BJP’s by-poll conundrum : Of victory, loss, lessons to be learnt and the road ahead

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a net loser in the by-polls, which were held on May 28th and the results of which were declared on May 31st. The party has had a bad by-poll record for a while now – OpIndia had covered the details earlier in February.

Four distinct themes emerge from the May 31st results for the party.

The Uttar Pradesh debacle, or was it?

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BJP lost the Kairana Lok Sabha seat to the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Noorpur Vidhan Sabha seat to the Samajwadi Party.

BJP had won Kairana only twice – once in 1998 and then in 2014. In 2014, the BJP MP Hukum Singh won the seat with a 50.5% vote share, when the voter turnout exceeded 73%. It was then a four-cornered fight. In the 2017 assembly election, BJP still retained the constituency across its assembly segments in a five-cornered fight, but the vote share fell to 40%.

In 2018, BJP got 45.7% vote while the combined opposition won. The voter turnout was only 54%. The BJP voters did not turn up or the party did not work hard enough to ensure their voters left their houses to vote. Either way, the party can take solace in the fact that the lower turnout did it in.

The details of votes across elections below, taken from the Twitter feed of @wordofthefree.

The same analysis for Noorpur depicts that BJP was a beneficiary of vote split both in 2014 and in 2017. This was not a core BJP seat. Despite this, the party actually improved its vote tally significantly over last year’s state elections. The turnout for this assembly segment reduced from 67% to 61% between 2017 and now. The loss margin of 5.6K votes is not a big one.

The UP results hence do not imply a BJP meltdown in the state. In fact, the party should be more worried about the Gorakhpur by-poll loss than what happened on May 31st. Sujoy Ghosh has covered great details in this articles already.

The Maharashtra story – Importance of marginal seats

Two Lok Sabha seats – Palghar and Bhandara-Gondia polled in Maharashtra. The BJP was widely expected to lose Palghar, but retain Bhandara-Gondia in a close contest. The results were the other way round.

The BJP won Palghar in a multi-cornered fight overcoming the challenge of Shiv Sena, Bahujan Vikas Aghadi – a local strongman party, Communists, and the Congress. It was a narrow win, but it cemented the credentials of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis further, who has had an impeccable electoral track record through his term.

The loss of Bhandara-Gondia however, poses a question mark. This seat, carved out after the 2008-09 delimitation, is a classic example of “cherry on the top” seats for the BJP. It is not the traditional strong party but can punch beyond its weight, as it did in 2014. Amidst very poor turnout – in the mid-40s – the BJP lost the seat by about 40K votes.

The lesson from Maharashtra is perhaps more important than the one from the Uttar Pradesh. Firstly, the BJP has to identify all marginal seats which it won (and lost) in 2014. There has to be a constituency-wise strategy for each seat for 2019, over and above the Modi factor which will be at work in the main Lok Sabha election.

Secondly, between BJP and Shiv Sena, the alliance can completely sweep the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. But will the Shiv Sena play ball? Its chief, Uddhav Thackeray has been belligerent and reiterated his resolve of going alone after the by-poll results. Fadnavis and Union Minister Hansraj Ahir, on the other hand, spoke cautiously and expressed hope that the alliance will not crack. In fact, BJP President Amit Shah himself had said a few days ago that he hopes to keep the alliance intact. It will now be again up to Fadnavis to firm and resurrect the Shiv Sena alliance. The big question is what price Thackeray will extract to change his mind.

The problem of maintaining allies

Through this Narendra Modi term, the BJP has had trouble with managing its allies. The problems with the allies were the other big story of the by-polls.

Shiromani Akali Dal collapsed in Shahkot, where Congress took a big lead of 38K on a seat won by its rival just last year.

With confusion prevailing on a tie-up with All Jharkhand Students Union, the BJP lost the opportunity in both Jharkhand seats. In Gomia, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha retained the seat with about 39% vote share. The BJP and AJSU combined polled much higher than JMM. In Silli, JMM again won against the AJSU. Though BJP didn’t contest this seat, the alliance indecision prevailed for a while.

In Bihar, the Janata Dal United (JDU) lost its Jokihat seat to the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav. The JDU spokesperson Pavan Varma lashed out at the BJP after the results calling for the party to live through its alliance dharma.

The BJP has a problem at its hand managing allies. It had done an excellent job in this department during the 2014 Lok Sabha election and in subsequent state elections, carving out several niche and useful tie-ups. If the party continues to weaken, the potential 2019 allies will play hardball. This will suck a lot of management bandwidth as the polls near.

Knocking on new doors, but they are not opening

West Bengal and Kerala are the two states which the BJP is concentrating in a big way for 2019 Lok Sabha polls. One seat each from these states went to the by-polls.

In Maheshtala in West Bengal, the BJP increased its vote share from 7.7% to 24%, but the Trinamool won easily with a 59% vote share. The BJP has grown remarkably in the state, and 25% now seems to be the base for the party in many areas. But if there is a grand Trinamool – Congress – Communist alliance for 2019, the BJP will have very little chance of winning any seats in the state. Even otherwise, it will need to go from 25% to 45% quickly to make a dent in the Lok Sabha polls. This journey, at least in some seats, has to be taken up rapidly.

In Kerala, BJP polled almost 23% votes in Chengannur, but it was not sufficient to depose the Congress as the runners-up. The Communists won the seat easily with almost 45% votes. Like in West Bengal, the BJP has to focus on a few constituencies where it can ramp up its vote share to mid-forties. The task is of course much difficult in Kerala than in West Bengal.

The by-poll results leave a lot for the BJP to mull over. The party has created very strong state networks, but Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have to find ways to enthuse this cadre at the same level of 2014.

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