To Question Modi's Popularity is a Desperate Measure

Published: September 18, 2014 18:55 IST
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(Nalin S Kohli is spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Director of the party's Public Policy Research Centre. He is also a lawyer and has extensive experience in media and education.)

Recent by-election results, of 33 assembly and three Lok Sabha seats, have been a mixed bag for the BJP. The party has lost seats to its political rivals in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and a few in Gujarat. Not unexpectedly, the Congress and their fellow travellers of the so-called "secular brigade" have raised the pitch and proffered various theories about the BJP's electoral losses. Beyond the cacophony of self-congratulatory notes, perhaps a more measured analysis might be useful before hailing this as a major shift of any kind.

From its inception as the Jan Sangh in 1951 to leading the first full majority non-Congress government at the centre in 2014, the BJP has faced more electoral defeats than victories. Yet the party has always treated every electoral loss as an opportunity to assess, learn and prepare for the next round of elections. This time is no different. With regard to the effect of the by-elections on the Lok sabha seats, nothing has changed per se. The BJP retained Vadodra and the Samajwadi Party sent yet another relative to the Lok Sabha from the family stronghold of Mainpuri.

Bypolls are essentially elections of local importance and fought primarily at the local level on local issues. One cannot recall a single instance when a by-election result impacted the political fortunes of a state or central government. A state by state analysis is far more revealing than the instant theories propounded by Congress spokespersons.

The vote share trajectory in the 11 seats of Uttar Pradesh between the assembly elections in 2012 and current by-elections is interesting.

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Three interesting conclusions emerge. Firstly, the main battle in Uttar Pradesh is now between the BJP and Samajwadi Party. The Congress is the biggest consistent loser, down to roughly half its vote share between 2012 and this last round of elections. Secondly, even though the BJP vote share is down from the Lok sabha elections, more importantly it has risen by 6% in the assembly segments between 2012 and 2014. Lastly, the BSP has either miscalculated not contesting these by-elections or possibly preferred to bail out its arch rival SP in an attempt to halt the BJP juggernaut.

In Rajasthan, where the Congress has wrested three out of four MLA seats, a study of the current outcome, in context to historical leanings, clears the confusion. Kota has traditionally been a BJP stronghold, which the party has continued to retain. Nasirabad has always been a Congress stronghold of the Govind Singh Gujjar family. The BJP won this seat for the first and only time in 2013. Since the winner went to the Lok Sabha, the people voted back their consistent favourite. In Surajgarh, the BJP has won the seat twice in history, the first time in 2003 and then in 2013. Finally, the Weir seat was held by Jaganath Paharia, a former Congress Party Chief Minister, traditionally a tough seat for the BJP.  So while the Congress has regained some ground, it is in its traditional support areas, Rajasthan's main battleground has always been the swing assembly segments, and that will be known only in 2018.

On gains, the BJP has won the Basirhat seat in West Bengal, and is now directly pitched as an alternate to Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamool Congress. In Assam, the BJP has won a seat at the cost of the Congress.

In Gujarat the traditional vote gap between the BJP and Congress is about 10% which doubled to around 20% in the 2014 Lok sabha elections. Once again, in this round of by-elections, the gap has returned to 10%, enough to keep the Congress exactly where it has consistently been for two decades.

Certainly, one has to accept the verdict of the people, with equanimity and humility. Any electoral loss, even by small margins or small numbers, is cause for reflection. However, to pitch this as a point to bring Mr Modi's popularity under question, is a desperate measure by the Congress, which has unfortunately had nothing to cling to, after its recent national rout.  Mr Modi's stature, both in India and abroad, is linked to his intent and his ability to work for the country. That's the government's agenda, and it remains unshaken by any passing rhetoric, whatsoever.

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