The results of by-elections to 18 assembly constituencies in Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab are in line with the Uttarakhand by-polls last month where the Congress swept all three seats despite drawing a blank in the Lok Sabha (LS) elections. The emphatic national wave that propelled Narendra Modi to power has curiously been absent in all these states despite the BJP sweeping most of these seats, just three months ago. Not surprisingly, the Congress and opposition parties are at pains to portray the results as a referendum on the great expectations raised by Modi on the campaign trail. While the results are certainly a warning to Prime Minister Modi, it is far too early to interpret them as a verdict on the government’s performance. Of course, the promise to tame inflation has faltered. The economic policies appear to be a continuation of the UPA government. While voters have clearly sent a message that they cannot be taken for granted, powerful local factors were clearly at play in these by-polls, rather than a national outlook.
In Bihar, where Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) allied with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and the Congress, the electoral arithmetic of the LS elections, which saw a fragmenting of the non-BJP votes, has been inverted. In Madhya Pradesh, where the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government was bruised by the Vyapam scam relating to admissions in medical colleges, the BJP has lost a sitting seat. The BJP has failed to learn the lessons from the 2013 Karnataka assembly election drubbing and the widespread public disapproval of the Bellary mining scam. The party has lost the Bellary rural seat to the Congress. Though the tainted B Sriramulu was wooed back and he won the Bellary LS elections in conformity with the national trend, the gains have proved short-lived. In Patiala, where the Aam Aadmi Party upset the Congress’ Preneet Kaur in the general elections, the AAP candidate has lost his deposit. Kaur’s return to winning ways and the Akali Dal’s victory at Talwandi Sabo indicate that the fledgling AAP’s spectacular wins in the LS polls was a momentary anti-incumbency vote against both the SAD and the Congress, that has not endured long enough.
While the Congress and its allies can draw comfort from the results, the Congress-ruled and Congress-supported state governments in poll-bound Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir are certain to face the brunt of anti-incumbency. In May, the Congress could pick up just three seats, and its allies just six, of the 78 Lok Sabha seats in these four states. For Nitish and Lalu, the impressive performance has validated their decision to join forces. The anticipated coalescing of the Muslim-Yadav-Backward Caste vote appears to have occurred. In May, the JD(U) and the RJD-Congress combine fighting the elections separately secured only 15.8 and 28.8 per cent of the votes respectively and just 8 seats against the NDA which garnered 38.8 per cent of votes and 31 seats. The experiment could be replicated in UP, where the SP, BSP and the Congress polled 22.2, 19.6 and 7.5 per cent of votes respectively and just seven seats against the NDA’s 43.3 per cent votes and 73 seats. Before that, Mulayam and Mayawati must bury the hatchet and sell the idea to their mutually antagonistic support-base of Yadavs and Dalits. Herein lies the inherent weakness, and the diminishing returns, of social engineering. Good governance becomes the first casualty as selective appeasement becomes the means and ends.