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By-election Signals

By-election Signals

It was Abraham Lincoln, easily one of the greatest US presidents, who said that “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” At least some of the readers would have recalled this quote when the results of the recent by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar went against the ruling BJP. 

The results exposed three leading politicians — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar — for what they are, simply gasbags. Their success was built on the foundations of deception, falsehood, communal polarisation and crony capitalism. 

Like the foolish man who built his house on the foundation of shifting sands which collapsed when the first rain hit the house, their edifices too have shown signs of coming apart.

Take the case of Gorakhpur, considered a saffron citadel. The seat was vacated by Adityanath on his becoming the Chief Minister. He had been winning the seat ever since he entered electoral politics in 1998. As the head of the Gorakhnath Mutt, which has considerable following in what was once the Kosala Kingdom of which Lord Ram was the greatest ruler, he was considered invincible. 

The Mutt has always played a major role in Indian politics. The Chauri Chaura incident in which 22 policemen were burnt alive forcing Mahatma Gandhi to discontinue his non-cooperation movement was the handiwork of those associated with the Mutt. Adityanath’s predecessor was arrested for a provocative speech instigating the assassination of Gandhi. The Mutt and its followers were allegedly behind the planting of an idol in the Babri Masjid.

It is a secret known to everyone in Gorakhpur that it was the trained followers of the Mutt who flattened the Babri Masjid in one day using ropes, hammers, pickaxes and other tools. It was not possible for a crowd however large it was to bring down the centuries-old shrine with bare hands. All this made him dear to the RSS which insisted on his becoming the chief minister, though he did not even contest the Assembly elections.

However, not many paid much attention to a straw in the wind. In the municipal elections in Gorakhpur in 2017, the ward in which the Gorakhnath temple is situated, i.e., Ward No. 68, was won by Nadira Khatoon, an elderly Muslim lady who contested as an Independent. She defeated Maya Tripathi of the BJP by 483 votes. 

She attributed her victory to Baba, as Adityanath is known in the area for she did not have to do much campaigning. She only had to point out the choked drains, broken roads and garbage heaps in the old Gorakhpur area, where her ward is situated, to get votes. It is not known whether Adityanath voted in the election. If he had, he had voted for a candidate who was roundly defeated.

Adityanath was notorious for his abrasive manner and acerbic tongue. For him the minorities were an expendable commodity. There were many heinous charges against him but on becoming chief minister, he got the cases withdrawn. The RSS saw him as an alternative to Modi in the false belief that what people wanted was Hindutva, not vikas or development. Nagpur relied so much on him that he was sent to Kerala to kickstart the padyatra of BJP chief Kummanam Rajasekharan. He became a laughing stock when he criticised the healthcare system in Kerala, easily the best in India. He was used extensively in the recent elections in the Northeast.

The people of Gorakhpur realised that he did not have a development agenda when his efforts have been to harass the Muslims. In the name of cow protection, he has deprived the Dalits and Muslims of their traditional jobs. He banned all leather items from the Chief Minister’s house. It did not bother him that thousands of workers employed in tannery lost their jobs. He had no clue about the state of the Gorakhpur medical college right under his nose where over five dozen infants died for want of oxygen in August last year.

In the process, the CM exposed his lack of administrative skill. It was not surprising that a person who paid scant regard to the rule of law failed to enforce the law when his followers took the law into their own hands as at Kasganj. No other state witnessed as many communal incidents as UP in 2017. Some even saw him as Modi’s successor, given the goodwill he enjoyed among the RSS chieftains. One picture shows Adityanath feeding a tiger cub. There are many animal lovers who consider the tiger worthier of the title of the King of Animals than the lion.

Alas, Adityanath was proved to be a paper tiger when the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party came together to take the fight into his own citadel. He called them snakes and rats who together escaped from the flood waters. The voters of Gorakhpur would now be laughing at his knavery.

One secret in the BJP is that Modi did not want Adityanath as Chief Minister for he feared that he would not dance to his whimsical tunes. His candidate was Keshav Prasad Maurya, who was allowed to become the deputy chief minister. It was a measure of the BJP’s disdain for democracy that when the party recorded a historic win in UP, it did not find anyone worthy of the post of CM or Deputy CM among the large crop of MLAs.

Maurya represented Phulpur, the seat first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru represented till his death in harness. The BJP thought that by appointing Maurya, a backward caste member, it would be able to make inroads into the support base of the Samajwadi Party. By making one Dalit the President of India, the BJP strategists thought that the Dalit votes were in their pocket.

If anything it showed how prestigious Phulpur was to the BJP. Maurya proved himself to be a man of straw, who was unable to defend his seat when the SP-BSP combine challenged him in his own stronghold. The spin-masters in the BJP have already floated a theory that the election results showed that Modi alone could win votes. In other words, the defeat of the BJP in UP and Bihar made him unrivalled. This is a fallacious theory.

Take the case of the Delhi Assembly elections in which the BJP ended up being an auto-rickshaw party. Only three of the party men could make it to the 70-member House. In fact, the MLA of the area where Modi’s official house is situated belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party. True, it won Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where anti-incumbency prevailed but it lost Bihar, Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland though it managed to form governments in all these states barring Punjab.

In fact, the joke is that the BJP is so capable of forming a government that it needs to win only two seats as in Meghalaya. In 2014, the BJP won 282 seats on its own, 10 more than necessary to command a simple majority. Today the party strength is down to 272, excluding the Speaker. If one MP resigns from the party, Modi’s government will become a minority government.

No one knows this better than the BJP’s allies whom Modi had been taking for granted. They were never consulted on policy issues while every effort was made to encroach upon their territory in their states. Small wonder that the Shiv Sena, once considered the natural ally of the BJP, is Modi’s bitterest critic.

There is growing realisation among the NDA partners that Modi would not be able to win them votes in 2019, given his failure to redeem the promises made to the electorate. Those who expected Rs 15 lakh to reach their bank accounts feel disappointed. Tens of millions of poor people who were forced to open bank accounts realise that they are unable to maintain minimum balance. They are forced to pay a fee for not maintaining such balance.

The BJP which questions the SP-BSP alliance had no compunction in forming an alliance in J&K with a party it used to accuse of being secessionist. While claiming credit for ending the Haj subsidy, it promised to send Christians in the Northeast to the Holy Land at state cost. A party that loses credibility is a party that loses its vitals. That is what happened to the BJP.

Bihar has a leader, Nitish Kumar, who once refused to dine with Modi. He did not want to be seen anywhere near him. He formed an alliance with Lalu Yadav’s RJD and the Congress to defeat Modi. The grand alliance was able to trounce the BJP. The popular verdict was very clear — the BJP must remain in the opposition. However, Modi and his Sancho Panza entered into a secret deal with Kumar to oust the RJD from power and send Lalu to the jail.

Modi thought that he had strengthened the party by entering into an unholy alliance with Nitish Kumar. The RJD won the Araria Lok Sabha seat and the Jehanabad Assembly seat while the BJP retained the Babhua Assembly seat. What’s worse, Union minister Giriraj Singh, who asks anyone who opposes him to go to Pakistan, said that Araria would become a safe haven for the Pakistani terrorists. Why did he say that?

Because the RJD candidate who won the seat is Sarfaraz Alam, a Muslim. In saying so, the minister was admitting that neither Modi nor Nitish Kumar was a match for a young MP. If the Prime Minister was sensible and sensitive, he would have immediately sacked the minister from Bihar who talks nonsense. Come to think of it, the BJP which did not field any Muslim candidate in Gujarat, UP, Himachal, Uttarakhand etc could not even accept the victory of a Muslim candidate.

But, then, the voters know only too well that Modi had himself accused his predecessor of colluding with Pakistanis in his bid to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the Gujarat Assembly elections. True, the Congress suffered in all these by-elections. It is because the party has been losing its credibility. Had the RJD fielded its candidate in Babhua, it could have wrested the seat.

BSP leader Mayavati was shrewd enough not to field a candidate in Gorakhpur and Phulpur while the Congress was foolish enough to field its own candidates in these two constituencies. Had it withdrawn its candidates when Mayavati announced her decision to support the SP, it could have at least claimed some credit for the BJP’s defeat.

Alas, the party has been losing its credibility by becoming a  faded copy of the BJP. It is unable to take a stand on most issues because it thinks that its soft Hindutva would appeal to the electorate. In Tripura the whole party converted itself into the BJP. The elections are a clear pointer to the fact that if the Opposition unites against the BJP in 2019, Modi will find himself driven to the wall.

Having said this, one should not underestimate the BJP’s mischief-making potential. The first thing that the District Magistrate of Gorakhpur did when the first trends of the BJP losing the by-election came was to throw the journalists out and curtain the area of counting. It led to widespread protest forcing the DM to make amends. His intention was certainly questionable.

The BJP is in power. It has its nominees in key positions. All the Raj Bhavans are filled with their Swayamsevaks. Even the Army Chief has started speaking like a BJP man. In Gujarat, the BJP was losing by-election after by-election when Godhra was created. In the election held after the riots, Modi returned to power with a huge majority. He created a false impression that Gujarat had developed during his dispensation. In terms of economic development, it is behind Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra and in terms of social indices it is far behind Himachal Pradesh and Mizoram, not to mention Kerala.

The point that needs to be noted is that the Indian voters are emotional. It was an emotional outburst that gave Rajiv Gandhi the kind of majority even his mother did not get. It was the propaganda blitz against the UPA that helped Modi win the elections in 2014. The BJP can be expected to create a situation whereby there is a swing in its favour. Even thinking about what it can do is horrendous.

The by-election victories are definitely a shot in the arm for the Opposition but it should not remain complacent. The BJP has an inexhaustible capacity for political, communal and religious trickery against which all those who believe in a democratic, secular India should remain vigilant. After all, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 19th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 12)