Ghosi bypoll win: Why SP and INDIA bloc should not uncork the bubbly yet
Akhilesh Yadav may have hailed BJP's defeat as the beginning of INDIA’s victory lap, but there is more work left for the SP and INDIA alliance if they want to make a big impact in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls
The resounding defeat of BJP’s Dara Singh Chauhan against Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate Sudhakar Singh in the Ghosi Asembly bypoll on Friday (September 8) will have no impact on the composition of the BJP-dominated Uttar Pradesh Assembly, nor will it have any bearing on the stability of the Yogi Adityanath-led state government.
Yet, while the bypoll result portends ominous political signs for the ruling BJP ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha polls, its ramifications for the SP and the wider INDIA coalition will likely be as complex.
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav quickly hailed Chauhan’s defeat as the “beginning of INDIA’s victory lap”. There is no denying that Yadav has ample reason to rejoice over the results – and not merely because his party had emerged victorious.
The Ghosi bypoll was necessitated because Chauhan, who had quit the BJP to join the SP ahead of last year’s UP assembly polls and gone on to win the Ghosi seat by a margin of 22000 votes, had defected to the BJP in July this year. Chauhan’s defection had come within days of SP’s ally, Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) chief OP Rajbhar, also severing ties with Yadav to rekindle his earlier alliance with the BJP. Around the same time, the SP had also lost several other leaders from the backward and Dalit communities to the BJP.
The exodus had given the impression that the formidable coalition of backward caste leaders that Yadav had built ahead of last year’s Assembly polls had begun to crumble quickly. Despite a vote share hike of 10 percent and increase of 64 seats in the SP’s kitty against its performance of 2017, the SP had failed to oust Adityanath from power in February-March 2022. However, his decision to cast the SP’s electoral outreach net wide in a bid to win favour with non-Yadav backward castes, such as Chauhan and Rajbhar, was touted as an effort that would have given the party a better fighting chance against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
SP losing momentum
However, soon after the BJP’s return to power in UP for a second consecutive term, the SP seemed to losing the momentum it had gained. In quick succession, the SP also lost prestige electoral contests – bypolls for Lok Sabha and Assembly seats alike – in Azamgarh and Rampur to the BJP. The only bypoll it had managed to win, until Friday’s contest in Ghosi, was that for the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat which had fallen vacant after the demise of Yadav’s father and the party’s founder, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and was then won by Yadav’s wife, Dimple Yadav.
Given this backdrop, the stakes in the Ghosi bypoll couldn’t have been higher for Yadav and his party. Moreover, with the Congress declaring its support for the SP candidate to honour Yadav’s entry into the INDIA coalition and BSP supremo Mayawati deciding to not field a candidate and instead asking her supporters to vote NOTA, the bypoll was a direct contest between the SP and the BJP – or, in a broader though somewhat misleading sense, a fight between INDIA and NDA.
That Singh managed to defeat Chauhan by over 42000 votes – nearly twice the victory margin that Chauhan had registered when he wrested the seat from the BJP last year on a SP ticket – must, thus, come as a major cause for celebration within the SP.
It’s SP’s win
For all practical purposes, it was the SP and not the INDIA coalition that fought – and won – the Ghosi bypoll. It is well known that Yadav’s allies in the INDIA bloc, Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Congress party have no electoral base in this eastern UP constituency. In fact, the Congress had polled just 2012 votes, marginally higher than the 1249 votes cast for NOTA, in Ghosi during last year’s assembly polls. Likewise, the RLD, essentially a party with a limited base in a few districts of western UP, exercises no influence over the electorate in Ghosi.
It goes to the credit of the SP and its candidate that they could win the bypoll despite the highly shrill campaign run by the BJP, which had pressed over two dozen of its ministers, prominent caste leaders of eastern UP and all its allies into campaigning. Rajbhar, who, like Chauhan, had an acrimonious parting with Yadav in July, camped in Ghosi for over two weeks to mobilise support for Chauhan.
Yogi Adityanath unhappy?
Among the BJP’s star campaigners was also Adityanath, who was reportedly unhappy at Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s role in getting Chauhan to return to the BJP. It may be recalled that when Chauhan quit the BJP to join the SP last year, he blamed his exit from the saffron party on Adityanath, whose cabinet he had served as minister for the preceding five years. With Chauhan facing ridicule – even an ‘ink attack’ – from the public for his frequent party hopping, raising alarm within the saffron party of an uphill electoral battle, Adityanath dashed to Ghosi to seek votes for his former critic.
The results prove that all these efforts by the BJP to win just one seat fell drastically short. That the BJP would now reassess Chauhan’s electoral worth for the party is a given and the widely perceived influential backward caste leader, who was hoping for a ministerial berth in the Adityanath cabinet in the event of a favourable bypoll result, may not find a suitable rehabilitation coming his way anytime soon.
However, of greater significance now would be how Yadav and the SP chart their electoral course after the stunning Ghosi victory. Political commentators believe that though Singh’s victory in Ghosi is a major morale booster for the SP, it would be suicidal for Yadav and his allies to extrapolate the result as a marker of wider voter unrest against the BJP.
“There were two key reasons for the BJP’s loss in Ghosi. First, the public was visibly angry with Chauhan’s disloyalty to the SP and to the mandate he had last year while the local BJP cadre was also unhappy with him since he had misbehaved with them during last year’s poll campaign. Second, Singh was a popular local candidate who people saw as one of their own while Chauhan hails from Azamgarh and had only contested from the Ghosi Assembly seat once before, which was last year. In a bypoll, local factors matter a lot and the result was clearly in favour of a local candidate. Despite the BJP’s loud campaign, it was clear that the local party leaders did not work honestly for Chauhan. The SP needs to realise this and not get carried away with the result,” Gorakhpur-based journalist Manoj Singh told The Federal.
If anything, the result, says Chittaranjan Mishra, political commentator and professor at the Gorakhpur University, should make Akhilesh “realise that he needs to work twice as hard to rebuild his party after the setbacks in Azamgarh in east UP and Rampur in the west.... he has to pick the right candidates and not parachute them from other constituencies and he needs to get the local caste arithmetic right if he really hopes to give the BJP a tough fight in the Lok Sabha elections”.
Mishra told The Federal that though Yadav and Jayant Chaudhary hailed the Ghosi result as a victory for the INDIA coalition, the victory “will complicate the seat-sharing talks between the SP, RLD and Congress if the parties aren’t realistic in their demands regarding which seats they wish to contest”. Mishra says that though among the INDIA constituents from UP, the SP is best poised to contest on a majority of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, Yadav will need to “handle the seat-sharing talks tactfully and not become arrogant... RLD and Congress will not be happy if Yadav uses the Ghosi victory to claim 70 or 75 seats out of 80 for his party”.
‘SP must reach out to Dalits’
Lucknow-based Dalit activist and political commentator, Professor Ravikant Chandan believes the SP needs to “focus on reviving its outreach to Dalit and backward communities instead of taking their support for granted merely because Akhilesh is batting for a caste census”.
The Ghosi bypoll reaffirms the dwindling electoral heft of Mayawati, whose BSP registered its worst-ever performance in last year’s Assembly polls, winning just one seat in the 403-member UP Vidhan Sabha. In 2022, the BSP had polled over 54000 votes in Ghosi. In the Ghosi bypoll, Mayawati appealed to her supporters to vote NOTA as her party had decided against fielding its candidate. That her appeal fell on deaf ears is evident from the 1725 votes cast for NOTA in the bypoll, which, coupled with Singh’s huge victory margin suggest that a large chunk of BSP voters swerved towards the SP candidate.
Chandan says Mayawati’s failure in rebuilding her party “due to reasons that are well known to everyone” has created a Dalit leadership void.
“The BJP has been actively wooing the Dalits even though atrocities against the community in the state are at a record high. Akhilesh has, so far, made only half-hearted efforts to win support of Dalits but he needs to realise that if the BSP is losing support, he can position himself as the natural claimant of that bloc by speaking up and standing with the community. He has made the right noises with his push for PDA (Pichde, Dalit aur Alpsankhyak – backward castes, Dalits and minorities) but mere lip service will not do; he has to now follow up with action and champion the causes of these communities... the Ghosi result has given the SP a big boost in public perception and he, along with RLD and Congress, needs to capitalise on it now, not after three months,” Chandan added.