Prime minister Narendra Modi’s grip over his party and his influence over the electorate was clear in by-election results earlier this month.
Though it did poorly compared to the Lok Sabha elections of a few months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party won most seats of any party in the 33 seats that the Assembly elections were held in. It won three out of 11 in Uttar Pradesh (UP), six out of nine in Gujarat, one out of four in Rajasthan, and one seat each in West Bengal and Assam. However, it was felt generally that the party had lost.

An analysis in The Hindu said that the BJP’s loss was against the trend of ruling parties in India. The Congress and its allies “had won almost two-thirds and four-fifths of the Assembly by-elections post the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections in States where they were in power.”
In my opinion, the BJP’s top leadership is not that worried and I will explain why later.
Commenting on the results, UP’s young chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who has been under attack in the media for a long time, said his win was because of the BJP’s negative policies. The BJP’s team in UP has been talking about something it calls “Love Jihad”, meaning the seduction of Hindu girls by Muslim men, whose real motive was to convert them.
Some instances were cited as fact, but there was not much data to back it up, as might be expected. This was a story which had no resonance in the electorate and should not have been given the importance that the BJP gave it. But was it the real reason for the BJP’s performance in UP? I don’t think so, because this did not appear to be a negative vote.
In UP, one of the three main parties, Mayawati’s BSP, abstained and did not contest the election. Analysis showed that the BJP’s vote share has actually increased by more than five per cent, meaning that at least some of the BSP voters came to vote for the Hindutva party.
Ascribing the BJP defeat to its “Love Jihad” campaign, Congressman Shakil Ahmad said: “It is a rejection of the BJP’s hate politics.” The number of votes do not indicate this.
The other state where the BJP clearly lost was Rajasthan. The BJP won every single Lok Sabha seat during Modi’s campaign and this is mainly why its defeat (it lost three seats out of four) in the assembly by-elections was seen as a disaster. However, Rajasthan has always been a tough two-party fight between the BJP and the Congress and this by-election does not indicate any medium-term or long-term trend.
In Gujarat, which Modi nurtured for 12 years, the trend was not against the BJP and it won six out of nine seats. This shows that the Congress is still shut out of this two-party state, which last gave the Gandhis a majority in 1985.
In West Bengal, the BJP won one seat, for the first time in its history without allies, and came second in another, getting more votes than either the Left front and the Congress in both seats. It can now claim to be a major player in one of India’s largest states, and this rise is largely because of the popularity of Modi.
All in all, it was not a bad result for Modi personally. He will have observed that in his absence (he did not campaign for the by-elections) his party does poorly. It is his presence and leadership which brings in that winning share of the vote. The BJP’s brilliant Lok Sabha win in UP was attributed in part to Modi’s charisma and in part to the organisational and mobilisation skills of party president Amit Shah. The by-election defeat shows that Modi’s contribution was far more important than Shah’s. The true strength of the BJP can only thus be seen when Modi is in the field of battle, as the elections later this year in Maharashtra will prove.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2014.