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BJP’s eastern irony : not rising fast enough, making enemies faster

Here are the results declared yesterday for the by-poll in Bijepur Assembly constituency of Odisha

BJD (Winner) : 1,02,871 votes

BJP (Runner-up) : 60,938 votes

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Cong (Lost deposit): 10,274 votes

While describing election results, one usually names only the winning party followed by the nearest rival. But in the case of Bijepur, the Congress losing deposit and finishing in a humiliating 3rd position is extremely significant. Because Bijepur is not some seat in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu where the Congress has been insignificant for decades.

In fact, Bijepur in Odisha was a sitting Congress seat. Not only a sitting Congress seat but a seat that the Congress had won 3 times in a row. It’s a seat that should be considered a Congress stronghold. In yesterday’s results, the Congress could not even save its deposit.

But for BJP supporters, the result from Bijepur is steeped in irony. Because, at least in the short term, the decimation of Congress in Odisha is actually bad news for the BJP. Let’s look at the result again:

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Even a 20% swing in its favour could not deliver the seat to BJP! And it is only seats that matter in the final count, not votes.

The same story repeated only last month in byelections for Noapara Assembly Constituency in West Bengal. Here are the results:

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Again, the Congress is simply nowhere in the game, polling just 10,000 or so votes, losing its deposit and finishing at a humiliating fourth position.

Now, would you believe if I told you that Noapara was also a sitting Congress seat?

Again, the bitter irony for BJP is that the wipeout of Congress is only helping the Congress. Here are three common features that are easily observable in a number of eastern states:

(1) Deeply entrenched Chief Ministers (Manik Sarkar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and K Chandrasekhar Rao)

(2) Near defunct Congress as opposition.

(3) BJP graph rising steeply.

In all of these states, the BJP is rising steeply, making huge strides in vote share. But the problem is that the rise is nowhere near fast enough to make it across the finish line and actually win seats. As we saw in Odisha, even a 20% positive swing could not deliver the seat to BJP.

The only happy exception seems to be Tripura, which was a small state that the BJP could cover well with its huge resources.

To start winning seats against the entrenched Chief Ministers of the East, one needs a 40% vote share at the bare minimum. To win a state, closer to 45%. But the BJP is starting from almost nothing in most of these states, with vote shares as low as 1-2% and an insignificant number of seats. The historic swings of almost 35% or more needed to win seats appear like a mountain too high to climb in one electoral cycle.

On the contrary, this is good news for Congress, at least in the short run. It had been the near-defunct, yet technically the “main” opposition in these states for a long time. Now, the BJP is flooding into these states, occupying the opposition space and putting the Congress out of its misery.

For Rahul Gandhi, the upside is that this opens up several new possibilities for an alliance. The Congress wasn’t winning seats in the East anyway. But as long as it continued to be the main opposition, at least technically, the Chief Ministers of these states would need to maintain some distance from the Congress. But now with BJP occupying the opposition space, the Congress can finally sit down and directly do business with these entrenched Chief Ministers.

The entrenched parties in the East now have reason to fear the BJP much more than they have to worry about the Congress. And everyone knows that the enemy of an enemy is always a friend.

If you look at it from the point of view of the ruling parties in the East, it makes perfect sense. Naveen babu, for instance, may have wanted to keep an equal distance from both Congress and BJP, but the equations on the ground are forcing his hand. For him, it is now BJP which is the threat, not Congress. Perhaps the BJD will still win in Odisha in 2019, but if Modi gets another term, a  supercharged BJP might well unseat him the next time. The risks for Naveen babu increase significantly if Modi gets another term in power. On the other hand, what does he have to lose if Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister?

(I should record here that I got some blowback from Odia Twitter users for suggesting that Naveen Patnaik could ally with Congress).

If not a poll alliance, there are still lots of possibilities. Outside support, supporting or participating in a third front propped up by Congress, or just abstaining.

What applies to Odisha applies just as much to Bengal. If you really think about it, you will remember that the intense TMC vs BJP hostility is an extremely recent phenomenon. It was not there even in early 2014. Here is Narendra Modi speaking at his Feb 2014 Kolkata rally:

Brothers and sisters I asked you to elect BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha – Mamata ji will work for your betterment and so will I and Pranab da is your own and he shall too – your gains will be threefold.”

By April-May 2014, Modi’s tone had changed and so had Mamata’s. She called him “donkey”, “Danga babu” and promised to drag him to jail with a rope around his waist. On his part, Modi told the crowds that Mamata didi wants to overrun Bengal with illegals from Bangladesh.

In other words, as the Modi wave picked up in early 2014, both BJP and TMC realized they were going to be main rivals in the years to come. The intense TMC-BJP hostility that we see today was dictated by shifting votes on the ground. Ideology does play its role, but ultimately politics is about votes.

What happened in Bengal can easily happen in other eastern states. Hence, the BJP’s eastern irony.

We all know two things clearly by now

(1) Any government that is not led by BJP is essentially a Congress government.

(2) When it comes to stopping Modi, no alliance is “impossible.”

Accordingly, the danger is of BJP falling between two stools in 2019.  On one hand, BJP’s steep rise is making the eastern satraps very very angry and turning them into implacable foes. On the other hand, the BJP is falling short of the votes needed to actually beat these satraps in terms of seats.

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