Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

Jiu-jitsu, the Brazilian martial art depends on a series of strangleholds and chokes – using the strength of an opponent against himself. The results from recent by-elections for several seats in Parliament in two of India’s largest states reflects the core philosophy of this sport.

In the seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), faced some of its worst defeats since 2014, when it rode to power on a massive wave. The credit four years ago went to its leader and current PM Narendra Modi, who ushered in India’s first majority government in 30 years. In December 2016, when Uttar Pradesh held its state polls, the BJP again swept through, crushing the Opposition mercilessly. At that time the BJP seemed unstoppable, and it is generally believed that anyone who wins Uttar Pradesh is likely to win the national election. In 2014, the BJP and its allies won 73 seats from this state alone.

Gorakhpur and Phulpur are distinct for several other reasons. The first constituency was nurtured for nearly 30 years by the state’s current Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The Phulpur constituency belonged to deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. This was a high stakes election for everyone.

Political alliances are not new to India, which has a history of coalition governments. In Bihar, an alliance between traditional rivals, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) led to a massive defeat for the BJP. But the alliance fell apart and the Janata Dal (United) returned to its old ally, the BJP.

A grand alliance

But in Uttar Pradesh, the impossible happened. Traditional rivals, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) agreed to form a brief alliance and support a single candidate. In both seats, the SP fielded their men, and all the BSP votes went to them. The two parties cater to key caste groups, which are at loggerheads at the best of times. The fact that votes did get transferred, is also significant.

The voting turnout was low. Gorakhpur saw a 47.5% turnout and Phulpur just over 37%. This, BJP sources told Asia Times, worried them: “A low turnout meant that core supporters were disinterested or disenchanted with us.” For a party that could do no wrong, things have begun to finally turn sour.

For many Opposition parties, especially regional ones, the rise of the BJP is also an existential threat. The SP and the BSP saw that, after taking a beating in the last state elections, when votes were divided. But the by-elections saw people labeled as ‘Other Backward Castes’ come together with the “oppressed castes” and the BSP was able to transfer its votes to the SP. It remains to been if the alliance will work well for both. Many commentators argue that the SP is unlikely to transfer its votes to the BSP if such a scenario arises in the 2019 general election. The BJP’s worst fear is to see the Yadav (OBC)-Jatav (oppressed)-Muslim votes consolidate behind such an alliance. That would severely dent the BJP’s hold on power.

Other by-elections held recently also shocked the BJP. In Rajasthan, it lost three seats that went to polls. It is expected that the Congress Party will return to power in this state, and the trend will continue to hold until May 2019. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the other two big states, besides Bihar, also seem to be turning against the BJP. With anti-incumbency high, commentators now feel that the BJP has peaked. If it is forced to form a coalition to make up for lost numbers in 2019, chances are that Modi may not emerge as its prime ministerial candidate.

A poster from 2014 promising to provide relief to farmers is now haunting the BJP.

Cow politics and the rural economy

The north of India is known as the “Hindi Belt” or cow belt. These are the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Two of them are scheduled for state polls this year. And all of them share an intrinsic economic and social relationship with the cow. In 2014, this was exploited by the BJP.

It started off as an emotive issue when Modi, as a prime ministerial candidate in 2014, raised the issue of a “Pink Revolution“. Eating beef is seen as an affront to fundamentalist Hindus, who believe that since they drink cow’s milk, it elevates the bovine to motherhood status. But this led to widespread harassment and lynchings, as vigilante groups, supported by the state, began to attack people. This hit the rural economy as farmers were unable to sell off unproductive cows and those who traded skins, or consumed its meat, were deprived of their traditional livelihood. This meant a very high cost for protecting cows and left farmers severely distressed.

The move to ban 87% of India’s currency notes in November 2016 also hurt a huge number of people. While the BJP swept Uttar Pradesh a month later, the effects of radical demonetization never went away. Small-scale enterprises and traders were hit and they continued to suffer losses. As time passed, the purported benefits of demonetization did not materialize.

The lack of jobs and failure of the Modi government to create jobs is also beginning to hurt. The promises made by Modi and the BJP are far from being fulfilled. Expectations are turning into disappointment and voters are beginning to desert the party’s themes of Hindu solidarity and pride. The state elections in Gujarat earlier this year, where Modi hails from, saw the Congress put up a robust fight and come close to ending nearly 22 years of BJP rule. Some saw it as a fight between Modi, the hope, and Modi, the disappointment.

Can weaker opponents rise up?

Nine key elections loom – two state polls this year and ballots in seven pivotal states in the national election next May. And the tussle, like jiu-jitsu, is whether weaker opponents can turn the BJP’s strengths against it. As political commentator and scholar Gilles Verniers has argued, there are many factors behind the BJP’s loss in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Araria. But can these be used in 2019 by the opposition to turn BJP’s strengths into its weaknesses?

It may be possible. In Parliament, the BJP needs 272 seats to get a majority. These numbers, most parties believe, are unlikely to be repeated. The new gains that the BJP has made since 2014, are unlikely to compensate for anticipated losses in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. A slogan that Modi used in 2014 – “Bahut Hua Kisan Pe Atyachaar, Ab Ki Baar, Modi Sarkar” (‘End the torture of farmers, Vote for a Modi Government’) – is proving to be hollow as a major agrarian crisis spreads.

In 2019, every constituency will become a singular battleground, unlike 2014, when the ‘Modi wave’ swept through. With the southern state of Karnataka looking to stay with the Congress when voters go to polls in a few months, the gains for the BJP seem very low.