Bypolls Give Sharp Jolt to BJP Election Strategy
SP workers celebrating the Ghosi bypoll victory. Image credit: PTI
The results of by-elections to seven state Assembly seats hold some significant indications for the future. Normally, not much can be read into scattered by-elections that periodically take place in the country. Ruling parties have an advantage, people are disinterested, and local equations or personalities play significant roles. But with the advent of the BJP, things have changed. Following their avowed policy of taking every electoral battle seriously, these by-elections saw the heavy-duty presence of chief ministers and their senior ministers in most places. District administrations were reported to have been actively involved in going about ‘ensuring’ the maintenance of law and order which translated to facilitating the ruling party’s electoral tactics. And, the performance of state and central governments – the much vaunted ‘double engine’ – was pushed in Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, and Uttarakhand. In the other states – Kerala, Jharkhand and West Bengal – the state government’s failures were lambasted by the BJP while extolling the so-called achievements of the Modi-led central government.
Yet, the results not only threw up a headline victory of four for the opposition INDIA alliance versus three for the BJP’s NDA, details of each constituency reveal a much larger story. Let us have a look at some of these new features.
Ghosi – The Defeat of Caste Equations
In the Ghosi seat, located in the Mau district of Eastern UP, the Samajwadi Party defeated the BJP by a whopping 42,759 votes. That’s a decisive and categorical verdict. Ghosi had the distinction of becoming a sort of crucible for the whole of BJP’s electoral playbook. The district administration reportedly deployed heavy police presence in Muslim-dominated areas and even organised door-to-door visits ostensibly to check on miscreants but, in effect, threatening voters not to come to vote at all. While this was going on the ground, the BJP had cobbled together its caste-based alliance by successfully wooing Om Prakash Rahbar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and the NISHAD party led by Sanjay Nishad. These two small parties claim to have a big following along two Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, Rajbhars and Nishads, that have a significant presence in Eastern UP. The BJP candidate himself was Dara Singh Chauhan, an OBC leader who had left BJP and defected to SP in 2022, won the Ghosi seat and then resigned again to defect back to BJP.
Ghosi was a key test of the strategy being hammered out by the BJP in preparation for the upcoming general election in 2024. This strategy banks on garnering the support of non-Yadav OBCs among other aspects. Such efforts have become all the more necessary for the BJP in Eastern UP because its performance is on the downslide in this vast densely populated region. After sweeping the polls in the 2014 general elections and 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP lost eight Lok Sabha seats in the region in the 2019 election. Then, in the 2022 Assembly polls, it again did badly in some of the key Eastern UP districts including Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur, Ambedkar Nagar, Jaunpur, etc.
It mistakenly thought that getting the OBC leaders and their parties back in its fold would compensate for this loss. It also, again mistakenly, thought that dalits and upper castes voters would continue to support it. All these calculations, however, were dramatically upended in the Ghosi bypoll. The Bahujan Samaj Party had declared that its supporters – mainly from the Jatav sub-caste – would either not vote or vote for NOTA. However, this doesn’t appeared to have happened with NOTA votes at a measly 1,725. They seem to have voted for the SP candidate. Similarly, a section of upper caste voters too shifted to SP, helped along by the fact that the candidate was an upper caste.
But the big lesson that emerges from Ghosi is that people were NOT voting according to conventional calculations. Rahbars and Nishads/Mallahs did not switch to BJP just because their so-called leaders had joined that camp. Dalits did not go with the BJP. Upper castes too split. In short, there is a bigger, stronger factor working against the BJP. What is that?
It is the performance of the BJP. The double-engine state of UP led by Yogi Adityanath is often praised by PM Modi for its achievements. Yet, the combined policies of the central government and the state government have created a strong sense of disillusionment. Inflation, unemployment, farmers’ failing economics, police oppression, upper caste atrocities against dalits, deteriorating law and order – all these have created a burgeoning resentment which spilled out in the Ghosi bypolls. In the process, it has destroyed both parts of BJP’s electoral strategy – the use of coercion to keep away Muslim voters as also the caste equation as a route to victory. The unity of opposition parties, represented by the INDIA alliance, was also an important factor. The fulcrum was SP but there was full support from Congress and the Left parties.
Uttarakhand and Tripura – Intimidation
BJP won its three seats in these two states. In Bageshwar seat of Uttarakhand, BJP had fielded Parwati Dass, whose husband was the sitting MLA when he passed away necessitating the by-election. So, there was a sympathy factor working. But besides that, under the supervision of Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and his ministers who reportedly camped in the area for a fortnight, Congress supporters and other activists came under immense pressure. Meetings were not allowed, fines were imposed, and all manner of obstructions were created for those opposing the BJP. This has been detailed in a report by independent senior journalist Rashme Sehgal, elsewhere in NewsClick. The Congress, it would appear, was not able to withstand this pressure and suffered a defeat though only by 2,045 votes.
A similar but intensely more magnified strategy ensured BJP’s victory in two seats in Tripura. One of these was previously held by BJP itself while the other was earlier with CPI(M). According to a memorandum submitted by the CPI(M) to the Chief Electoral Officer of Tripura, a large number of “BJP miscreants” were allowed to occupy areas around polling booths September 3 night onwards. On polling day, these elements threatened and intimidated opposition party voters, according to the memorandum. The CPI(M) alleged: “In Mohanbhog area of 23-Dhanpur AC, one Minister namely Sri Bikash Debbarma physically led the terrorization drive today. Sri Bikash Debbarma, Minister instigated the BJP followers accompanying him to attack on Jayanta Debbarma, a TYF leader at Mohanbhog who had to be treated in GB Pant Hospital, Agartala”.
According to the memorandum, only 16 CPI(M) polling agents in 20-Boxanagar AC and 19 in 23-Dhanpur AC could manage to attend the respective polling booths. But most of them were forcibly driven out of the polling booths by the miscreants mobilised by the BJP. The results indicate these events – in Boxanagar, while the BJP candidate got 34,146 votes, the CPI(M) candidate got only 3,909 votes in all. While it is possible that BJP might have won the seat in any case, the very low polling in favour of the CPI(M) candidate creates a suspicion that it was not a fair election. In the last elections, held just a few months ago, the CPI(M) had got 19,404 votes in Boxanagar and won the seat.
In Kerala, the BJP candidate ended up winning only 6,558 votes, which is 5% of the votes polled. The performance was worse than last time. In Jharkhand’s Dumri seat, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) candidate, representing the INDIA alliance, defeated the BJP supported candidate of All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) party by 17,153 votes. And in West Bengal’s Dhupguri, Trinamool Congress’ candidate beat BJP aspirant by 4309 votes.
While it is not the argument here that these results show that BJP will lose the coming battles in States or Lok Sabha, what merits serious consideration is that despite all the efforts of the BJP and PM Modi to harness every possible weapon to win the coming elections, the people’s way of thinking is different. Using the G-20 events or various foreign trips, announcing various concessions like the cut in LPG cylinder prices, diversionary debates about India vs Bharat or “One Nation One Election”, and all the organisational efforts to deploy their ‘karyakartas’ to reach out to people – all this doesn’t seem to have ensured a victory in these small elections. The Opposition needs to build its support around the issues that are troubling the people devastated by economic distress and disillusionment. The people are ready, but the opposition needs to step up.
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