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Every Monday, I’ll be taking you through the fascinating, chaotic and high-stakes world of Indian politics. The India Fix will break down one major story for the week, helping you understand the country better and saving you from the screaming matches that often pass for “news” nowadays.

This week, we look at the recent bye-poll results and what they mean for the BJP.

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The Big Story: Doddery dominion

On the eve of Diwali, Indians woke up to an unusual sight: a cut in fuel prices. On Wednesday, the Modi government decided to lower excise duty on petrol by Rs 5 and on diesel by Rs 10. It was the first excise cut in three years. Taking the cue, 22 BJP-ruled states and Union territories also followed suit, slashing the value added tax on fuel.

Driven by regular hikes since the 2020 Covid lockdown, fuel prices across the country had reached unprecedented levels, with the BJP government seemingly ignoring political pressure in order to shore up tax revenue.

So what made the government change its mind now? The most probable answer: a bumpy show by the BJP in the bye-polls the previous day.

The results for three Lok Sabha seats and 29 Assembly seats were declared on Tuesday. Out of this, the BJP won one Lok Sabha seat and seven Assembly seats: a net loss of one Lok Sabha seat for the saffron party.

  • Assam was the brightest spot for the BJP where it, along with an ally, swept all five seats. 
  • In Madhya Pradesh, it managed to increase its tally by one. 
  • In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP ended up losing all four seats: one Lok Sabha and three Assembly. 
  • There was an even greater opposition sweep in West Bengal, with the Trinamool winning all four assembly seats. 
  • In Rajasthan too, the BJP lost both Assembly seats to the Congress.

Inflation has long been battering India with curiously little impact on politics. The BJP’s reversals in Himachal, a state where it is in government, change that. The chief minister admitted price rise was a major factor that drove the poor result for the party. The scale of the bye-poll loss points to the BJP being in significant trouble in the Assembly elections due in the state next year.

In Bengal, not only did the BJP fail to win a seat, it lost its deposit in three out of the four contests. Worse, the bye-polls saw a significant number of voters move from the BJP to the Left, signifying that the BJP’s poor performance in the Assembly elections earlier this year could be a feature of Bengali politics for the near to medium term.

What spells more trouble for the party: in all of the three Lok Sabha seats that saw bye-polls, the BJP’s vote share fell. Even in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, a Lok Sabha seat which the BJP won, the percentage of votes it polled dropped from 57% in 2019 to 49% in this bye-poll. The second place Congress, on the other hand, saw its vote share go up from 38% to 43%.

BJP stutters without a national trend

The first thing the results highlight is the lack of a national trend powering the BJP in 2021. There is no Modi factor, for instance, that can act as an overwhelming force for the saffron party at the moment.

In Telangana, it won an impressive victory in the Huzurabad seat but on the back of a Telangana Rashtra Samithi defector. In Himachal, it was undone by bread and butter issues. While the BJP lost Haryana’s Ellenabad, it still did well, coming in second place with a loss margin of less than 7,000 votes. Here again the dynamics were local, driven by the farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws which aim to liberalise Indian agriculture. Given that the agitation is largely driven by Jat farmers, the Ellenabad result shows that the saffron party’s non-Jat coalition is intact and backs the party.

In Bengal, on the other hand, with the BJP gaining almost no advantage of being in power in Delhi, the Trinamool’s 800-pound gorilla flattened it.

BJP now faces a troubling shortage of strong state leaders

In the absence of any national narrative, regional leaders became an important factor for the BJP as well as the Opposition. In states like Assam, with Himanta Biswa Sarma in the chief minister’s chair, the BJP excelled. In Rajasthan, not so much. In Karnataka, with a high-command selected chief minister, the BJP lost the Hangal Assembly seat, till now a saffron bastion, sending shock waves through the party. And with no major local leaders in Bengal up against a very strong state party, the result was disastrous.

This could be very bad news for the BJP in the future given that Modi’s banyan tree has prevented regional leaders from organically emerging in the party, with state chief ministers now being, Congress-style, anointed by the high command.

BJP’s brahmastra: A strong national narrative

Notably this isn’t a new trend: the BJP has always struggled in the absence of a big national narrative. Since 2014, the BJP has consistently done worse in state elections than in national polls. Without a national narrative and with local issues and leaders in play, the BJP stutters at the state level. In contrast, in the Lok Sabha, with big issues such as Modi’s personality, Hindutva or conflict with Pakistan, which acted as the party’s 2019 trump card, the party has been able to batter the opposition.

While the lack of a national narrative might have helped the opposition in these bye-polls, the fact that there were significant bright spots for the BJP even in the face of widespread economic pain shows that the party could always bounce back strongly in a Lok Sabha election if it can get a national narrative going. Note that the BJP had lost two Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh in bye-polls held in 2018. However, any weaknesses the party had were completely washed away by the “Balakot bump” as a pro-BJP national security narrative swept the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, following Indian and Pakistani fighter aircraft bombing each other in February.

After the BJP’s massive 2019 win, many experts noted the emergence of a new party system. The first electoral configuration existed from 1952 to 1967 and featured unquestioned Congress dominance at both the Centre and in the states. From 1967 to 1989, the Congress was still dominant at the Centre but faced growing competition at the state level. From 1989 to 2014, India saw the age of coalitions – a federal system where there was no central pole and parties had to use coalitions to capture power.

These bye-polls give us more data to flesh out this fourth party system. There is little doubt that the BJP is and will be for some time now the dominant pole of Indian politics. This feature leaps out during national elections. Even now, post a lacklustre bye-poll performance, poor economy, and massive national security problems with respect to China, it is quite probable that a BJP would win a hypothetical national election were it to be held now, especially against a divided opposition.

In that, the BJP’s dominance is similar to the Congress’s till 1989. However, where the two diverge is that the BJP’s hegemony seems much shakier. The grip of the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira Gandhi, with the Congress at various points controlling nearly every state and of course national politics, is something the BJP is still some way from. Even as Modi is the tallest leader, multiple factors including strong regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee can clearly play a significant role in making sure that the BJP has to run hard on the treadmill of Indian politics simply to maintain its current position.

Can’t make this up

A desperately poor Uttar Pradesh set up a grand, state-sponsored celebration of Diwali. Only for it to end in this: