India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Wednesday suffered a stunning setback in three high-stake parliamentary by-elections losing to joint opposition candidates in politically key states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The result has set off alarm bells for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the next national elections in 2019.
Led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party (SP) wrested the two Lok Sabha seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur from the BJP in Uttar Pradesh with the support of its arch-rival Mayawati-headed Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which did not put up its own candidate against the SP nominees to ensure there is no split in anti-BJP votes.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP had won both the seats by a margin of more than three lakh votes in the absence of unity among its rivals, particularly the SP and BSP. But this time, the SP and BSP brushed aside their long mutual hostility and joined hands to defeat the BJP in Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
In Bihar, Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is in jail following his conviction in three corruption cases, retained Araria parliamentary seat in a united battle with the BJP.
The by-polls in Uttar Pradesh were held last week after Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya vacated the Gorakhpur and Phulpur seats respectively following their election to the state legislative council as they joined the state government following the BJP's landslide win in the assembly elections last year.
Adityanath and Maurya admitted that the by-poll results were unexpected, especially in Gorakhpur where the former had won in five successive times since 1998. Gorakhpur was considered a bastion of Adityanath.
The result of the by-elections came as anti-BJP parties joined hands to firm up a bigger anti-BJP alliance in the run up to national elections in 2019 when Modi seeks a second consecutive term in office.
Just a couple of days ago, leaders of 20 opposition parties attended a dinner hosted by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi at her residence to consolidate opposition unity and firm up a joint strategy to take on BJP in the 2019 national elections.
Both the SP and BSP were defeated by the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary polls and in the state assembly elections last year.
Congress, which is trying for a broad opposition unity, had put up its candidates in the two constituencies, but its candidates lost badly.
Although Mayawati had made it clear that her party's backing for the SP was confined to only the two parliamentary by-elections, political analysts see this as an experiment to test the ground for a larger alliance in the 2019 national election.
The by-poll results of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have come as a big worry for the BJP because the two states together account for nearly 120 of the total of 543 Lok Sabha seats. A good performance by the BJP in the two states is critical to its prospects of returning to power in 2019.
There have been 19 parliamentary by-polls since the party came to power four years ago. What is more alarming for the BJP is that the ruling party ended up losing on seven occasions.