Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Bangalore on May 8 ahead of the Karnataka state election. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek N Chinnappa
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Bangalore on May 8 ahead of the Karnataka state election. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek N Chinnappa

After losing a crucial battle in Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party will face a united force of opposition once again in by-elections for the Lok Sabha – Lower House of Parliament – this month.

By-elections will be held for four parliamentary seats next Monday (May 28) for people to elect new Lok Sabha representatives.

The constituencies are Bhandara-Gondia and Palghar in Maharashtra, Kairana in Uttar Pradesh and Nagaland parliamentary constituency in Nagaland.

Opposition parties have realized that sticking together is the only way to defeat the BJP. Buoyed by victories in Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), all Opposition parties are set to put forward a united front against the ruling party.

The loss in Phulpur and Gorakhpur rang alarm bells for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. The constituencies were held by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and key BJP leader Yogi Adityanath plus his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya, respectively. The timing of the loss — just a year after the saffron party registered a resounding win in UP — reflects changing voter sentiment on the ground.

Most importantly, the mandate was a result of two regional parties — the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party joining hands. The resulting win was proof to the Opposition, that the Narendra Modi juggernaut could finally be stopped if rival parties get together.

BJP vs the Opposition

In the Kairana by-election, former BSP MP Tabassum Begum is contesting for the regional party Rashtriya Lok Dal. Tabassum is the wife of former Samajwadi Party MP Munnawar Hasan. Their son Nahid Hasan is a Samajwadi Party legislator. It is unique that a candidate with such strong ties with the SP and the BSP is contesting under the RLD symbol. The Kairana bypoll is expected to be a nail-biting contest between the BJP and the opposition.

In 2014, BJP stalwart Hukum Singh, who died in February, defeated Tabassum Begum’s son, Nahid Hasan. The BJP is now fielding Hukum Singh’s daughter Mriganka as their candidate from Kairana, with hope of garnering a large sympathy vote.

For the ruling BJP, Kairana is an important seat, and Hukum Singh was one of the party’s senior leaders. The party needs to retain it, as it was recently defeated in two bypolls and it is unlikely to leave any stone unturned in its bid to win.

The Congress, meanwhile, has decided not to field candidates for the Kairana Lok Sabha and Noorpur assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh. The move is an attempt to prevent a division of votes and help candidates fielded by the SP-RLD alliance.

In Kairana, there are 546,000 Muslim and more than a million Hindu voters. The Hindu votes could be further divided into sub-castes.

The RLD has considerable influence in western Uttar Pradesh and believes that both the caste and communal equations are in its favor. The RLD-SP alliance is looking for Muslim, Jat and Yadav community vote banks. Meanwhile, the BSP’s decision to not field a candidate from Kairana could further help the SP candidate.

If Mriganka manages to win this by-election, it would also mean settling an “old score” with the Hasan family. Tabassum’s son Nahid Hassan defeated Mriganka in the 2017 Assembly elections.

The Noorpur assembly seat is also important for the BJP. This by-election was required after the former MLA Lokendra Singh died. The BJP has now fielded his wife Avin Singh.

The SP has fielded Naim ul Hasan, their candidate for the seat in 2017, against Lokendra Singh.

The electoral contest between the BJP and a combined opposition has been made possible because of concessions by the Congress and other parties. Congress decided not to field a candidate and the BSP has done the same, albeit mobilizing its cadre in favor of the RLD and the SP candidate.

The contests in Kairana and Noorpur will be tougher than by-elections held in March in the seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur in UP when the BJP faced humiliating defeats. It will also be a litmus test for both the ruling party and the combined opposition ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year.

BJP vs its allies

One of the BJP’s partners in Delhi and in the Maharashtra government, the Shiv Sena, is also fighting the BJP in Palghar constituency. The Sena first welcomed Shrinivas Wanga, son of the late BJP MP Chintaman Wanga, to the party, then fielded him in the Palghar bypoll.

The BJP says Shiv Sena has broken an agreement. In the past, the party did not contest the Assembly election in Bandra constituency as well as the municipal seat in Mumbai, following the death of Shiv Sena members. The BJP was expecting the Shiv Sena to reciprocate after the demise of Palghar MP Wanga.

By contesting Palghar seat, the Shiv Sena is sending the BJP leadership a message that the party will take part in the general election next year as well as the Maharashtra state assembly election on its own.

The BJP managed to poach former Congress minister Rajendra Gavit as a candidate. But it is not going to be an easy task for the saffron party to win this election.

Whatever the result is, one thing is clear — the Shiv Sena will leave the National Democratic Alliance with the BJP, as Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu did a few months back.

Congress and allies

The Bhandara-Gondia by-election has come about because sitting BJP MP Nana Patole resigned and later joined the Congress. It will be a direct contest between Hemant Patle of the BJP and Madhukarrao Kukde of the Nationalist Congress Party, which has forged an alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra, ahead of the 2019 election.

This seat is in the Vidarbha region in the east of Maharashtra state, which is a known BJP stronghold. This area also “belongs” to ex-civil aviation minister and NCP heavyweight Praful Patel.

This seat is a challenge for Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari, as both belong to Vidarbha. If the NCP wins this seat, then the Congress-NCP coalition will continue for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

The BJP also wants to win a by-election in the sole parliamentary seat in Nagaland state. The by-election was needed after Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio resigned as a lower house MP once he was elected unopposed during the recent state-assembly polls.

Even though a newly elected MP will have a term of less than one year, with Lok Sabha elections slated for early next year, the election will be crucial for the BJP as well as rival political parties, as it will give clues about the shape of things to come.

It will also be an occasion for the BJP to salvage some pride after the defeats it has suffered in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Karnataka.

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