The outcomes of assembly by-elections in India tend to favour the party in office. The six bypoll results announced on Tuesday have underlined this trend, with the Congress winning in Kerala and Meghalaya, the CPM in Tripura, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. But a closer reading of the results reveals that the BJP has greater reason to be happy than others. It fought off the Vyapam shadow to retain the seat in MP. What may, however, be even more satisfying for the party is its performance in Kerala and Tripura. In Tripura, it surged ahead of the Congress, the main opposition, to finish second behind the CPM in the two constituencies that went to polls. And in Aruvikkara in Kerala, its voteshare increased fivefold, leading to the defeat of the CPM candidate.
The Kerala numbers suggest an ascendant BJP. The party’s popular leader O. Rajagopal bagged 24 per cent of the votes (34,000-plus votes) in a seat in Thiruvananthapuram district that gave the party a mere 7,000 votes in the 2011 assembly election. A similar picture had emerged in a by-election in 2012 in a neighbouring assembly constituency, Neyyattinkara. The party candidate polled over 30,000 votes, as against 6,700 in 2011. In the 2014 general elections, the party led in four of the seven segments in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat and its candidate finished ahead of the Left nominee. The catch in the story, however, is that the BJP’s candidate in all these elections was Rajagopal, a soft-spoken octogenarian who has winningly fought many a losing battle for his party. Rajagopal’s personal popularity results in a sharp rise in votes for the BJP, whenever and wherever he is the candidate. Besides, Thiruvananthapuram is one seat in Kerala where the BJP has built a strong base over the years, clocking impressive numbers in Lok Sabha elections since 1984.
Though the party seems to have a 10 per cent vote in the state, an electoral win in Kerala may continue to be elusive for the BJP. Politics in Kerala revolves around two broad-based fronts, one led by the Congress, the other by the CPM. Neither of them can accommodate the BJP for obvious reasons. Majoritarian politics has little scope in Kerala, where Muslims and Christians together constitute 45 per cent of the population. The BJP’s attempts to consolidate the Hindu vote through caste-based organisations have so far had limited success. Unless the BJP rebrands itself as a party of governance in Kerala, it is unlikely to make greater headway in the state.