The message from the results of the by-elections is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative for the ruling BJP or the opposition parties considered separately. But it is bad news for the country. Since there is a pattern of losses in Uttar Pradesh by-polls, Kairana can no longer be attributed to local factors, which all the previous by-poll losses were by a not-so-embarrassed ruling party. Farmer distress, especially of those cultivating sugarcane, has been a big determinant in western Uttar Pradesh. That the sugar mill workers would now have the advantage of DBT is a message that reached them very late (during the last leg of the campaign when Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation a twin expressway). Besides, the farmers have also not yet recovered from the shock of demonetisation, as all their transactions used to be in cash until November 2016, after which their buyers’ note handicap crippled the farm economy. Then there was the loyalty of Jats to the Lok Dal, where the party workers faithful to Ajit Singh had been fuming since his ouster from Lutyen’s Delhi where he had been overstaying. Further, a feudal society where chieftains throw their weight around with entourages of henchmen has been smarting from the strictness of Yogi Adityanath’s police while a large chunk of the younger generation habituated to passing exams by cheating has found the going tough. The absence of legal help for the Hindu/Jat victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots has led to alienation. Finally, the Muslims added heft to the Jat clout and the simple arithmetic of a grand alliance of the SP and BSP outdid the BJP. Yet, the margin of loss is nothing to be ashamed of for the BJP, given so many factors working against it.
In Maharashtra, the constant whining by Uddhav Thackeray has reduced the Shiv Sena to a big bore, much as the Hindutva section of the BJP’s dedicated voters have been peeved with Devendra Fadnavis’s multiculturalism. The farmers of the State are now less upset with the NCP for the irrigation scandal while the Congress had already lost too many faces to corruption while it was in power. The relatively advanced economy of this State has rewarded the measures to ease businesses taken by the local government. And yet, the BJP has still not been able to turn Maharashtra into its citadel — show the mix of a win in Palghar and a loss in Gondia-Bhandara. Among the Assembly by-poll results, the INC’s win in Karnataka does not come as much of a surprise, as the Rajarajeshwari Nagar constituency has been its fortress for long. As such, the INC had got the highest vote share in the recently concluded State election. In other States, the electorates have cast their votes traditionally, supporting the strongest party in a given region: CPI(M)-led LDF in Chengannur, Kerala; RJD in Jokihat, Bihar; SP-BSP-INC alliance in Noorpur, Uttar Pradesh; INC in Shahkot, Punjab; BJP in Tharali, Uttarakhand; JMM in Silli and Gomia, Jharkhand; TMC in Maheshtala, West Bengal and INC in Ampati, Meghalaya. INC’s win in Palus Kadegaon, Maharashtra, is of less import as its candidate won uncontested.
An old debate has got a fresh lease of life in the Sangh Parivar following the mixed results. The political grouping that is still dominated by north Indians is more shaken by the result of the Kairana by-poll than it is satisfied with the Palghar one. The disappointed are blaming Modi’s agenda of vikas for the defeat — ignoring the fact that the overall population of RSS swayamsevaks is not enough to make the BJP win any election if they were to be the only group to vote for the party. For all their efforts, Hindus remain a house divided along the lines of a narrower identity of caste. For the salaried middle class, which votes rising above this pettiness, no change in their lives has been palpable — so incremental the nature of reforms by the Modi regime has been. The BJP will be able to garner more than 50% of votes to beat any mahagathbandhan only if a combination of an emotive issue and free-market economics is employed. With Modi swearing upon Ram Manohar Lohia and Jaiprakash Narayan no less than an SP, RJD or JD(U), the current dispensation is at best implementing UPA-era programmes at a faster pace, the benefits of which will accrue in a decade or so for the ordinary citizen — inadequate to make him vote for the BJP. If the Sangh-bred ruling party ministers loathe foreign ideas — never mind the irony that socialism is entirely a foreign idea — they may pick C Rajagopalachari instead of a Milton Friedman or Ludwig von Mises. Lohiaite ‘development’ is singularly responsible for the common public refrain these days that nothing has changed in the past four years. Since the failure of ‘Make in India’, Modi’s Keynesian pumping of public funds into the market has not resulted in newer and richer companies who could end the scarcity of jobs. The nation once again witnesses people’s agitations for government jobs as though we were still living in Indira Gandhi’s India.
While the opposition has struck the formula to end the invincibility of Modi, it is a cause for concern individually for the constituents of the grand alliance. The oldest party in the country is staring at irrelevance in most parts of the country. The top-heavy nature of the alliance would make it unsustainable. Infamous as these parties are, as and when they form a government in the future, an effort will be made to distribute the proceeds of the administration between the heads, but the plethora of claimants would spread the bounty thin. The loot will prove grossly inadequate to fund so many parties. The BJP’s reluctance to be radical in reforms is to blame for pushing the country once again into the hands of these shady characters.