The outcome of the 32 by-elections—29 assembly and three parliamentary—were a mixed bag for the BJP and the ruling NDA coalition. The BJP managed to retain its supremacy in Assam and Madhya Pradesh and breached the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s dominance over Telangana but yielded ground in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, could not recoup from its defeat in the West Bengal assembly polls and Rajasthan.
On the other hand, despite the Congress’s shambolic state and the absence of directions from its headless centre, the party made big gains in Himachal Pradesh and a smaller one in Madhya Pradesh but showed no sign of recuperating in its former stronghold, Andhra Pradesh that has since been bifurcated into Telangana. There was a symbolic message for the Congress in two wins: the Mandi Lok Sabha in Himachal Pradesh which has the chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s Seraj assembly constituency and Karnataka’s Hangal assembly seat that falls in the chief minister Basavaraj Bommai’s backyard.
For the BJP’s central leadership, the blow from Mandi and Hangal could not have been harder because Thakur and Bommai were cherry picked by the central high command over veterans. While the Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan posted the loss of one assembly seat, Raigaon among three and retained Khandwa Lok Sabha, despite not being a “high command” nominee and, therefore, constantly subject to speculation over his continuance, the only Delhi favourite to come out in shining colours was Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Indeed, among the BJP’s recent crop of regional leaders, Sarma is pretty much his own man who has ensured he has a free run in the north-east as a whole. Himachal votes in 2022 and it remains to be seen if Thakur is told to shape up or ship out. The BJP has changed chief ministers in election-bound states like Uttarakhand and Gujarat, so Thakur might possibly become another casualty and make way for his surname sake and central minister Anurag Thakur, a reigning favourite of the BJP brass. Bommai, who took over from BS Yeddyurappa, the old war horse, as the Karnataka CM had the complete endorsement of the big two. Home minister Amit Shah publicly declared he would lead the BJP in the Karnataka elections. However, in dissidence-prone Karnataka, which did not even let the much more powerful Yeddyurappa to ever breathe easy, Bommai will not find the going easy from now on.
He possibly figured out the stakes in the two assembly by-polls and focussed on Hangal, supposedly his borough. Bommai and half his cabinet camped there for weeks and he implored Yeddyurappa to canvas for votes which the former CM did. The BJP comfortably wrested Sindgi, the other seat, previously held by the Janata Dal (Secular) that was decimated despite the campaigning by the Deve Gowda clan.
Two other BJP regional worthies merit attention in the context of the by-polls: Rajasthan’s Vasundhara Raje and West Bengal’s Suvendu Adhikari. The Congress, despite being beset by internal rivalry between the chief minister Ashok Gehlot and the deputy CM Sachin Pilot, acquitted itself well in Dhariawad and Vallabhnagar. In Vallabhnagar, the BJP came third after the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party’s nominee.
Since the BJP lost the 2018 election, the central leadership exerted hard to marginalise the former CM, Vasundhara who was relocated to the central party organisation as a vice-president, an ornamental office. The BJP brass tried hard to project an alternative face like central minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. Vasundhara distanced herself from the official BJP and without declaring herself a rebel, mobilised support independently for her programmes. The message in the rout is clear: unless Vasundhara’s primacy is restored in Rajasthan, the BJP has little chance of making headway.
Adhikari was amply rewarded after he defeated Mamata Banerjee in the assembly election from Nandigram. He was appointed as the Opposition leader and emerged as the BJP’s go-to man in West Bengal to the detriment of ignoring the old hands. Despite his tall claims, Adhikari has not delivered a victory in the by-polls. He stated that the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh had become a major talking point for the voters and would fetch for the BJP, victories in the border constituencies. That did not happen. The faction-ridden West Bengal BJP will hold Adhikari’s conduct for scrutiny in future.
Why was the BJP wiped out in Himachal? In Mandi, people sympathised with Pratibha Singh, the Congress’s candidate and wife of the late chief minister Virbhadra Singh. Other factors came into play, the most important being the plight of the apple growers who were hit with the arrival of the Adani group. Apples hold aloft Himachal’s economy. Adani opened a chain of controlled atmosphere stores (CAS) that purchase only high quality apples. Despite a market share of about 5 percent, the CAS determines the price which per kg is far less than what the APMC or Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees pay farmers. That has a cascading effect because the price in the open markets falls lower than what Adani offers. The BJP was traditionally anti-subsidies. In the ‘90s, Shanta Kumar, its former CM, withdrew the MSP on apples and lost the election in 1993.
The Shiv Sena made its second foray (the first was when Pawan Pandey won the Akbarpur assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh) outside Maharashtra by wresting the Dadra and Nagar Haveli seat from the BJP. It fielded Kalaben Mohanbhai Delkar, the widow of Mohan Delkar, the former MP, who committed suicide amid a blaze of controversies.
For the BJP, the silver lining was spotted in Telangana where its candidate, Eatala Rajender defeated the ruling TRS in Huzurabad. Rajender was a founding member of the TRS but fell out with the chief minister K Chandrashekhara Rao after which he quit and joined the BJP.