Is a trickle becoming a flood? Earlier this year, the defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-elections — won by the party by a margin of over 300,000 votes each in the 2014 general elections — was dismissed as an aberration, an upset achieved by an artificially unified Opposition. The BJP said airily that unity of parties with conflicting interests was transactional and could not last. Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated this at Baghpat earlier this week on the eve of the Kairana election, warning voters that enemies of the BJP were coming together for selfish ends. But this argument seems to have had few takers. In 2014, the BJP had won Kairana by a margin of over 200,000 votes. It lost the seat by around 45,000 votes yesterday. It also lost the Nurpur Assembly seat to the Samajwadi Party. This, despite being in government.
It is not just Uttar Pradesh. The party lost the Bhandara-Gondia constituency in Maharashtra after its own sitting MP quit the BJP following public criticism of Mr Modi. The BJP’s humiliation can only have deepened by the fact that it has had to cede the seat to the Nationalist Congress Party, currently only a bit player in the politics of the state. Despite being in power in Jharkhand, the BJP could not win the Silli and Gomiya Assembly seats because the entire Opposition supported the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which retained both.
But even in constituencies where the Opposition was not unified, the BJP’s performance has been below par. In Chengannur, Kerala, a state where the BJP is making a determined bid to mark its presence, it stayed a distant third though opposition coalitions challenged each other. Its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), lost the Shahkot Assembly constituency to the Congress even though no opposition unity was in evidence. The only good news for the ruling party came from the east. In the Maheshtala Assembly constituency in West Bengal, the BJP displaced the CPI-M to come in at second place. It has formed an alliance with the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and won the Nagaland seat. It also managed to defeat the Shiv Sena to win Palghar in Maharashtra, driving another nail in the coffin of relations with its most fractious alliance partner.
After the latest round of by-polls, warning bells ought to begin ringing in the BJP headquarters, which has clearly been caught unawares by the segueing of opposition arithmetic into winning chemistry. That is not good news for the party in the run-up to the 2019 elections. True, contradictions in the Opposition abound. Those working in the field in Kairana noted that the Congress had been somnolent throughout the campaign. No Congress leader of any standing campaigned for the NCP in Bhandara-Gondia and the justification was that the Congress does not go where it is not invited. It is also uncertain whether the Opposition comprising political parties that are bitter rivals in several states can really stay together. But while Mr Narendra Modi’s popularity and credibility remain high, people are beginning to notice the sudden wealth of local BJP cadres, their swagger and their challenging mien. In India, more than one election has proved that seemingly popular leaders can be unseated in days by a wave of sympathy for the underdog.