By-poll Shocks for Ruling Parties, Except in Gujarat

Within four months of the Congress's success in the parliamentary polls, the party has been rudely jolted in the latest round of assembly by-elections.

After a severe drubbing in Gujarat, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wrested five seats from the Congress along with one in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress lost two seats - Okhla and Dwarka - in its supposed stronghold of Delhi to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the BJP.

It was the RJD's good showing, however, especially in Bihar, which will surprise most observers. While the BJP can be said to have demonstrated its continuing clout in Narendra Modi's Gujarat, which it tends to regard as its pocket borough under Modi's dominant figure, former railway minister Lalu Yadav's RJD has virtually risen from the ashes in Bihar.

So has Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). Both the RJD and the LJP had been written off after their dismal performance in the parliamentary elections when the RJD won a humiliating four seats and the LJP none at all compared to the Janata Dal-United's (JD-U) 20 and the BJP's 12.

The RJD's and the LJP's unmistakable revival is all the more creditable because the Nitish Kumar government was apparently faring quite satisfactorily in Bihar by managing to restore a modicum of law and order after the chaotic years under Lalu Prasad's chief ministership, and by beginning the task of infrastructure development, albeit slowly.

No one was surprised, therefore, when the ruling JD-U-BJP government pushed the RJD and the LJP to the wall a few months ago. But both Lalu Prasad and Paswan have shown that there is life after an electoral setback. On the other hand, Nitish Kumar will realise, as will his partner, the BJP, that much more needs to be done if they want to retain the loyalty of the voters.

The Bihar contest had been regarded as some kind of mini-election since as many as 18 seats were involved. Of them, the RJD bagged six - the highest tally - and its ally, the LJP, three while the JD-U won three and the BJP two.

By winning two seats, the same as the BJP, the Congress showed that it hasn't lost its foothold in the state. However, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)'s victory in only one seat demonstrated that its commanding influence in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh has not percolated into Bihar.
What is immediately evident from these results is that the ruling parties in Delhi and Bihar have been snubbed by the electorate. Arguably, the rising prices have contributed to the disillusionment with the Congress after its comfortable victory in the parliamentary polls. The party may have also been suffering from a sense of complacency because of its success and the disarray in the BJP camp.

In Bihar, Nitish Kumar's caste manipulations by way of wooing the extreme backward castes may have led to a further consolidation of the Other Backward Caste (OBC) votes, mainly from the Yadav community, behind Lalu Prasad.

The Muslims, too, must have contributed to the RJD's success because of their continuing uneasiness with the BJP, especially after the recent indications about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) strengthening its grip on the BJP. 

The state government's decision to set up a commission headed by a former West Bengal government official, D. Bandopadhyay, on land reforms probably frightened Nitish Kumar's upper caste supporters, mainly the Bhumihars, who suspected that the rights of sharecroppers might be formalised, as in Left-ruled West Bengal.

However, if the anti-incumbency factor is responsible for the reverses experienced by the ruling parties in Delhi and Bihar, this argument does not hold true for Gujarat where Modi has shown that his influence remains undiminished. Yet, the Gujarat chief minister can be said to suffer from all the infirmities which would have felled a lesser figure. Not only is he controversial at the national level because of his role in the 2002 riots, which are being probed by the Supreme Court, but he is not particularly popular within his own party either.

While the BJP leaders at the central level believe that his presence will undermine the cohesion of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Modi has powerful opponents, led by former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, in his home state. The RSS, too, is not very fond of him because of his independent manner of doing things, which is why he has fallen out with his "childhood friend", Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Even then, his run of successes shows that he has captured the imagination of a large section of Gujaratis. Although both Sheila Dikshit and Nitish Kumar have acquired an element of charisma because of their development-oriented approach - even the local RJD leaders do not hesitate to praise the Bihar chief minister - they are still not immune to debilitating electoral factors like internal dissensions and the division of votes, as in Okhla where a four-corned contest enabled the RJD to win.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com) 


More by :  Amulya Ganguli

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