The BJP's losses in the bypolls have created new possibilities
The Bharatiya Janata Party's defeats in the by-elections in Gorakhpur, Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh and Araria in Bihar are significant because these two provinces alone elect more than a fifth of the Lok Sabha. With a general election imminent, these results from the Hindi heartland inevitably raise questions about the BJP's chances of repeating the electoral sweeps of North Indian states that propelled it to an absolute majority in 2014. It's worth remembering that in UP alone the BJP and its ally, the Apna Dal, won 73 seats out of a possible 80.
Apart from providing pundits with material to speculate about India's political future, these results help clarify the recent past. The most interesting question thrown up by the BJP's overwhelming victory in the UP assembly elections in March 2017 was this: why did the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi choose to elevate an extremist Hindu monk to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh?
One answer to this question was that the BJP was so beholden to Adityanath for its victory, especially in eastern UP, that his claims to the top job were irresistible. So despite the fact that he wasn't Modi's first choice (or so the speculation went), he got the job because the sangh parivar didn't want a thwarted Adityanath making trouble for the BJP in UP. In this explanation, the BJP sought to domesticate the feral Adityanath by vesting him with the responsibilities of office.
The other, simpler, explanation of his elevation was that Modi who had won the UP election without specifying a chief ministerial candidate on the strength of the sangh parivar's organization and his own charisma chose Adityanath because he thought the time was right to symbolically redeem the promise of a Hindu rashtra. What better way to formally inaugurate the Hindu supremacist project than to make an aggressively majoritarian mahant the ruler of the most politically important state in India?
The second explanation was always the more likely one because it was simpler and accorded with the facts of that election as it unfolded, but if confirmation was needed, the Gorakhpur by-election supplied it. The Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat has been literally owned by the Gorakhnath temple's mahant for decades now. As the chief minister of UP, with all the resources of the State at his disposal, this mighty monk couldn't retain the pocket borough he had just vacated despite campaigning vigorously for his party's candidate. Forget the constituency, Adityanath couldn't even win the polling booth that he customarily votes in. Praveen K. Nishad, the winning candidate, rubbed it in: "BJP got just 43 votes on the polling booth covering Gorakhpur Math where Adityanath cast his vote while SP polled 1,775 votes here. Clearly, the CM is no mass campaigner."
While his party's managers might have been taken by surprise by the result, it wasn't because they saw Adityanath as a mass campaigner; they merely expected him to be able to retain his own backyard as they would any local strongman. Adityanath was made chief minister of UP because he literally embodied reaction: his saffron habit, his vigilante army, his 'Love jihad', his 'anti-Romeo' squads and his gift for incendiary provocation made him a poster boy for Hindu supremacy. Before his elevation, he had called for the family of Mohammad Akhlaque (a man lynched by cow vigilantes) to be arrested, for the compensation given to them to be revoked and for the release of everyone accused of murdering Akhlaque from prison. It was for communal provocations of this sort that he was made chief minister: to indicate that this was what the unfettered Hindu politician looked like. Adityanath was Hindutva Unbound.
Commentators have puzzled over why the BJP recently used Adityanath as a campaigner in southern states like Kerala and Karnataka. A glowering, parochial, monolingual mahant isn't likely to mobilize the Malayali or Kannadiga masses. But this is to mistake his purpose. For the BJP, Adityanath's persona is a shout-out to its core constituency: 'This is who we really are.' He is a reminder of the quality that differentiates the BJP from other parties, its commitment to Hindu supremacy. He is not the BJP's mass campaigner, nor its charismatic crowd-puller; that is and always was Modi. Adityanath is its mascot, its portable, full motion animation of the aggrieved Hindu.
The manner of his humiliation in Gorakhpur has created new political possibilities. The BJP swept UP twice, in the general election of 2014 and, then, the assembly election three years later because its opposition was divided. The lesson of coalition politics had been taught by the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar that defeated the BJP despite Modi's best efforts in the state assembly elections there. The prospect of a grand coalition in UP has been explored before in the early 1990s but there is a powerful sociological argument against it: the principal conflicts in rural Uttar Pradesh are between powerful OBC communities like the Yadavs and Dalits.
The conventional sociological wisdom ignores a few things. One, the Bahujan Samaj Party has always sought the support of non-Yadav OBCs. The winner in Gorakhpur was P.K. Nishad, the son of the founder of the Nishad Party, who used to be a protégé of Kanshi Ram, but later left the BSP. The BSP, on Mayavati's instructions, supported Nishad wholeheartedly in the Gorakhpur election. Secondly, Akhilesh Yadav's willingness to offer a ticket to a non-Yadav OBC party indicates an awareness on his part of the necessity to expand the Samajwadi Party's footprint beyond Yadavs and Muslims. Three, the enthronement of Adityanath has led to a sharp uptick in Thakur violence in UP, to the extent that Dalits seem more willing to overlook the history of Yadav violence to vote for an SP candidate. And four, the boost that an allliance's candidates would receive from consolidated Muslim support ought to be a real incentive for a subaltern coalition.
Gorakhpur demonstrated that the BSP can swing its votes to the SP. What remains to be seen is if the SP can get the Yadavs to reciprocate. One reason why Mayavati hasn't been interested in pre-poll coalitions is that while her constituency does her bidding when it comes to transferring the BSP's votes to another party, it isn't clear, given the entrenched prejudice against Dalits, that the SP's core constituencies would be willing to vote for the BSP's candidates.
But if the SP is serious about winning UP in the general elections and forestalling a second BJP majority government, it has to commit itself to helping its alliance partners win because the BJP is an existential threat to both parties. They have been wiped out twice over: in 2014 and 2017. The lesson from Bihar is clear: hang together or hang separately. The other lesson from Bihar is how difficult it is to stay together. Having found a compelling reason to campaign together (survival), the BSP and the SP need to find a populist agenda that transcends caste fractions. It won't be easy but political extinction does tend to focus the mind.