Results of the much-awaited bypolls for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh are a bitter disappointment for the BJP—the Samajwadi Party, supported by Bahujan Samaj Party, won both seats. Political analysts foresaw the possibility of BJP’s loss in Phulpur, but most had few doubts that the BJP would continue its stranglehold on Gorakhpur. Voters in Gorakhpur astonished every poll predictor. Praveen Nishad, son of Rashtriya Nishad Party’s Sanjay Nishad, won the seat, defeating BJP’s Upendra Shukla by a handsome margin of 21,881 votes. The victory was bigger in Phulpur, where Nagendra Singh Patel of Samajwadi Party got the better of BJP’s Kaushalendra Patel by 59,460 votes. As we know, both seats are a stronghold of top BJP leaders. Gorakhpur has been a bastion of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for long, while the Phulpur LS seat was vacated by BJP’s Keshav Prasad Maurya, who became deputy chief minister of UP in 2017.
When the BSP declared its support for Samajwadi candidates on both these seats only a week before the polling date, analysts were sceptical of their success; the joint endeavour, they felt, came too late for voters to take note. The results, as we have noted, belied their expectations.
If analysed carefully, the results point to the SP-BSP alliance being much more than a pact; rather, it is a broader social alliance of a majority of OBCs and SCs in UP. However, some OBCs and SCs had reservations about such a pact, due to the SP and the BSP being sworn political foes for over two decades. The growing competition for political participation and developmental aspirations among these rising sections of society also contributed to the further fragmentation of the OBC and SC vote base. When Mayawati declared her support to the Samajwadi Party and Akhilesh Yadav accepted it gratefully, it sent a political signal that trickled down remarkably efficiently among cadres and through the entire swathe of voters. As if in a trice, a social alliance of sorts was formed between sections of OBCs and SCs. Of course, solidarity of such a temporary nature cannot cut through deeper differences.
In spite its traditional connects with Apna Dal—who are partners in the BJP-led NDA at the Centre—the Patel community, which has a strong presence in Phulpur, voted in favour of SP, along with Yadavs and a section of Muslims and Dalits. In Gorakhpur, it seems a similar OBC-Dalit caste alliance worked well for the SP, diminishing the traditional pull of the Gorakhpur math and its chief, Yogi Adityanath. Adityanath is known for his personal connect with voters in this area. In Gorakhpur, Nishad, Pasi and other marginalised castes voted together with OBCs and MBCs. Indeed, the result suggests that this widespread caste alliance superseded Adityanath’s influence. It reminds us of the SP-BSP alliance and its success in UP electoral politics 25 year back. The result also suggests that the SP and the BSP, who were losing their grip over their vote bases in last few elections due to the dual onslaught of Narendra Modi’s charisma and a ruthlessly efficient election machine crafted by Amit Shah, are now recovering slowly. It is a hint that they are going to regain their voters enormously in coming elections. The bypoll results also suggest a creeping disillusionment among BJP voters due to various reasons.
The voting percentage was very low in urban centres, including in areas well-known for supporting the BJP. Allahabad city North of Phulpur constituency and Betia Hata of Gorakhpur witnessed low voter turn-out, which would have grievously hurt the BJP’s prospects.
Rural areas saw a higher percentage of voting, including in areas which are traditional bases of the SP and the BSP. In Gorakhpur, most rural assembly seats are strongholds of the Samajwadi Party, with urban seats having BJP influence. It seems the social groups known to be BJP supporters may not have turned up to vote, resulting in low voter percentage in urban areas and contributing to the BJP’s defeat. This apathy among BJP voters, a signifier of disillusionment and displeasure, may be due to anti-incumbency and towering expectations (and resultant disappointment) from the state government. The other reason for a low turn-out among BJP voters can be ascribed to the overconfidence bred among supporters due to the BJP’s victorious march in various assembly polls.
The widening ambit of democratic politics in India—where every inch of ground is mapped and scoured for votes—is creating a hitherto unmatched competitive space. It has spurred aspirations among common people on the one hand and, as its corollary, expanded aspiring communities on the other. These evolving communities—wooed by every manner of parties—have become aggressive, assertive and impatient, who want their myr-iad demands from the state to be fulfilled within a short period. Outpourings on social media—Facebook, Twitter etc—are a testimony to their sharp sense of entitlement.
These aspirant communities, who are evolving among various castes and social groups, are also quick to be disillusioned. Thus, the changing nature of the electorate also contribute in such defeats as have befallen the BJP. Promises from politicians, each one taller than the last, bred by high stakes in competitive politics, have raised expectations from the state to such a pitch that no one seems happy—those who are getting benefits and those who are deprived. Conversations with the common voter during field research show an alarming degree of discontent towards the state, as well as cynicism about democratic politics. People have grown, within a short time, to have high hopes from the BJP government at the Centre and the state. The promises of development are also being critically assessed at various forums. Growing unemployment among youths and students may also have contributed to changing attitudes towards the BJP. Broadly, all these issues may have influenced the results of the bypolls.
The results in Phulpur and Gorakhpur will cause the BJP discomfiture, for these are not simple defeats. These seats are linked with the prestige of the CM and the deputy CM. It is also important because it is going to set the tone and texure of the 2019 parliamentary election. As is known, the politics of the Hindi belt is going to determine the government at the Centre. The success of the SP-BSP pact may prompt a long-term alliance. This may result in the stitching up of a large percentage of Dalit-OBC votes in Uttar Pradesh. But Mayawati is a tough negotiator, and it is difficult to predict the longevity of such an alliance. But their compulsion to politically recover may induce the SP-BSP duo to stay together for at least the impending Lok Sabha polls and the next Uttar Pradesh assembly election. In fact, taking a cue from this, alliances between other caste-based parties may encourage cohesive social alliances, like what we find today between OBCs and SCs.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with 120 seats, constitute the larger share of parliamentary seats in the Hindi belt. The performance of the RJD-led alliance in Bihar and the SP-BSP pact in UP indicates future possibilities for opposition politics here. In Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal won the Araria Lok Sabha seat, besides two aseembly seats. It shows that the NDA alliance is also facing anti-incumbency in Bihar, with caste-based social alliances going in favour of the RJD-led alliance.
Nitish Kumar, CM of Bihar, found himself on the losing side in two out of three bypolls
The bypoll results are portentous signs for the BJP, and must be regarded by it as such. In spite of attentive preparation and a strong party organisation, if the BJP lost these prestigious seats, it means there are factors which may rear up uncontrollably in the near future. The BJP needs to create a favourable social alliance and try to reduce the corrosive effects of anti-incumbency. Its promises and efforts to provide good governance should also be conveyed at the grassroots to every poor voter in the most marginal of communities. Finally, the BJP may also have to think about extending the process of creating social alliances through inclusive policies, and not only through a fortuitous gathering of political parties.
(The writer is director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad)