If the BJP since 2014 has changed the ways in which elections are fought in this country, it has also transformed the ways in which they are read — every election matters, from Panchayat to Lok Sabha, no outcome is too small or less significant. In this backdrop, the BJP has suffered a striking loss and the Opposition has won an eyecatching victory in the bypolls in UP and Bihar. The BJP’s winning streak that seemed rejuvenated in the Northeast after the setback in Rajasthan, has hit a wall in, picturesquely, Gorakhpur, a party bastion for nearly three decades and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s constituency which has elected him MP for five successive Lok Sabha terms. But it is not just the BJP’s extraordinary focus on the electoral arena that invests these latest poll verdicts with importance. The results from Gorakhpur and Phulpur — wrested by the SP-BSP alliance from the BJP — and from Araria, Jehanabad and Bhabua in Bihar — where the RJD held on to its seats despite Nitish returning the JD(U) to its alliance with the BJP and Lalu Prasad being sent to jail — are resonant also because these had become locales of ferment and realignment in the politics of the Opposition.
In UP, the BJP may seek to cast the SP-BSP win only in terms of “sameekaran (caste equations)” and “vote transfer”, but it seems clear that the party has been caught unawares by the segueing of Opposition arithmetic into winning chemistry. The BJP will have to rewind, not just to that moment barely a week before polling when Mayawati exhorted BSP cadres to support the candidate best placed to defeat the BJP (read SP), but further back, to reflect on its year in power in a state it won so handsomely. Could it be that even as it could not make headway in delivering on substantive promises, most notably, jobs, the Yogi Adityanath government deepened faultlines and sparked caste and religious resentments that subdued the enthusiasms of its own supporters while making a sizeable section of voters more amenable to the appeal of an Opposition less fragmented? Is the BJP frittering away the goodwill that seemed to transcend caste if not religious divisions, and which helped it sweep UP in 2014 and then again in 2017? The BJP, at the state and at the Centre, since both the 2014 and 2017 polls were fought in the name of Narendra Modi, cannot avoid these questions after Gorakhpur.
For the Opposition, these by-poll results may have shown the road ahead, but there is a long way to go. In Gorakhpur, for instance, the BSP was able to carry its votes into the SP, but the SP to BSP trajectory may not be as smooth and that has long stood in the way of a formal SP-BSP pre-poll alliance that brings under one political umbrella the Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. If Gorakhpur and Phulpur show the potential and possibilities of such an alliance, there is no clarity yet that it can travel beyond those constituencies’ limits.