Votes being counted at a counting centre in Pipraich for the Gorakhpur bypoll. Photograph:( ANI )
Around noon, the expressions of BJP leaders in television studios across the country depicted the party's swing in fortunes as the Bharatiya Janata Party trailed after seven rounds of counting in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh. The RJD is ahead in Araria in Bihar and that is a seat that the BJP would have liked to wrest - all-in-all not a good morning for BJP's polls pundits and spokespersons. Added to that were reports doing the rounds that media persons were not allowed inside the counting venue in Gorakhpur.
Poll authorities clarified that while the press was inside the campus, they could not be let near the electronic voting machines per the Election Commission guidelines.
Media is inside counting campus since morning. As per ECI instructions media can't be allowed in the area of EVMs. There is a Media Centre inside the Campus: EC on Gorakhpur DM not allowing the media to enter counting area despite having valid EC passes #GorakhpurByPollResult— ANI (@ANI) March 14, 2018
When early trends had indicated BJP candidates were leading, Samajwadi Party candidate from Gorakhpur Praveen Kumar Nishad levelled allegations of EVM tampering. "I am confident of my victory and that is what people are saying that SP's grand alliance will win this seat but there is a doubt in everyone's mind regarding EVM machines. The government can do anything using state administration," Nishad said. Perhaps those doubts were dispelled in later rounds when results were more favourable.
So why are two bypolls in Uttar Pradesh for the Lok Sabha such a big deal? After all, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in the Centre has such a big majority that a couple of seats would not result in a big shift in fortunes for the government.
For one, the Opposition takes any win as a sign that the BJP's poll juggernaut can be stopped. They have had little cause to celebrate after 2014. The BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah have notched up victory after victory - the only exceptions to the case being Delhi and Punjab - and now over 70% of India lives in BJP or BJP-ally-ruled states.
The other reason for such a keen interest in these polls is that both seats in Uttar Pradesh are prestige battles. The current Uttar Pardesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath represented Gorakhpur for five consecutive terms. He vacated the seat in 2017 after the BJP and its allies swept into power in Uttar Pradesh, winning 325 of the 403 assembly seats in the state. The Phulpur seat, once represented by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had been vacated by Keshav Prasad Maurya, who was state BJP chief and is currently the Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Losing these seats would no doubt result in a loss of face for the party. In 2014, the BJP's victory margin in Gorakhpur was over 300,000 with Yogi Adityanath winning over half the votes polled. In Phulpur the margins were better for Keshav Prasad Maurya who polled 52% of the votes.
All Opposition parties would be keenly watching the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party experiment where they pooled their resources to combine against the BJP. This win may be the harbinger for a larger national alliance in 2019. The SP-BSP are not only combining their resources for bypolls but will also support one another in the Rajya Sabha polls later this month. BSP supreme Mayawati, who hasn't fielded a candidate in these polls, insists that there is no 'alliance' yet and it is just an 'agreement' - mere semantics say observers.
The Bihar elections, being seen as a referendum on chief minister Nitish Kumar, is also going the BJP's way. The BJP last year partnered with Kumar to form the government after the chief minister broke off ties with Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal. The Araria by-election was necessitated after the death of RJD's Mohammed Taslimuddin. His son, Sarfarz Alam, is the party's candidate in these elections and widely expected top retain the seat.