The Jharkhand election results, in which Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) became the single-largest party, came as a surprise for the Bharatiya Janata Party's top leadership.
According to reports, while the party's central leadership was aware of the shortfalls facing the party's state unit, it did not expect to fall to 25 seats. What was worse, say party leaders, was the fact that outgoing Chief Minister Raghubar Das was defeated by a large margin— over 15,000 votes— in his Jameshdpur (East) backyard by BJP rebel Saryu Roy.
Much as it happened after the Haryana and Maharashtra polls— in former the party cobbled up an alliance government while it lost power in latter even though it was the single-largest party—BJP leaders have blamed the state unit entirely for the loss. Reports quoting state and central BJP leaders have suggested that a number of factors, including Das' own inability to grasp the ground reality, led to the BJP's poor show in the state.
With the party having lost power in Jharkhand and Maharashtra and in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year, observers state that the next two elections at least— Delhi and Bihar— will present an even greater challenge to the saffron party.
What are the lessons that the BJP has gleaned from its performances in the recent polls? Speaking to The Indian Express, R Balashankar, member of BJP Central Committee on Training and Committee on Publications, admitted that local issues matter.
"There is no indication that Modi’s popularity is on the wane. The defeat is because of local issues… It’s not enough to have a popular Prime Minister but we also need regional leaders who can pull in votes," he told the newspaper.
Pointing out that even after the losses in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Lok Sabha elections presented a decisive mandate for the BJP, Balashankar said that this means "leaders are not complementing PM’s popularity".
"They are not able to convince voters that local issues can be addressed better under their leadership," he said. Another factor is the focus (or the lack of it) on local issues, which had cost the BJP in Maharashtra and Haryana as well.
According to reports, while senior party leaders like Home Minister Amit Shah and PM Modi kept the narrative fixed on issues such as Article 370 and Ram Mandir, JMM chief Soren's focus on regional concerns helped his party receive the mandate that it did. Soren learnt it the hard way: he had pitched his campaign during the general elections on national narrative but had failed to make any mark with it.
Analysts say that the BJP should similarly learn from the recent setbacks to go back to the drawing board and implement a course correction.
With Jharkhand done, Assembly polls in Delhi and Bihar are the next set of challenges that the BJP is facing.
An indication of the BJP's focus on local issues in Delhi came when PM Modi, during his rally at Ramlila Maidan on December 22, spoke about pollution in Delhi and the problem of safe drinking water, among other issues. He did, however, go on to talk about the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests across India.
Observers have noted that both Delhi and Bihar are tough elections. While the BJP has three legislators in Delhi, where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is in government, in Bihar the BJP is in alliance with the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United).
In Delhi, according to reports, the BJP might present a CM face against Arvind Kejriwal— something that had gone against the party during the 2015 polls, observers had noted.
While speculation was rife that party MP Manoj Tiwari might be the CM face, other senior leaders within the Delhi unit of the BJP, including Vijay Goel, are also eyeing the post. This might present internal contradictions within the party, a factor that had worked against the BJP in Jharkhand and Maharashtra.
In Bihar, meanwhile, the problem might come from bickering alliance partner JD(U). While the party had supported BJP on the Citizenship Bill in Parliament, party chief Kumar has stated that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) won't be applied in Bihar— directly contradicting the BJP's stand.
After the Jharkhand drubbing, experts say that there might also be tussle between the alliance partners over seat-sharing arrangement, and one cannot rule out a repeat of Maharashtra, where the BJP and its pre-poll partner, Shiv Sena, broke ties over sharing of the CM's post.