On his part, Yogi Adityanath must note that good governance alone is no replacement for caste arithmetic.
For a party which was gung-ho after its success in assembly elections in the north-eastern states just a week back, the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha byelection results have come as a severe jolt. That these two seats were vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, has added insult to Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) injury. The significance of these bypoll results lies in the fact that for BJP to win in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it cannot afford to lose any ground in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.
The two election results in a span of one week, if taken together with Gujarat assembly results, make it clear that BJP is doing well in states where it is challenging ruling dispensations but conceding some ground to opposition where it is already saddled in power. Viewed as larger messages from electorate, the occasional setbacks so far, however, have been more in the nature of course correction warnings rather than outright anger against the party. With Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) also doing well in Araria Lok Sabha bypoll, we are going to see frenzied efforts towards opposition unity. The results have come as big relief to Akhilesh Yadav whose stock in the opposition camp is bound to rise, much to the detriment of Mayawati in the long run.
More than victories, it is defeat at electoral hustings which prompts political pundits to project the outcome in line with their political views and prejudices. It is quite expected, therefore, that ‘secular’ commentators will see the results as a victory for secularism, and the Hindutva lobby of BJP, as a result of inadequacy on the part of their government to work on core issues. While it is true that apathy and disinterest of the voters, as reflected in the poor turnout, have affected the BJP, there are other takeways from these results. Rural distress has heightened cynicism and middle class enthusiasm for BJP is nowhere close to 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his part, has done little to address this dissatisfaction. While the middle class is appreciative of Modi government's agenda and intents, it also feels that they are the ones being squeezed the most.
That the turnout in these polls was about 33 to 40 per cent lower than 2014 shows the complacency in organisation. It’s a telling comment that the total votes polled between Samajwadi Party and BJP in Phulpur is just a little more than Keshav Prasad Maurya's victory margin in 2014.
An important feature of the bypoll results is the weakening of Hindu consolidation in favour of BJP. Even after Ateeq Ahmed having polled 36,000 votes, BJP lost Phulpur by a margin of 57,000.
The most significant messages however from these bypoll results are that it is far easier to win elections riding anti-incumbency and that good governance alone is no replacement for caste arithmetic.
Some over-enthusiastic commentators have begun to compare these bypoll results with the Azamgarh bypoll result in 1978 when Congress candidate Mohsina Kidwai trounced Janata Party's Rambachan Yadav with a huge margin, signalling the revival of Congress fortunes just after a year of being routed out of power. Not only are the margins of these two victories not so decisive, the burden of maintaining opposition unity lies with non-BJP parties. It must also be remebered that BJP had won Phulpur for the first time in history and that Adityanath himself barely managed to win Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat by 7,000 votes in 1999. There is no doubt whatsoever that BJP would have won both the seats if SP and Bahujan Samaj Party were contesting the elections separately.
A year is a long time in politics. With a politically astute Modi-Shah duo ready to learn their lessons, 2019 is very much an open game. However, in face of a united opposition, BJP will not only need diverse caste representation at the organisation and the candidate level, but vigorous and sustained outreach to Other Backward Class and Scheduled Caste communities. On his part, Yogi Adityanath needs to balance political pragmatism with his good governance.