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The BJP’s By-election Debacle


In the aftermath of the BJP’s massive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party’s dismal performance in the initial round of the Assembly by-elections held recently in four states came as a surprise to many. The NDA won only 8 of the 18 seats for which the elections were held in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab. More recently, with the results of the subsequent round of the by-polls in UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Assam and Bengal, the overall performance of the NDA appears to have taken a severe blow. The vote was heavily divided, with the BJP winning only 13 out of the 33 Assembly seats in these four states, SP winning 8 seats and Congress tried to catch up with its 7 seats. While UP and Rajasthan proved to be the BJP’s direct downfall, Gujarat was its Achilles heel this time.

The fact that this debacle occurred just a few months after the people’s sweeping democratic ‘verdict’ in the 2014 General Election gives room to different kinds of analyses. Many have not wasted time in predicting an early demise of the ‘Modi wave’ and a return to the status quo. Large sections of the media commentaries have reached the consensus that the BJP’s heavily polarizing communal campaign in UP, centered around issues like ‘Love Jihad’ and conversions, failed to hold sway over an electorate that seeks the fulfillment of their basic socio-economic needs through greater development and welfare. This, they argue, has been coupled with the weak organizational consolidation of the party; the absence of the personality cults of Modi and Amit Shah left the weak grassroots outreach of the party exposed and led to its debacle. This was also seen to be supplemented by the party’s UP unit’s overconfidence that alienated many MPs, led to last-minute filing of the nominations and a failure to mobilize the party cadre. Political commentators also predict that the political unity of the so-called ‘secular forces’ may present a very real threat to the BJP, as was shown by the fact that a large part of BSP’s (which had not contested these elections) vote-share went to SP instead of BJP, as also the working of the RJD-JD(U) alliance in Bihar.

The overarching verdict of the political commentators is a common one: The voters have rejected the politics of communal mobilization that the BJP was engaged in, in favour of developmental and welfare concerns. The only thing that is common in all these explanations is the BJP criticism and bashing.

This is an inconsistent explanation due to various reasons:

First, if indeed the rural and semi-urban electorate in states like UP had rejected the politics of division based on community identity in favour of development, then why would they elect a party like the Samajwadi Party (SP) which was created and has survived solely through such politics? SP’s recent track record in governance and development has been far worse than any of the other major regional parties in the North.

Second, how is it that a party like the BJP which claimed a massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections has seen a major reversal in its fortunes just three months later?
And if BJP did play the communal card then why did it not get majority seats in UP?
Instead of explaining these inconsistencies, the media has simply woven a number-game rhetoric around the dramatic theme of the rise and fall of the BJP. What is needed is a sounder explanation for the by-poll inconsistencies. Instead of assuming that a party’s rise and demise fluctuates with the swinging ‘national mood’, we need to note two issues:

First, the public always has a short memory.
Second, the ‘public’, when it is not activated by the infrequent awakening of its collective consciousness, is itself a subject, rather than the driver, of politics. Thus, on an everyday basis, it is shaped less by the issues and more by the manner in which those issues are presented to it. Therefore, the mandate delivered by the public on issues in the ordinary course of public life is less of a consolidated democratic verdict. A democratic verdict is the one that furthers the consolidation of the spirit based on unity over substantive issues and in response to contrary impetus.

The result that we have seen in the by-elections has been a product, not of people’s unified democratic backlash against what the BJP stands for, but of the party’s organizational weakness and mismanagement. The fact that the BJP’s campaign in UP perpetrated propaganda based on communal mobilization was, in fact, a part of this organizational weakness rather than a separate ideological issue. On the part of the party’s state-level leadership, it represented a casual dismissal of the electorate, as the party failed to reach out to the people and its cadre, irrespective of whether or not the party was engaged in cultural mobilization.

The by-elections, by any stretch, do not spell the demise of the BJP or indeed, Modi. However, the issues that the BJP’s defeat raises are symptomatic of a larger challenge. While the fractured by-elections results may not represent a radically democratic mandate, the Lok Sabha elections definitely did. That mandate was based on the collective expectation that the BJP would become a trigger for promoting a different kind of system and society. What is making the people restive is that there no movement towards such a system. The question is not of BJP’s organization, agenda, achievements and setbacks. These are micro issues that inevitably arise in the course of any government. In fact, the current government has performed reasonably well on these various indicators. We have seen better economic growth, lower inflation, progressive legislation and strong foreign policy, since the new government came to power.

Yet there is discontent. To think that the reason for this discontent lies in the fact that other ‘secular’ parties have been able to unite successfully against Modi is misplaced. Rather, the reason lies in the fact that the BJP is not seen to be moving in as radical a direction as was expected. There has been no move towards systemic overhaul and no deeper change at the cultural level. What we have had in the last three months is a moderate developmental government – passing good legislation and trying to balance electoral and growth commitments – whose actions have been largely in continuity with those of the Congress. There may be better governance and development, but the change that everyone has been waiting to see has not been felt.

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