The Adityanath Factor In BJP's Defeat

Occasionally, just occasionally in the pitfall-laden life of a political analyst, you get it right. I had written in my NDTV column that the by-election results in Uttar Pradesh - India's politically most significant state - would be more important than the Karnataka state election. And prove which way the wind is blowing in the general election season.

Well, the results are in - and UP has not disappointed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defeat in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur proves that 2019 is wide open. You will read a lot of analysis by the embedded BJP "panna pramukhs" on why that is overstating the case - discount it. As usual, electoral victory matters, not propaganda.

In an off-the-charts earthquake, Gorakhpur has rejected Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, five-term MP and more importantly the "mahant" (priest) of the Goraknath mandir. Remember the BJP has held this seat for three decades since 1991. Remember also that Adityanath had made it a question of the "mahant's aan" (respect) and campaigned with more than 20 public meetings.
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Yogi Adityanath was the face of the BJP's campaign for Gorakhpur and Phulpur, calling in no star campaigners from the centre

Even more significantly, these by-polls have underlined to the opposition that when they unite, the BJP is in trouble. The coming together of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), two decades after their tempestuous relationship sank, has shown that their bid for political survival was able to trump the BJP's all-conquering electoral machinery.

Both SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati were aware that they were looking at political annihilation. This win will be savoured by both as it has come after a string of defeats. Yadav respectfully calls Mayawati "bua" (aunt); in turn, he is referred to, somewhat derisively, as "bhatija"(nephew). They are now back in political play. The imperative of a formal alliance for the general elections is clear and so is the mood of the workers with slogans of "bua bhatija sarkar" doing the rounds.
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For arch rivals, Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, a tentative political experiment has brought big returns

Both the SP and the BSP had approached the alliance gingerly. Mayawati was no longer convinced that her famed "vote transfer" to an ally would work. Yadav Jr. was still in recovery from his disastrous alliance with Rahul Gandhi in the state election last year.

Yadav, as I had exclusively reported here, had turned down the Congress offer to divide the two parliamentary seats up for by-election. The Congress then refused to withdraw its candidate for both seats in solidarity with the SP-BSP alliance as requested by Yadav. Now sources tell me that the Congress will have to swallow its pride and take ten of the 80 seats from Uttar Pradesh - this is the maximum that the BSP and SP are willing to concede to if it wants to join the "mahagatbandhan" (grand alliance) for the general elections due next year.
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Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party dropped the Congress as its alliance partner (File photo)

The Congress should abandon its famed ego and ally with the two regional heavyweights and act as the catalyst of a large opposition alliance if it wants to stop Modi in his tracks. The BJP can only be checkmated if it is halted in UP where it got 73 of the 80 seats last time. This tactical alliance that was successful today was being seen as a dry run for 2019.

The Grand Alliance had seen similar success in Bihar till Chief Minister Nitish Kumar defected last year into the waiting arms of the NDA and Modi. Kumar will be a worried man today as despite its chief, Lalu Prasad Yadav, being in jail, the RJD won the Araria Lok Sabha seat. Kumar is in danger of being reduced to a nowhere man as both Modi and Amit Shah have not bothered to conceal the disdain with which they treat him. His recent demand for a special package for Bihar was a virtual cry for help. He has no doubt closely watched Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who pulled his ministers from the centre after going public with the fact that Modi did not take his call and "Andhra pride" was insulted when his 19 requests for a meeting for a special financial package got no response from the centre. Both Naidu and Kumar are sharp politicians who can clearly sense the way the wind is blowing.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a function in Patna (File photo)

So what of the proven BJP election machine which saw recent success in the North East in a famed historical first? Both Modi, an MP from Varanasi, and his party chief and shadow Amit Shah will be extremely worried. Adityanath was a surprise choice as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister after the state election was fought in Modi's name. Adityanath was reinvented as a "pan-India Hindutva icon" by the BJP's publicity machine and sent off to campaign across India. Sections of the party had already hailed him as Modi's successor in 2024 - the BJP thought it had 2019 in the bag with an absolute majority for Modi.

Adityanath, who is a deeply polarising figure with a history of problematic Muslim-baiting statements, has unleashed a series of police encounters in UP and was in the process of revelling in the image of a "strong law and order enforcer." Clearly the UP voter was not fooled by the propaganda and chose to send a warning to the BJP.

Shah's biggest problem is that while the BJP now rules in 21 states and has overflowing coffers, its over-the-top promises of "achhe din" (good days) and a complete crackdown on corruption have simply vaporised. Nirav Modi's dramatic escape after looting the second largest state-run bank of billions, and the collapse of the 2G case in court, will dog the BJP in the general election.
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In assembly elections last year, the BJP won 325 of UP's 404 seats

Rural distress and the complete collapse in job creation will be the trigger issue that no amount of headline management and "anti-national" distractions will hide. While Modi is personally popular, far more so than any other leader, Shah and he just don't seem to get along with any allies who are rapidly forming a line at the "Out" gate behind the Shiv Sena.

The opposition, including those acting as Shah's silent allies such as Sharad Pawar, seem to have read the political writing on the wall and decided to try and work together. Sonia Gandhi's unity dinner last night was a pointer to this. Gujarat dented Modi's pride. Subsequently, the by-polls in Rajasthan where the Congress won by record margins in Alwar and Ajmer and then the by-elections in Madhya Pradesh which the Congress have shown to a fatigued opposition that the BJP can be bested. It only needs a proper fighting spirit displayed by Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia who fought a lonely battle in his fiefdom in Guna. Battleground Karnataka will be next.

Rahul Gandhi needs to be ready to make strategic alliances and compromise - to create a big tent for the opposition, as he did in Gujarat. The Indian voter is very smart; he dislikes arrogance and punishes it. The Indian voter also does not like to be taken for granted, so brace yourself for the most exciting show in the world - the general election, coming soon.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.