So, yes, nobody should assume that 2019 is a shoo-in for the BJP and for Narendra Modi. Repeating 282 was always going to be tough, even with Modi's popularity still strong. But I at least had always assumed that 235 seats plus/minus 35, was the BJP's likely performance in 2019. Some observers now think that is optimistic. After all, you can't lose practically every by-election in the north and west for years and continue to be seen as the favourite. It's incredibly tough for an incumbent party to lose by-elections, and yet the BJP seems to be able to do so with ease.
However, I'm not yet going to mark the BJP as an underdog in the north and west just yet. Here are eight reasons why we should assume Modi and Amit Shah can still turn it around:
1. The Samajwadi Party's victories in Gorakhpur and Phulpur required unity between the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party. While the alliance held on the ground for this victory, such alliances are naturally fragile. For good reason, Mayawati distrusts and dislikes Mulayam Singh Yadav. And the Yadavs are as capable of self-sabotage as the Gandhis. A repeat of this strong alliance across UP in 2019 could give a new maha-gathbandan in excess of 50 seats out of 80. If the alliance frays, the BJP should get over 60.
2. Even if the SP-BSP alliance stays together, it is extremely risky. Modi is more than capable of redefining the narrative in short order. In fact, a united opposition makes it easier for Modi to claim that everyone else is corrupt, terrified, and hypocritical - and that he alone is the principled, honest saviour India needs. Arithmetic - adding up the BSP and SP vote shares - does not always trump chemistry. And Modi, through his ability to cook up a narrative in his lab, is India's pre-eminent political chemist. Opposition unity actually makes his job more straightforward. He is at his best when pretending to be an underdog fighting against dark and overwhelming forces.
3. This election suggests that a BSP-SP coalition should not be considered as automatically being in a losing position. This is actually bad news for any coalition negotiations going forward. The only thing that could have reconciled Mayawati to dealing with the family that humiliated and terrorised her in the 1990s is a sense of imminent disaster for her party and the Bahujan movement. The possibility of victory makes it, paradoxically, harder for her to compromise.
4. For Modi and Shah, this defeat is not as problematic as it may appear. You might argue that any defeat discolours their aura of invincibility, so important in the run-up to 2019. But the Prime Minister himself was not the person at risk in the UP by-elections. In Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar, and anything that weakens a coalition partner is not entirely unwelcome to the BJP. More importantly, in UP it was Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath whose credibility was on on the line. Adityanath was supposed to be able to deliver Gorakhpur at least with ease. Phulpur, while not traditionally BJP territory, should also have been manageable. Yet the Adityanath name was not enough, nor were his last-minute rallies, over a dozen of them, sufficient to turn the tide against the BSP-SP alliance. It is an open secret that Modi and Shah distrust Adityanath. That is one reason why this defeat is not entirely unwelcome to them. It is also true that now Adityanath has reduced bargaining power when it comes to ticket distribution in 2019. Shah and Modi are free to distribute tickets based on their winnability criteria.
5. The notion that seats in the Hindi belt in 2019 are wide open will encourage a plethora of independents, vote-cutters, and other political entrepreneurs to throw their hat in the ring. Such chaos inevitably favours the large force with greater monetary resources. There is no question that in 2019, this better-resourced force will be the BJP, by a factor of five, perhaps 10. Chaos means horse-trading, and the Modi-Shah BJP is by far the better horse-trader.
6. In UP, the BJP's loss of popularity under Adityanath which appears to be real is largely because his government is correctly seen as an upper-caste raj. Yogi samrajya is Thakur samrajya. His famed encounter policy consists of Thakur cops going after OBC or Muslim suspects. His ascendancy has led Dalits to feel even more unsafe than under the SP, underlined by widely-circulated reports of the vandalism of Ambedkar statues. The BJP's candidate choice for Gorakhpur in particular hardly did anything to dispel the notion that it was a savarna raj party. But there is still a year to go for 2019 if the elections are not brought forward. That's more than enough time for Modi, India's most politically successful OBC politician, to persuade non-Yadav OBCs and even many Dalits that his government is not savarna raj. Skilful candidate selection will help.
7. Both the Phulpur and Gorakhpur elections were noticeable for extremely low turnout. This is a sign of many things, urban discontent with the government being high on the list. If it is the case that low turnout favours the BSP's committed voters, and high turnout means more Modi-leaning swing voters are going to the polls, then we can assume the 2019 election will be high turnout. Nothing so far suggests that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP's panna pramukhs have lost their potency as a turnout-generation machine. They just weren't put in overdrive for this election.
8. Finally, there is a noticeable divide here - as in the Rajasthan by-polls and in the Gujarat Assembly elections - between urban and rural voters. Rural voters are clearly more dissatisfied with the BJP. But stepped-up efforts to woo them through waivers, transfers, higher MSPs (minimum support price) and so on might moderate their discontent. Indeed, if this year's monsoon is particularly good for production, a great deal of agrarian distress will be alleviated just in time for the 2019 campaign.
Eight reasons are more than enough to reserve judgment about the BJP's fortunes in the north and west next year. If I were to add a ninth, it is this: Modi as Prime Minister is more than capable of using the office to take the sort of drastic decision, like demonetisation, that the opposition is simply unable to respond to. Yes, there will be some inevitable attrition in the BJP's seat count from 2014. Yes, Modi's government is losing popularity. But Modi and his party are still clear favourites in 2019.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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