When finance minister Arun Jaitley was reading his budget speech in Parliament, the ground was slipping under the feet of BJP candidates in the Rajasthan and West Bengal bypolls. The BJP’s defeat in West Bengal’s Noapara assembly segment and Uluberia Lok Sabha seat was a foregone conclusion as the ruling Trinamool Congress continues to dominate state politics. The setback in Rajasthan — a state that had given the BJP a massive mandate in 2013 and given all the 25 Lok Sabha seats to the party in 2014 — has certainly set the alarm bells ringing. More than the loss of the BJP in Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats and Mandalgarh assembly segment it is the magnitude of the defeat that has caused concern.
Two messages are clear from the bypoll results. First, the downward trend the BJP experienced in its bastion, Gujarat, is spreading to other strongholds. Second, ominously for the ruling party, the Congress is showing signs of revival. Both the takeaways do not augur well for prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah who are busy plotting a comeback in the 2019 general elections. Budget 2018 was seen as the sounding of the poll bugle but it is the economic policies of the government that have sown seeds of discontentment among voters. The BJP managed to hold power in Gujarat but emerged badly bruised in the victory. Jaitley’s budget seems to have taken a cue from the Gujarat verdict and was seen as a course correction. But the latest bypoll results could force the government to alter the course. All eyes will be on the next round of bypolls scheduled to be held in two assembly segments — Mungaoli and Kollaras — in Madhya Pradesh, another BJP stronghold.
Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh form the core of the Hindi heartland that has remained firmly with the BJP. They are the key in the scheme of things for the party if it wants to return to power in 2019 as together they constitute 65 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP has already hit the saturation point in these states leaving no scope for improvement but all the chances of slide. In West Bengal, the BJP’s prized catch from the Trinamool Congress — Mukul Roy — could not weave his magic as Mamata Banerjee had the last laugh. The BJP has geared up for polls and the question now is when will it go to the people for a fresh mandate. New Delhi’s political circles are abuzz with possibilities of an early general elections and speculations about the timing varies from as early as May this year when assembly polls are due in Karnataka, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland or December when the governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will face electorates. Advancing the elections has not proved to be a prudent strategy in the past as was experienced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.