Originally Published 2017-04-17 06:46:28 Published on Apr 17, 2017
Two big headlines in by-elections for AAP and BJP in Bengal

By-elections to 10 legislative seats in eight states concluded earlier this week. The BJP won five, becoming the only party to gain seats in this round (that is, win seats it did not previously hold). The Congress won three seats, in all of which it was defending turf.

How easy and honest would it be to read a pan-Indian message into these by-elections? Would it be fair to suggest, as an enthusiastic BJP spokesperson said on television, that the BJP's win in the Rajouri Garden assembly seat by-election in Delhi represented "a victory of the vision of the Prime Minister" - or would one be better served in not reducing every minor electoral contest to a test of Narendra Modi's political capital?

The answer should be fairly obvious. Indeed, more than a superficial "national trend", these results indicate a series of very different state trends, especially in states - Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh - that see bipolar (BJP versus Congress) assembly elections in the next 18 months.

Karnataka and Rajasthan were mirror images of each other. In both states, by-elections were taking place in the home districts of incumbent Chief Ministers - Dholpur in the case of the BJP's Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan; Nanjangud (Mysuru district) for the Congress' Siddaramaiah in Karnataka. The opposition was active. Led by Sachin Pilot, the Congress ran a vigorous campaign in Dholpur. In Nanjangud and Gundlupet, the two assembly seats that saw by-elections in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa led an energetic BJP team.

Yet, in both states, the ruling party won. Karnataka has assembly elections in a year from now. The Congress government has been troubled by scandals and the BJP has been re-united under Yeddyurappa, who has merged his breakaway party into the mother ship, the BJP. However, the Janata Dal (Secular), led by the Deve Gowda family, has also seen defections to the Congress, now commanded by Siddaramaiah, a former JD(S) hand. This would indicate the battle for Karnataka is only revving up.

On the other hand, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh - where the BJP retained one seat and reduced the Congress margin in the other seat, Ater, from 10,000 votes to 857 votes - despite incumbency, BJP governments led by Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan remain formidable. Backed by the BJP's electoral machine and momentum, these states continue to be a challenge for the Congress.

To be fair, ruling parties usually have an advantage in by-elections. That is why one big story of the past week was the Aam Aadmi Party's drubbing in Rajouri Garden, a constituency it had won handsomely in February 2015. It was reduced to third place, and lost its deposit. While this was explained as a freak result by party spokespersons - and anger at the fact that the AAP MLA had abandoned his voters and left for new frontiers in Punjab politics - the sheer magnitude of the defeat requires deeper explanation.

A true reading of Delhi politics will only be possible after the municipal elections in a few weeks. Even so, what must worry AAP is the strong performance of the Congress in Rajouri Garden. Wiped out in 2015, the party finished a respectable second to the BJP this time. Does this indicate the Congress is recapturing social constituencies it had lost to AAP two years ago? To stretch that logic, will it make the municipal elections, hitherto expected to be a BJP-AAP fight, three-cornered or even indicate a return to the old BJP-Congress bipolarity?

These are tantalising questions that will be answered in a few weeks. Rajouri Garden has been an interesting teaser-trailer.

The other state where a fundamental shift is apparent is Bengal. In the Contai South constituency (East Midnapore district) the Trinamool Congress candidate won by a massive 42,000 votes. Yet, the race for second place altered significantly. In the 2016 assembly election in the state, the Left-Congress alliance had finished runner up in Contai South, with 34 per cent of the vote. This time the CPI ended third with 10 per cent and the Congress fourth with 1.33 per cent. The BJP took away 31 per cent of the vote and almost quadrupled its vote share compared to a year ago.

There is a short-term as well as a long-term implication here. For the immediate future, Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool are unassailable. The rise of the BJP has fragmented the opposition vote even further. It has also consolidated Muslims that much more strongly behind the leading non-BJP party, which happens to be Trinamool. If this sustains, Trinamool can look forward to the coming Lok Sabha election (2019) and even the next assembly election in 2022 with confidence.

Nevertheless, it is apparent the CPI(M)-led Left Front is dying a slow and painful death in Bengal. Those hostile to Trinamool are increasingly shifting their support to the BJP. Since the party's base is low, this will not translate into seats immediately, but the BJP's growth in Bengal is likely to be one of the major themes of Indian politics in the early 2020s. In 2019, it could leave the party hoping to double or treble its Lok Sabha score in a state where it won two parliamentary seats in 2014.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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