There are two major takeaways from the by-election results. One, a majority or Indians and Hindus have reasserted their secular credentials. The second, equally momentous, is the sure-footedness and quick response time of the Indian electorate, says Subir Roy.
The severe setback that the Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered in by-elections to over half a dozen state assemblies (it made a single gain each in West Bengal and Assam) between three and five months after a dramatic victory in the general elections calls for intensive decoding. Done correctly, this can yield valuable insights into how the mind of the Indian electorate is working today.
First, there has been no major setback for the BJP, now at the helm of national affairs, in the last few months. So the results cannot be a backlash against something that had taken place. On the contrary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's connection with the electorate, apparent from the reception to his Independence Day and Teachers' Day speeches, seems to be quite intact. True, inflation, which always moves voters, is still running unconscionably high. But it is doubtful if people have formed a final verdict on the BJP government's ability to tackle it in less than six months and are meting out punishment for it.
BJP leaders have sought to distance Modi from the defeats by pointing out that he did not personally campaign and asserted that his personal popularity remains intact. In fact, after the verdicts came, party men have themselves pointed to the poor state of the party in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in particular, demotivated by infighting and disaffection over distribution of tickets. The point is that it cannot be a very good omen for the future of the party if it sinks without hand-holding from Modi, particularly when it has already pushed itself into the background while projecting him as the prime ministerial candidate.
So what went wrong for the BJP -- or what did the opposition get right? In Bihar and UP it is arithmetic. The BJP swept UP and Bihar in the parliamentary elections in good part because of multi-cornered contests splitting voters. Seeing this, sworn enemies Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar joined forces in Bihar, to the accompaniment of mild ridicule not just from the BJP but the media, too. Surely, the voter would see through this marriage of convenience. The voter saw it and loved it.
The popular vote of the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress combine ratcheted up 4.6 per cent and that of the BJP fell sharply by eight per cent! A similar phenomenon was seen in UP where Mayawati kept her Bahujan Samaj Party, which had secured 19.6 per cent of the popular vote in the Lok Sabha elections, out of the by-elections. Thus, a good part of the Dalit vote went by default to the Samajwadi Party. A similar polarisation and consolidation in favour of the Congress took place in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
There is an even greater and, in fact, historic significance in the UP vote. Modi's lieutenant, Amit Shah, had relocated to UP from before the parliamentary elections to oversee the tone, tenor and management of the elections there. For the assembly by-elections, the BJP ran a brazenly communal and divisive campaign, making an enormous issue of ‘love jihad’ and getting its member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath to deliver a string of hate speeches. The aim was to unite the traditionally splintered Hindu vote in favour of the BJP. And the voter slapped it in the face and gave the Samajwadi Party, discredited for its incompetent rule of UP, a massive leg-up.
The three general elections -- 1998, 1999 and 2014 -- in which the BJP has emerged upfront have seen an accretion to its popular base beyond a core section of upper-caste Hindus. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made it a broad-based, centrist party that underplayed the Hindutva agenda. For the parliamentary elections, Modi concentrated on Congress misrule and promised development. Emboldened by the victory, Modi and the BJP went ahead flying the Hindutva jhanda high for the assembly by-elections. And we have seen how the electorate has responded to this.
There are two major takeaways from the by-election results. One, a majority or Indians and Hindus have reasserted their secular credentials. So Modi has had to shift course and certify the patriotism of Indian Muslims just before leaving for the United States, for the benefit of both the Indian and American audience.
The second, equally momentous, is the sure-footedness and quick response time of the Indian electorate. Having sent one signal in April, it decided to send a fresh corrective signal in July to September. What is more -- and this is pure conjecture -- the electorate may have realised that the BJP had secured a massive mandate by default, courtesy vote-splitting. So in the by-elections it went ahead and undid a part of the mandate. If it is presumptuous to read the mind of the Indian voter beyond a point -- but even if we cannot -- then she at least gets credit for being highly inscrutable.
Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters.