New Delhi: A slew of by-election results from 11 states on Thursday jolted the BJP a year ahead of a general election and strengthened the perception that a united Opposition could spell trouble for the Narendra Modi government.
The BJP lost two Lok Sabha seats in the party-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, and won just one of the 11 Assembly constituencies where by-elections were held. A united Opposition snatched the Kairana Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh and Bhandara-Gondiya in Maharashtra.
A series of by-election defeats has now reduced the BJP's Lok Sabha tally from the high of 282 in 2014 to 273. Thursday's results prompted fear in party circles about a significantly reduced tally, if not outright defeat, for the ruling alliance in the next general election.
An angry Shiv Sena lashed out at bigger partner BJP - against whom it had contested the Palghar Lok Sabha by-election and lost - fraying a coalition already weakened by the exit of the Telugu Desam.
Although the Sena didn't announce its departure from the NDA as widely speculated, party chief Uddhav Thackeray's comments appeared ominous for the BJP.
"The BJP doesn't need friends," Uddhav said, accusing the party of buying voters in Palghar and appearing to celebrate the way it was "taught a lesson" in Kairana.
In private, many BJP politicians expressed fear about more allies leaving closer to the general election if they felt that the so-called "Modi magic" was waning.
Uddhav said: "When BJP came to power in 2014, we thought this government is here to stay for at least 25 years. But just after four years, they are losing most by-elections."
The most significant message seemed to come from Uttar Pradesh, where successive "Modi waves" in 2014 and 2017 had lifted the BJP to power at the Centre and in Lucknow, respectively. Kairana in the west of the heartland state has now shown, after Gorakhpur and Phulpur in its east in March, that Opposition unity can stymie the BJP.
Kairana has dealt a personal blow to Modi, who had broken with his practice of not campaigning in by-elections by holding a poll-eve rally in neighbouring Baghpat to inaugurate an expressway -which was a barely concealed election meeting.
But the BJP, which had won the seat by more than 2.3 lakh votes in 2014, lost by nearly 50,000 votes to a Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate supported by the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. The BJP also lost the Noorpur Assembly segment in the same region, embarrassing chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whom the party uses as a star campaigner in other states.
In Bihar, which the BJP had swept in 2014, its ally Janata Dal United lost the Jokihat Assembly seat by a huge margin.
In Maharashtra, the BJP retained Palghar but lost Bhandara-Gondiya to Sharad Pawar's NCP, which was backed by the Congress. If this was an indication that a Congress-NCP arrangement for the Lok Sabha polls could cost the BJP, the losses could deepen if the Sena snapped ties and struck a deal with the Opposition.
Among the 11 Assembly seats, the BJP failed to retain Tharali in its backyard of Uttarakhand and lost R.R. Nagar to the Congress in Karnataka. Ally Akali Dal gave up Shahkot in Punjab to the Congress#by a huge margin. In Jharkhand, a united Opposition retained two Assembly segments.
The BJP was tight-lipped, its representatives merely repeating party chief Amit Shah's line that by-elections are not a mandate on Modi, but outspoken party MP Subramanian Swamy flagged his concern.
"This huge setback in by-polls is due to Hubris," Swamy tweeted. "The trend can be reversed if party stops rewarding sycophancy.... BJP has infrastructure to bounce back but needs new ethos."
Union home minister Rajnath Singh felt the setback was temporary and hoped the BJP would stage a big victory in the general election. "To make a big leap, one has to step back a tad," he said.
In private, BJP insiders feared that if the Opposition stayed united, there could be similar setbacks in the upcoming Assembly elections in the three BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, ahead of the general election due next summer.