No BJP president is powerful when the party is in power. Amit Shah is completely dependent on Narendra Modi's clout. He has a protective political immunity and everyone knows its source, says Bharat Bhushan
Altogether too much has been read into the reverses suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the by-elections in three crucial states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, where it lost 13 out of the 24 state assembly seats that it had held. Coming as they did after somewhat similar defeats in the assembly by-elections in Uttarakhand, Bihar, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, these electoral losses have been seen as an indication of voters turning away from the politics of communal polarisation, declining appeal of Narendra Modi and the weakening of his favoured apparatchik, party president Amit Shah. A detailed analysis suggests that this conclusion may be far-fetched.
In UP, the atmosphere was heated up through deliberate incidents of communal violence and by extremely provocative statements by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders like Adityanath. Improbable ideas of so-called "love jihad" were spun out, suggesting that Muslim youngsters were being incentivised to elope with Hindu girls. Even the normally sober Maneka Gandhi joined in by fanning emotions over beef exports, calling it "pink jihad".
These statements, however, contributed more to Muslim consolidation behind the Samajwadi Party, than of the Hindu vote with the BJP. Western UP, which saw more than 250 cases of communal violence in the first 71 days of the Modi government, had the SP wresting the Thakurdwara seat from the BJP by fielding a Muslim candidate. This is the area in Moradabad where Hindus and Muslims had clashed over a loudspeaker in a temple. In Saharanpur Nagar constituency - with its 40 per cent Muslim electorate -- the communal polarisation helped both the BJP, which won, and the SP, which came a close second up from fourth position in the 2012 assembly election.
In the Terai region, which saw 29 communal clashes since Modi came to power, the SP wrested the two seats from the BJP. In Central UP, with 43 communal incidents, the BJP was able to retain the Lucknow East seat largely because the Shias supported veteran local BJP leader Lalji Tandon's son Ashutosh Tandon. In Bundelkhand, with six communal incidents and Eastern UP with 16 incidents in the same period, the SP wrested all four by-election seats from the BJP and its ally, the Apna Dal. The SP win in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha by-election was predictable since it is Mulayam Singh Yadav's family seat.
The absence of the Bahujan Samaj Party from the contest helped consolidate Muslims behind the SP and may have also possibly brought it some Dalit votes. However, with some of the most retrograde Muslim leaders in its ranks, the SP cannot be termed secular.
It has been argued that had the BJP projected a development plank in UP rather than its communal face, its performance might have been better. But without a majority in the state assembly and a government in Lucknow, its promises would not be credible. So, it chose communalisation instead.
In Rajasthan, the Congress victory in three out of four seats is explained by internal factionalism in the BJP. There are elements in the party who want to replace Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje with state party president Om Mathur. Having overseen two assembly elections as general secretary in-charge of the BJP in Gujarat during Modi's tenure, Mathur is close to him.
Today, Raje is not being allowed to expand her 11-member council of ministers, which is the smallest for any state and less than the constitutionally mandated strength despite a two-thirds majority in the state assembly. Nor has she been able to sack party MP Sanwar Lal Jat as her water resources minister. He had resigned from his Nasirabad assembly seat, is a Lok Sabha MP but is still a minister in Rajasthan. The Nasirabad seat went to the Congress in the by-poll.
Raje also refused to heed the advice of Jat, Santosh Ahlawat and Bahadur Singh Koli on their replacements, when they vacated the Nasirabad, Surajgarh and Weir assembly seats, respectively, to contest the national elections. It is believed that the local MPs actively worked against Raje's candidates. The only candidate of Raje who managed a win stood from Kota South, which is in her traditional area of influence. In Rajasthan, too, the Congress victory, therefore, was a circumstantial one and not a vote for secularism.
In Gujarat, the three seats that the Congress wrested from the BJP out of nine in the by-polls, is certainly a morale booster for the party. However, there is little to suggest that this represents disenchantment with Modi or the beginning of the BJP's decline in Gujarat. It may represent nothing more than its overconfidence and euphoria arising from the Lok Sabha sweep of all the 26 seats in the state.
It cannot be anybody's case that these by-election results presage what will happen in the 2019 general elections or in the impending state Assembly elections. Therefore, this is neither the beginning of the decline of Modi and Shah nor the dawning of a secular summer just yet. Modi remains strong at the Centre and continues to accrue strength to himself. There are no factions opposed to him either within the Cabinet or the party who stand to gain by blaming him for the by-election results.
Shah's power was always derived directly from Modi. Nobody is questioning him over the by-poll defeat nor is there any exercise to chastise him. The lowest point of Shah's presidency is yet to come.
In any case, no BJP president is powerful when the party is in power. When there is a BJP prime minister in New Delhi, the party is either run by nobodies such as Jana Krishnamurthy, Bangaru Laxman and Venkaiah Naidu or by those who are reduced to insignificance like Kushabhau Thakre. Out on bail on three murder charges, Shah is completely dependent on Modi's clout. He has a protective political immunity and everyone knows its source.
Ground realities, therefore, suggest that there is little reason to term the by-election results a victory for secularism and a defeat for hate-politics.
Image: A supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party wears a headgear with badges of louts, the party's leader, and badges of PM Narendra Modi, outside the party headquarters in New Delhi. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters