West Bengal, the TMC won easily, with BJP displacing the CPIM as the second largest party, but staying way behind the TMC.

The two by-polls in Rajasthan were interesting. Rajasthan has traditionally been a swing state and the Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot left no stone unturned in winning these two seats from the BJP. Alwar, though not a big BJP bastion, had seen the party win 3 times in the last 8 elections. Congress won this seat with a 57% vote share against the 40% polled by the BJP, creating a significant gap.

Ajmer was the biggest loss for the BJP since 2014. Of the 27 seats up for by-polls since 2014, this had been the second strongest seat for the party after Gorakhpur. The BJP won Ajmer 6 of the last 8 times and one of the losses was to Sachin Pilot in a close election. The Congress went from 40.3% to 50.6% as the BJP declined from 55.1% to 43.6%. This seat was not a washout for the BJP, and the 7% gap i.e. a 3.5% vote swing, is not a big one to surpass. But of the four seats it has lost to Congress, this undoubtedly has been the worst loss.

Seven seats are yet to go to by-polls. Of these, the Anantnag seat has been vacant as the Kashmir militancy has put paid to any hopes of a poll. BJP has a big stake in all the other six seats. Three of these – Araria, Gorakhpur, and Phulpur will go to polls on March 11th.

Araria in Bihar was last won by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Mohammed Taslimuddin. The Janata Dal (United) or JDU then fought independently. The BJP and the JDU in total had almost 50% votes in 2014, 8% more than what RJD polled. The JDU has made life easier for the BJP by announcing it will not contest the by-poll. So a BJP-JDU alliance should be the favourite to win this seat, with the RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav languishing in jail on corruption charges.

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), the BJP has three seats to retain. Gorakhpur, represented by Yogi Adityanath, now the UP CM, should be the easiest one to win. The party hasn’t lost this seat since 1991. However neither Phulpur nor Kairana are straightforward.

Phulpur, the seat once represented by India’s first PM Jawahar Lal Nehru, has elected a BJP MP only once in 2014! Keshav Prasad Maurya, now the Deputy CM in UP, was the sitting MP. There are rumours that the opposition may field a combined candidate to test a potential Mahagathbandhan in the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In 2014, the BJP got 52.4% votes with SP 20.3%, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 17%, and Congress 6%. If Mayawati, the BSP supremo indeed contests this seat as a consensus candidate, it will be a big challenge for the BJP to overcome.

Kairana shot to national infamy with communal riots in 2014 leading to exodus of several Hindu families from the region. The Yogi government has since stabilized the law and order situation in the region. Yet the BJP has won this seat only twice before and it not a natural party stronghold. It polled 50.5% in 2014 ahead of SP 29.5%, BSP 14.3%, and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) 3.8%. The challenge here will be to retain the 2014 vote share.

Finally, there are two interesting seats in Maharashtra. Maharashtra is one state where the BJP expects to make significant gains in 2019 if it contests alone without a Shiv Sena alliance. Hence the Bhandara-Gondia and the Palghar polls assume extra significance.

The Bhandara-Gondia seat was won by the BJP candidate Nana Patole in 2014 who has since quit the party and joined the Congress. He had defeated the NCP stalwart Praful Patel, who has won this seat 4 times in the past. The NCP has allied with Congress again for the future polls and Patel himself has not been very visible in the NCP circles of late. This makes for an interesting situation where both the Congress and the NCP may want to stake claim to the seat, but only one of them can contest in an alliance. Will the BJP be able to leverage this fault line?

Palghar, which was designated as a Lok Sabha constituency in 2009 has seen one win by Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA) and one by BJP in 2014. This seat has six assembly constituencies of which Boisar, Nalasopara, and Vasai are BVA strongholds. The Palghar town itself has a Shiv Sena member of legislative assembly (MLA). The BJP has two MLAs in Dahanu and Vikramgad. In 2014, the BJP polled a comfortable 53.8% against the 29.6% of BVA. But formally, the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance is now broken while the BVA will be keen to win its stronghold seat again. The circumstances make for another tricky fight for the BJP.

Writing on the wall?

The by-poll story thus is not as skewed against the BJP as it is made out to be. The party has had to contend difficult seats as well as localized adverse factors in several cases. A strong show in the six remaining by-polls in 2018 can create a positive momentum for the BJP. Continuing losses however will be bad for the party’s morale as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls loom large.

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