It took a bungling, sleaze-ridden UPA-2 five years to alienate people as badly as they did. It took the BJP less than five months to rub just about everybody the wrong way.
Of the 32 seats which saw bypolls this week, 24 were held by the BJP. It lost half of those not long after a media celebration of its first 100 days in power.
Don’t read too much into these bypoll results electorally. But please do read a lot into them – politically.
The BJP-Shiv Sena will still likely win handsomely in Maharashtra less than a month from now. The Congress-NCP government there, justly reviled, will bite the dust. But that doesn’t mean there are no lessons to be learned from the bypolls.
Lesson one: The BJP has succeeded in terrifying minorities across the country in a very short time. The minority vote in Lok Sabha 2014 was badly divided. This time, in state after state, minorities appear to have voted for a single large party other than the BJP. In Assam, in Rajasthan, in UP.
In the Lok Sabha polls Narendra Modi had “outsourced” the job of stirring the communal cauldron to the likes of Amit Shah, Giriraj Singh, Baba Ramdev et al, while he played the Great Development Man. Well, the communal chickens have come home to roost.
Even in West Bengal, where the BJP celebrates its “debut” in the state assembly, its numbers in the Basirhat Dakshin seat it won are interesting. Basirhat is a border town where the BJP managed a very serious communal polarization during the May Lok Sabha polls. It took a commanding lead in this particular segment of more than 30,000 votes over the Trinamool Congress. This week, it won the seat by less than 1,700 votes, a massive fall.
Two: The BJP usually alienates people much faster than the bumbling Congress. That unpleasant, aggressive, sneering triumphalism we all marvel at, is in its DNA. Quite a bit before these polls, it lost all three seats in bypolls in Uttarakhand very soon after sweeping the Lok Sabha elections there. It also ceded important seats in bypolls in Karnataka and MP - after having done so well in the Lok Sabha polls there.
Important: many of the seats the BJP lost in these bypolls fell vacant because their incumbents were put up as candidates for the Lok Sabha polls - and they won. As in Rajasthan, Gujarat or UP. Obviously, the party was strong in these constituencies. Yet it lost eight of the 11 seats in what it claimed as bastions in Uttar Pradesh. In four months, they’ve lost so many of these seats with big margins. Besides, their victory margins have come down in others. And the Congress. despite being in the dumps at the start of this race, has won three out of four seats in Rajasthan and three out of nine in Gujarat. All at the BJP’s expense.
Three: The BJP will now be extremely disinclined to allow elections to be held in Delhi. Yet, they’ll have a huge problem evading them. The media connived at playing down the sting job on their local leader that saw an attempt to buy an AAP MLA. But doing that now will be more difficult. And the media will be forced to apply greater scrutiny to any goings on.
Four: Math matters. I had argued in May that the “massive wave” in the Lok Sabha polls was essentially an anti-Congress, anti-UPA vote. That whichever was the major anti-Congress force in a given state stood to gain most. In states with large numbers of seats like UP, Maharashtra and Bihar, that was the BJP. In Odisha it was Naveen Patnaik’s BJD. In Bengal it was the Trinamool. In the South the TDP in AP and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu also cashed in.
Five: I had also argued that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system had gone berserk in Lok Sabha 2014. Normally, the FPTP system creates damage when there are triangular contests. It goes whacko when there are four or five strong parties contesting a seat. Sometimes (as in Tamil Nadu), four or even five fronts fighting a seat. So, The AIADMK got 44 per cent of the vote - and 95 per cent of the seats.
Nationally, the BJP with 31 per cent of the vote got 282 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress with 19.3 per cent got just 44 seats. The BJP in 2009 got roughly the same percentage the Congress did in 2014. But it got 116 seats! Obviously the FPTP system played a much bigger role in May 2014.
This time, Mayawati’s BSP sat out the bypolls in UP. It did not put up a single candidate. This meant the Samajwadi Party’s performance against the BJP would improve dramatically. It did.
Just a month ago, the coming together of the RJD-JDU handed the BJP a 6-4 defeat in the bypolls in Bihar. Before that, the Congress had beaten them in the bypolls in Uttarakhand.
Six: Caste - declared dead by much of the media and its pet analysts - matters, too. Those announcing its demise simply connive at its continuance. (If it’s dead, we don’t have to fight it, right?). Watch this space for more on this — as we learn more.
Seven: The media did not see it coming. They had convinced themselves not just that Modi Magic was infallible, but extended that aura to an Amit Shah who was going to do wonders in the campaign. And so he did, too, though not the way they expected.
So yes, the lessons are more political than electoral. The BJP will find consolation in Maharashtra. The rest, in the vital signals from these bypolls.