Its victory in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha by-poll has brought the Congress
party some cheer. The by-poll on the Vengara Assembly seat in Kerala has also been won by an ally of the Congress.
However, the story of these two by-polls isn't as much about the revival of the Congress
as it is about the failure of the Aam Aadmi Party
(AAP) to consolidate in Punjab and the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) inability to make inroads in Kerala.
has indeed wrested the Gurdaspur seat from the BJP.
The seat has been a BJP
bastion since 1998, thanks primarily to the appeal of its candidate Vinod Khanna, who lost only once in the five elections from 1998 to 2014, and that was in 2009 by a small margin of 8,359 votes.
But the Congress' emphatic victory in the Assembly polls in Punjab in March had already marked its comeback. In Vengara, Congress
ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) retained the seat but its vote share has slipped.
More interesting challenges, by-polls that could provide clues to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, are around the corner. Seven Lok Sabha seats are vacant and would go for by-polls in the coming months. These are Anantnag in Jammu and Kashmir, Araria in Bihar, Uluberia in West Bengal, Ajmer and Alwar in Rajasthan, and Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh. The ones in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh would be better indicators of whether the BJP
would remain the force it was in 2014.
Punjab and Kerala have had bipolar politics
in recent decades. In Kerala, reins of power have shifted between the Congress-led United Democratic Front, or UDF, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front, or LDF. In Punjab, power has changed hands between the Congress
on one side and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)–BJP
alliance on the other. But the AAP
in Punjab and BJP
in Kerala have tried in recent years to be the third pole of the state politics.
The results show that the AAP, after its success in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is faced with diminishing returns in Punjab. It had won four seats in the Lok Sabha, all of which were from Punjab. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the AAP
had campaigned to win the polls but lacked a credible face. It still managed 20 Assembly seats and emerged as the second largest party after the Congress.
However, in the Gurdaspur by-poll, Suresh Khajuria, the AAP
candidate, received a meagre 23,579 votes. Congress
candidate Sunil Jahkar got 499,752 votes. His BJP
rival, Swaran Salaria, bagged 306,533 votes. Jakhar won by 193,219 votes. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Gurdaspur, which Vinod Khanna had won, the AAP
candidate had received a respectable 173,376 votes.
In Kerala, the BJP
has pursued a sustained campaign against the alleged political violence by the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M). It has also strived to build political alliances with smaller parties. The Vengara Assembly by-poll was held during the BJP's much publicised 'Jan Raksha Yatra'. But the party got lesser votes than it had received in the 2016 Assembly election.
Another highlight of the result was the IUML losing its vote share to the CPI (M). Vengara is a Muslim-dominated seat and CPI(M)'s increased vote share has led to inferences that the Left party has had some success in projecting itself as the main challenger to the BJP
and minority votes could be shifting from the Congress
to the CPI(M).
As for the Congress
win in Gurdaspur, it is true that the BJP
had won Gurdaspur in 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2014. It lost the seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha. But these wins had more to do with its candidate Vinod Khanna's personal appeal. Gurdaspur is also a rare Hindu-majority seat in Punjab. With Khanna having passed away and the SAD–BJP
alliance losing in the Assembly polls earlier this year, the Congress
didn't find it difficult to wrest the seat. This is evident in Jakhar's victory margin of 193,219 votes.
The collapse of the AAP
vote also helped the Congress
victory. In 2014, BJP's Khanna had defeated Congress' Pratap Singh Bajwa by 135,899 votes. The AAP's Sucha Singh Chhotepur had got 173,287 votes in that election.
The BJP's choice of candidate was also intriguing. Salaria is known to be close to yoga guru Ramdev. Kavita Khanna, Vinod Khanna’s widow and someone who has helped her husband nurse the constituency, was also an aspirant for the party ticket. But BJP
top bosses ignored her claim. Her reaction to the party's loss and the party ticket having been denied to her has been a mature one. It is possible that she might get the opportunity to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.