Precisely five days before he was all set to celebrate completion of his first year in office, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath received the biggest shock of his life—BJP’s defeat in his own Lok Sabha seat held by him and his guru Mahant Awaidyanath for nearly three long decades.
What further jolted the ruling BJP was the party’s devastation in the Phulpur Lok Sabha constituency, held by Yogi’s deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya. The bypoll to the two seats was held after these two BJP bigwigs stepped down from the Lok Sabha to join the state legislative council. Both seats had been won by Yogi and Maurya with margins of over 3 lakh votes in the 2014 general elections.
It was the last minute understanding between Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Party Party (BSP) that gave BJP a run for its money. The saffron brigade’s hopes were dashed as BSP supremo Mayawati, who kept her party out of the fray, succeeded remarkably in ensuring transfer of her party’s committed vote to the SP nominee in a short span of eight days.
Other factors, including the overall functioning of the Yogi government, were bound to have come into play. The foremost factor could be the much-hyped, oft-repeated tall claims of the oft-boasting chief minister on “development.” Significantly, even the two high profile pockets of Gorakhpur and Phulpur received not much more than lip service in the name of development. The state government’s failure to bring any visible change in the lives of people saw disillusionment set in among the electorate, whose turnout remained very low in both seats.
It was not just Yogi’s personal prestige that was at stake, but also that of the Gorakhnath temple, whose sublime following of millions was responsible for getting Yogi five consecutive terms in the Lok Sabha from Gorakhpur. His guru Mahant Awaidyanath held the seat for three terms before that.
However, what became the game-changer was the sudden bonhomie between traditional arch-political adversaries—SP and BSP—something that BJP was not prepared for. The hostility between SP and BSP was too blatant, deep-rooted and personal, so much so that Mayawati was openly averse even to any suggestion of shaking hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav, ever since the SP patriarch (as then UP CM) had unleashed terror on her during the infamous State Guest House attack in Lucknow way back in 1995.
However, political compulsions led new SP chief Akhilesh Yadav to send feelers to Mayawati for a rapprochement, which eventually worked out at the eleventh hour of the bypoll campaign. BJP could not foresee that, and even after the alliance was announced, the saffron brigade took it a bit too lightly, with top BJP leaders mocking the ‘Bua-Bhatija’ alliance.
While BJP’s win in Phulpur seemed uncertain, that it would win Gorakhpur seemed a foregone conclusion by insiders and Opposition alike.
Perhaps, it was the arrogance of power that filled BJP with over-confidence that its nominees Upendra Dutt Shukla in Gorakhpur and Kaushlendra Nath Patel in Phulpur, would win. But both lost miserably with massive margins.
A political upstart who began his career in BJP only as late as in 2012, Keshav Prasad Maurya had won the Phulpur seat in the Modi wave of 2014. He managed to win the confidence of BJP President Amit Shah, who anointed him as UP BJP president. And when BJP bagged a record number of 311 seats in the 403 member state assembly in 2017, he began to attribute the party’s victory to himself. His assertion that the massive assembly win was a consequence of his efforts to grab the larger chunk of the backward caste votes, led him to demand the top job. It was only after a big tug-of-war that he agreed to settle for the deputy chief minister’s position. But he was never really satisfied with his position and fissures between him and the chief minister continued to grow.
Now, the SP-BSP alliance clearly marks the return of the caste-based vote that Narendra Modi had managed to demolish in 2014, when people chose to vote for just ‘Brand Modi’, cutting across caste lines. Sure enough, the continuance of this alliance could pose a major challenge for the BJP and its allies, that had romped home on 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP.
Although Congress had chosen to stay out of the alliance in the bypolls, political prudence may eventually lead Rahul Gandhi too to pitch in for a larger ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Uttar Pradesh on the lines of the Nitish-Lalu grand alliance in Bihar for 2019.
Yogi Adityanath’s overconfidence led him to repeatedly describe these two bypolls as a “rehearsal” for the 2019 general election, that would determine Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political destiny. Whether the saffron clad chief minister, whom Modi made the party’s national star campaigner, would still like to call it a “rehearsal” is a million dollar question.