Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
The signs which were available about the decline in the influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat's rural areas during the state assembly elections have been substantiated by the drubbing, which the BJP has received at the Congress's hands in the byelections in Rajasthan, where the saffron party is in power.
Earlier, the Congress had shown that it might well be on the comeback trail by its success in the Chitrakoot assembly byelection in another BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh. In all these byelections, it was not so much the Congress's victory which was noteworthy as the impressive margins of its success.
Although it is too early to say whether these election trends point to an ebbing of the saffron tide after the overwhelming nature of the wave in 2014 and again in Uttar Pradesh last year, there is little doubt that the BJP has reasons to be concerned.
In fact, the emphasis placed on the rural areas in the latest budget is an indication that the party has taken its setbacks in the Gujarat countryside seriously and is trying to make amends by reaching out to the vulnerable sections.
The proposed health insurance cover for 500 million, 40 per cent of the population, is not unlike the previous government's food security programme for 67 per cent of the people.
More than what happened in Gujarat, where at least the urbanites stood behind the BJP, what the Rajasthan outcome has shown is that all the sections have voted against the ruling party.
The widespread nature of the discontent underlines a deep and extensive popular unhappiness with governance although a minister has sought to explain the party's defeats by referring to the grievances of the Rajputs over the "Padmaavat" film.
But that can only be one of the reasons. What must have also undermined the BJP's prospects is the violence unleashed by either cow vigilantes or individuals railing against the minorities.
While the lawlessness of the gau rakshaks was exemplified by the lynching of a Muslim cattle trader although he was carrying the required permits for his trade, the psychopathic wrath of anti-Muslim elements was evident in the killing of a migrant labourer from West Bengal.
Both these heinous crimes were filmed and repeatedly shown on television, but while the murderers of the cattle trader, Pehlu Khan, have gone scot-free because of the inability of the police to provide credible evidence although the lynching took place in broad daylight in front of cameras, at least the killer of Afrazul Khan, the migrant labourer, has been arrested.
While any other government would have expressed deep shock and dismay over the horrific incidents, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan has largely remained unperturbed, a trait of indifference to near-anarchic conditions demonstrated by several other BJP-led governments as well such as in Haryana.
What cannot but be worrying for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo is that the virtually unchecked violence of saffron groups like the gau rakshaks or the opponents of love jihad is beginning to take its toll on the BJP's electoral fortunes, notwithstanding all the talk about "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas" or development for all.
The popular disquiet about the rampaging mobs might have been assuaged if prompt and effective police action was taken and the criminals were put behind bars. But if the absence of such deterrent steps is proving costly for the BJP, the reason is that it is not only the Muslims -- or the Christians who have also been targeted by Hindutva outfits in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh -- who are feeling insecure, as then Vice President Hamid Ansari pointed out, but the ordinary citizens are also distressed by the prevailing intolerance and intimidation.
Moreover, this atmosphere has been building up virtually from the time the BJP assumed power at the Centre and in several states as was highlighted by the return of national awards by a number of luminaries in the last two years in protest against the deteriorating situation. A recent open letter written by retired bureaucrats also referred to the "deeply disquieting trends" in the public sphere.
It is obvious that unless the governments at the Centre and in the states run by the BJP deal firmly with such rowdy elements, the party's hope of a repeat run of the last general election in 2019 and even improving on its tally, as Amit Shah hopes, will not be fulfilled.
As is not uncommon in India, it is the failure of governments which usually leads to their fall rather than any efforts of the opposition. This tendency is again evident in Rajasthan where the Congress had just to wait in the wings to reap the electoral benefits of its opponent's missteps.
After the humiliating setback in 2014, the Congress is showing signs of revival. But it will be making a mistake if it hopes to make electoral gains solely on the basis of the BJP's inability or unwillingness to control its militant followers.