Bypolls do not inevitably portend larger electoral trends, their outcomes are most often rooted in local issues and factors. Having said that, the scorecard for the bypolls held in 18 assembly constituencies across four states would appear to provide the beleaguered opposition some reason for cheer. The Congress and its allies have won 10 of the 18 seats while the BJP has lost seats it held in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The Congress appears to have regained some lost ground in Karnataka, where it had won just nine of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general election. It also wrested a seat from the BJP in Madhya Pradesh while retaining Patiala in Punjab. Coming soon after the 3-0 sweep in the Uttarakhand by-polls, Monday’s tally could be consolation for a party that has shown few signs of life, much less a fightback, since its Lok Sabha rout.
The big story of these bypolls was Bihar. Here, a “maha gathbandhan” or grand alliance was put together between Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress to fight the common enemy, the BJP. That the BJP won only four of the 10 seats — down from six in 2010 with the JD(U) as ally and not long after its Lok Sabha sweep — will undoubtedly be read by the promoters of the “secular” alliance as indicating that, helped by caste arithmetic, it is workable, if not formidable.
But the real test for the grand alliance begins now. Crucial questions, about its leadership and agenda, that could be evaded or relegated in the bypolls, are now likely to come to the fore. During the bypoll campaign, Lalu had arrogated to himself the role of big brother to Nitish, an unsubtle hint that the RJD would seek to dominate the JD(U). That the RJD won three of the four seats it contested and with reasonable margins — while the JD(U) lost two of its four — could embolden Lalu to raise the pitch. The alliance will also have to find a way to address the dissonance in the agendas of its lead players. While Lalu and Nitish make much of their common ideological ancestry, it is no secret that the “social justice” of Nitish raj was imbued with a promise of good governance, while Lalu is the “backward caste messiah” who was also seen to preside over “jungle raj” that oppressed the poor and backward the most. Should it hold, the grand alliance will need to convince the voter that it has a shared agenda and vision that goes beyond merely keeping the BJP out of office.