If the by-poll results on Tuesday in six states and Puducherry are any indication, it is that the surcharged politics over demonetization simply did not carry much traction with voters. On the surface, ruling parties did pretty well by retaining their seats. Of the four Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, the BJP retained Lakhimpur in Assam and Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh, while Trimool Congress in Bengal swept Tamluk and Coochbehar. The by-polls were held 11 days after Prime Minister rendra Modi’s decision to flush out high denomition currency. Trimool chief Mamata Banerjee may well have termed the mandate ‘people’s revolt’ against this move, but Assam chief minister Sarbanda Sonowal saw in the results much public support for the drive ‘against black money’. Of the 10 assembly seats for which by-polls were held, the AIADMK retained two while wresting one from the DMK, the CPI(M) retained one seat while winning another from the Congress, while the Trimool, BJP and Congress retained one seat each in Bengal, Assam and Puducherry. But overall, the results have brought cheers to the BJP in the Northeast where it is seeking to expand from the bridgehead set up in Assam this year. Dr Mansingh Rongpi, who scored three wins on the trot in Baithalangso assembly seat from 2006 onwards, won this by-poll too after crossing over to the BJP; what is more, he has done so with a bigger victory margin, his vote share rising by over 11 percent. His win has now shut out the Congress completely from Assam’s three hill districts — Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. BJP’s Pradan Baruah meanwhile registered a comfortable victory over his nearest Congress rival for the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha seat where the saffron party retained its vote share of 2014. These two wins in Assam will surely reinforce Himanta Biswa Sarma’s stock in the saffron party, with Baruah and Rongpi long in his camp since their days of dissidence against Tarun Gogoi’s Congress government.
Sarma is also leading the BJP’s charge to establish bases in Aruchal and Manipur, the latter going for assembly elections next year. Pema Khandu-led Aruchal Pradesh is already out of the Congress party’s shrinking footprint; BJP-led platform North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) candidate Dasanglu Pul has further enthused saffron quarters by winning the Hayuliang assembly seat by-poll. Will her victory be atonement enough for the BJP leadership, after its failure to stand by Kalikho Pul led to his tragic suicide? In Tripura, it is interesting to note that the BJP has replaced the Congress in second position after still domint CPI(M); the saffron party’s vote share rose to 20.4 percent while the Congress retreated to a paltry 2.4 percent. Did the Congress pay the price in Tripura for the opportunistic alliance with CPI(M) in Bengal for the assembly polls there? As for Bengal, the BJP has begun to eat into the vote share of both the Congress and the Left front, as evident from Tuesday’s by-poll results. It is this saffron emergence in her state that seems to lend stridency to Mamata Banerjee’s all-too-frequent outbursts against the Modi dispensation at the Centre. Tamil du CM Jayalalitha, meanwhile, has maintained total silence on the demonetization issue, confined as she has been to hospital with a mysterious ailment. But whether riding on sympathy wave or widespread support for her plethora of populist policies, Jayalaitha has once again proved that the DMK has much ground to cover before it can mount a credible challenge to her, despite MK Stalin taking over reins from father Karunidhi. Overall, the by-polls results have brought little comfort for the Congress, which must soon decide whether to go whole hog for Rahul Gandhi's leadership or bite the bullet filly and explore other options.