If the SP-BSP alliance can’t win Phulpur, we should be ready to see the BJP repeat its Uttar Pradesh performance in 2019.
All eyes are now focused on the April-May assembly elections in Karnataka, where pundits say chief minister Siddaramaiah is giving the BJP a good fight. It will be a morale booster for the Congress to win Karnataka, but little else. Even if the BJP loses the state, the impact on the 2019 elections will be limited.
For one, people vote differently in Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections. Secondly, even after Karnataka, the BJP will have enough time to craft an altogether different, national campaign.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept many states. It won all of Rajasthan’s 25 seats and Gujarat’s 26. Such accidents don’t happen often, certainly not to incumbents. The largest chunk of Lok Sabha seats, Uttar Pradesh’s 80, is particularly crucial. The BJP won 71 of them, with another 2 grabbed by the Apna Dal, an east UP party that harvests Kurmi votes.
The calculations for 2019 presume the BJP won’t be able to repeat that kind of numbers, certainly not when there’s no UPA-II that India wants to free itself from. The BJP will have all levels of anti-incumbency to overcome – at the level of MLAs and MPs, state government, and Modi’s own.
The Karnataka result, even if the Congress resoundingly retains the state, will be forgotten by the end of this year. But one bypoll will indicate the direction for 2019 more than any election anywhere this year. It’s the Phulpur Lok Sabha seat.
On 11 March, over 19 lakh voters of this historic seat will choose their Lok Sabha representative. The one they had chosen in 2014, Keshav Prasad Maurya, became the state’s deputy chief minister in 2017.
Jawaharlal Nehru used to represent Phulpur, and, in 1962, defeated socialist ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia from the seat.
But since the 1990s, Phulpur has been a stronghold of the Samajwadi Party (SP), which reveres Lohia. Another socialist ideologue, Janeshwar Mishra, won the seat in a bypoll in 1996. V.P. Singh, who won Phulpur on a Congress ticket in 1971, went on to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 to become India’s third non-Congress Prime Minister.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won it once, in 2009. The BJP won it the first time ever with the Modi wave in 2014. Come 2018, could Phulpur make history again?
Here are six reasons why Phulpur is so significant:
1. If the BJP loses Phulpur, it will strengthen the belief that the party, having reached a saturation point, can only lose seats in the Hindi heartland now. There are a very few states, such as Odisha, where the BJP can substantially increase its tally in 2019.
2. BSP founder Kanshi Ram had contested from Phulpur in 1996, when the SP’s Jang Bahadur Patel, a Kurmi, defeated him. In 2018, the Dalit-led BSP is supporting the SP against the BJP. Will Dalits actually vote for the SP?
If the SP wins this bypoll, support will grow for a BSP-SP alliance against the BJP in 2019. That could well be the biggest game-changer, affecting PM Narendra Modi’s re-election bid.
3. In UP, the BJP went from being the insignificant third pole to suddenly becoming the dominant party in 2014. It managed to retain that position in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections because of its near-total stranglehold over non-Yadav OBCs, who account for around 30% of the population. The Kurmis are among the key non-Yadav OBC communities. Phulpur is so heavily dominated by Kurmis that it is an exception when a non-Kurmi wins.
If the BJP loses Phulpur, it will indicate its grip over non-Yadav OBCs in UP is loosening. Are UP’s OBCs still happy with the BJP?
4. While the SP has been desperate for an alliance with the BSP, it has already said it is not keen to ally with the Congress in 2019. The SP hopes that the Congress instead puts up upper caste candidates who cut the BJP’s potential votes. That is exactly what the Congress is doing with a Brahmin candidate for the Phulpur bypoll.
5. When the results of the Phulpur bypoll come out on 13 March, we’ll know whether Phulpur’s Muslim voters voted ‘tactically’ to defeat the BJP or whether they again let their votes split. For, there is a powerful Independent candidate in the fray this by-election, Atique Ahmed.
A mafia don facing cases of kidnapping and murder, he was sidelined in the SP as Akhilesh Yadav tried to change the party’s criminal-friendly image. Now, Atique will contest from jail to teach Akhilesh a lesson. Had it not been for Atique, the BJP would have been in trouble in Phulpur.
6. Keshav Prasad Maurya had won over 5 lakh votes in Phulpur in 2014. The Congress, the BSP, and the SP had contested separately – but all their votes together didn’t exceed Maurya’s. That is what the Modi wave was like. Now, without the anti-UPA-II Modi wave of 2014, can the BJP still retain Phulpur? Or will governance issues affect the BJP’s votes? This will also test the double anti-incumbency risk.
The BSP’s support to the SP has a lot going for it in Phulpur, amid a declining Modi narrative. If it still can’t win, we should be ready to see the BJP repeat its UP performance in 2019.
There’s also the bypoll in Gorakhpur, but the BJP should retain Yogi Adityanath’s home turf since it has never lost the seat since 1991.
Shivam Vij is a political commentator based in New Delhi.