On September 4, the Election Commission of India announced that polls to the Bihar Legislative Assembly, as well as 64 vacant seats across 14 state assemblies, will be held simultaneously between October and November. These will be the largest voting exercise globally since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While returning the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power in the politically significant state of Bihar will be the immediate electoral goal of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the by-elections will be a litmus test regarding public mood during the pandemic. These elections will become crucial testaments to where the parties stand in these 14 states, half of which will be holding Assembly elections in 2021-23 before the general national elections in 2024.
This is especially so in the case in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which account for 44 out of the 64 state-level seats up for by-elections. Out of these, 28 seats lie in Madhya Pradesh (MP), where the Congress-led government lost power after 26 of its legislators, including the political heavyweight Jyotiraditya Scindia, defected to the BJP and brought the latter to power. In the 230-member MP Assembly, the BJP is likely to retain power as the Congress would need to win all 28 seats to reach the majority mark of 116. A Congress win is nearly impossible, as most of the vacant seats lie in the Gwalior-Chambal belt, which is the stronghold of BJP’s Scindia.
In Uttar Pradesh, eight Assembly seats are up for by-elections, six of which had BJP incumbents before they fell vacant. The two seats in Suar and Malhani, which belonged to legislators belonging to Samajwadi Party (SP), the largest opposition party in the state, are predominantly Muslim and Yadav – the voter base of the SP – constituencies, respectively. While losing these two seats would not affect the BJP government in the state, winning them would be a shot in the arm for the party ahead of the next state polls in 2022. Were it to happen, a victory in these two constituencies would underline the declining popularity, political weight and electoral performance of Akhilesh Yadav, the SP president and former chief minister, making it harder for the SP to have a fighting chance in 2022.
In Gujarat, the eight seats up for election are the ones from which Congress legislators resigned before the Rajya Sabha (India’s upper house) polls earlier in the year. While a Congress win in these seats will not jeopardize the survival of the state’s BJP government, which has 103 seats in the 182-member house, it will close the gap between the ruling and the opposition camps. Given the recent trend of defections in Indian politics – even though most of the recent ones have been to the BJP – a three-seat margin will make the BJP uncomfortable. Moreover, a mandate in favor of the Congress will solidify the party’s prospects ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls.
Among the other states, political parties will be paying particularly close attention to Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Even though the states have a meager combined total of seven vacant seats, the fact that each of them will hold Assembly elections in 2021 makes the by-elections a direct precursor to the legislative polls. Meanwhile, political parties are unlikely to bother too much about seats in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Nagaland, Karnataka, Haryana, and Odisha – both because of the low number of seats at stake and the fact that their elections are some way off.
It is also important to remember the context in which the Bihar polls and the by-elections are being held. First, the August 5 inauguration of the construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, a major Hindu-Muslim flashpoint, put the BJP’s majoritarian agenda back in the spotlight, after it was shelved rather abruptly when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The inauguration was arguably done just in time for the Bihar polls to remind its voter base of the party’s continued commitment to the promises it had made in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Apart from the Delhi elections, this will also be the first major test of the BJP’s standing since the central government it leads pushed forward the hugely contentious amendments to the country’s citizenship law, sparking violent protests against the religion-based changes to the legislation. Overall, the Muslim community remains acutely aware of the BJP’s Hindutva predisposition, and it will likely show in the way the community votes during the upcoming state-level polls.
Second, these elections come amid widespread protests by farmers’ groups against the recently passed agriculture-related laws, which broadly seek to loosen the rules regarding the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. Farmers are worried that these new rules will effectively open them up to the free market, which could ultimately lead to the demise of wholesale controlled markets and assured price support from the government. Farmers are a major voting bloc for political parties, and the hurried, non-deliberative manner in which the laws were passed is likely to be drummed up by the opposition to target the BJP.
Overall, the by-elections will be a contest between the BJP and the opposition, mainly the Congress in most cases. The BJP will talk up the work being done by the party both at the central and state levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the opposition parties will challenge them on the issues of unemployment, migrants, the recent “anti-farmer” legislation, changes to labor laws and the BJP’s sectarian agenda. Even though these national-level issues remain important, past trends have shown that locally-relevant matters take precedence in state-based polls. COVID-19 threw up plenty of issues that shook or solidified the electorate’s confidence in their respective state governments. The fact that states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh witnessed the highest number of returning migrants, alongside increasing numbers of infections, brought to fore their respective state administrations’ capabilities.
Therefore, while the by-elections do not have much potential implications for the stability of the governments in most states where they are being held, barring Madhya Pradesh, they will give the BJP and other political parties a chance to gauge the public’s mood before the big battles in the form of the State Assembly elections begin. It will also give the opposition parties in several states a chance to assess their ability to put up a joint front against the BJP.
Aditi Dayal is a public policy professional from Mumbai, India with a keen interest in geopolitical issues of South Asia.