The Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-polls in Uttar Pradesh have thrown up unexpected results, and a string of implications and explanations are being drawn from them. State chief minister Yogi Adityanath says overconfidence led to BJP’s loss.
Former CM and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has called this a victory of alternatives, of social justice, of his party and its supporters. But all these analyses are convenient and subjective. The actual story seems to go far beyond these.
Several conclusions can be drawn from the results.
The first is that this is a major loss for the BJP. For PM Modi and Yogi. For a party that barely a year ago formed the government in the state with a two-thirds majority, and is also ruling the Centre, losing two seats it held before the polls is unusual. Also, Gorakhpur was Adityanath’s parliamentary seat, while Phulpur was Keshav Prasad Maurya’s, who is the state deputy CM. Losses in these seats, hence, assume even greater significance.
The SP and the BSP can draw some relief from this victory, as it has ended a very long spell of electoral drought for them. However, the fact remains that the voters have not chosen the SP-BSP, they have rejected Modi and Yogi. To teach a lesson to the BJP, voters had been waiting for an alternative that could match the saffron party in poll-mathematics. The BSP deciding to back the SP gave people that alternative and they lapped it up.
The BJP will insist that the poll results are not a verdict on Yogi or Modi’s performance. However, the defeat is very much a result of the party’s underperformance, and of internal differences. Modi has been promising voters the moon, but the list of his actual achievements falls far short. The woes of farmers and the youth have increased. Demonetisation and GST have hit hard the job-creators as well as job-seekers.
Yogi has so far managed little more than a spate of encounters. The state is yet to get regular electricity supply, children are dying in hospitals. Pothole-free roads and development for all have proven to be empty slogans.
Modi’s rule is running on promises, Yogi’s on fear. But neither is enough to retain power for long, and the by-polls results have shown that.
The results have also laid bare the infighting within the party. Talking to the press after the defeat, Maurya went so far as to say that the BJP had won Phulpur only once, but Gorakhpur was lost despite having been with the party for decades. The statement betrayed the grudge he has been nursing since the Assembly elections.
The 2017 elections were fought under his stewardship. His name featured prominently in the list of CM hopefuls. But in the end, Adityanath walked away with the spoils of war. Since then, Maurya and Yogi have been running the state government from their own strongholds in their own ways.
People had long whispered that Yogi wanted BJP to lose from Maurya’s seat, as this would have boosted his stature over Maurya. In Gorakhpur, simmering Brahmin-Thakur tensions forced the BJP to pick a Brahmin, Mahendra Pandey, as the state unit chief, and after months of deliberation, a Pandit was declared the Gorakhpur candidate. Adityanath, a Thakur, was not consulted about this, which upset him majorly. This meant that BJP ground workers could not work to their full potential in Phulpur, and Yogi’s Hindu Yuva Vahini did not actively campaign in Gorakhpur.
All of this may well be nothing more than speculation, but such speculations go a long way in shaping public perception, which Yogi and the BJP could not prevent.
Gorakhpur has been Adityanath’s seat, and he is in the town almost every week. So did the state’s chief minister and Gorakhnath’s mahant, after notching a historic victory, fail to see the BJP’s popularity dipping? Did Yogi feel that by fielding a Brahmin candidate against his wishes, the BJP was challenging his dominance as a Khastriya leader? Had the BJP candidate won in Gorakhpur, it would have brought some balance to the upper castes’ battle for supremacy here. But that did not happen, and hence, the BJP’s defeat is bigger than Yogi’s.
The defeat is worrisome also because apart from voters, it shows the discontent among party workers. Grassroot workers have been complaining of neglect for long. Yogi’s style of governance has not gone down well with them. This has meant that the BJP’s cadre strength on the ground has been weakened. If the party does not redress this, it might have to face setbacks in subsequent elections too.
For Modi, the verdict is both good and bad news. Good because the man with aspirations to be his heir has been brought to his knees in his stronghold. The defeat has cut an increasingly popular Adityanath to size. It is apparent that now that he has left Gorakhpur, the Yogi’s hold is weakening here, while he is yet to consolidate his position in Lucknow. The Hindu Yuva Vahini has lost potency within one year. These are good tidings for Modi.
However, the bad news is that the defeats have taken off much of the sheen from the recent Tripura victory. After the pale win in Gujarat and the losses in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the defeats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have dented the Modi magic and his air of invincibility for the voters.
In fact, the by-polls verdict could impact voter sentiment before the Karnataka election, spelling major trouble for Modi. More defeats will make it very difficult for him to sustain the “Modi wave” in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The by-polls will trigger a major re-think for Modi about how to retain his voters, as it is becoming obvious that his old tricks no longer have the same magic. The voters have begun to compare his promises with performance, evaluating if the dream merchant has walked his seductive talk at all. The by-polls' reverses seem to be the result of such an evaluation.
To read the results as an unqualified endorsement of the SP-BJP alliance would also be erroneous, though the two parties coming together after 23 years is historic in itself. The by-poll verdict at most is a tentative leaning towards the alliance, mainly because the voters wanted an alternative to the BJP. To make the alliance a favoured choice for the voters, both the parties have a lot of work to do, at their level and at the level of the people.
For the BJP and the RSS, this is the time to reflect on how effective and safe it is to see a state as big as Uttar Pradesh through the lens of one caste. When Akhilesh was the chief minister, people would wonder who actually was running the government – Akhilesh, Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam Singh or Azam Khan. The same confusion persists with the BJP government. The power tussle between the CM and Maurya is apparent to everyone, from the bureaucracy to the people at large. Adityanath tries to stamp his authority through fear, but it only makes him look petty. The BJP needs to solve this conundrum quickly.
The SP and the BSP need to decide that after igniting hope among people, are they ready to make the sacrifices that such a tie-up will demand? Or will their individual aspirations and ambitions turn the alliance into another failed formula?
The Congress, on the other hand, has to see that it extends possibilities of a coalition beyond dinner parties into a fighting fit unit on the ground. All the while maintaining its individual identity.