New Delhi: The by-elections to 18 assembly constituencies in four states scheduled on 21 August are critical for both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition Congress.

While the Congress is desperate to recoup some of the ground it lost in the Lok Sabha election, for the BJP and its new president, Amit Shah, keeping the momentum is key to the future.

At stake are 10 seats in Bihar, three each in Congress-ruled Karnataka and BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, and two in Punjab. The votes will be counted on 25 August.

These elections are a litmus test not only for the two national parties, but also for a political alliance stitched up recently by Bihar’s two arch-rivals to combat the saffron surge.

Defying many political equations, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which have fought each other since their formation, joined hands to face the by-elections.

The Congress, although it does not have much stake in the politically crucial state, did not seem to have much choice after its humiliating defeat in the April-May Lok Sabha elections, joining the socialists to keep the “common enemy", the BJP, away.

The JD-U and the RJD cobbled up the alliance after the BJP surprisingly won 22 out of 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar.

For the first time after breaking off from the Samata Party, former Union minister Lalu Prasad and former chief minister and JD-U leader Nitish Kumar are expected to campaign together in the state.

While the alliance aims to keep the support base of other backward classes (OBCs), Muslims and the extremely backward classes intact, the BJP and its ally, the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP), hope that those who have not yet accepted the new political grouping would desert them and declare support for their side.

“The JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance is a double-edged sword. It can help them to keep their support base strong and united; but at the same time, there could be attrition from their side, especially when many in both parties cannot accept each other. They have been fighting all these years. So the impact could be balanced," said a BJP lawmaker.

“The Brahmins and the upper castes do not appreciate the coming together of these two parties. An upper caste consolidation will help the BJP, and if we can manage at least 30-50% of OBCs, we will have a clear edge over the others," the leader, who did not want to be identified, said.

For the BJP, repeating its performance—it won 282 seats in the Lok Sabha election—has become a prestige issue, especially after Amit Shah, considered to be the right hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took over as the BJP president last month.

Shah, who is credited with the party’s spectacular performance in Uttar Pradesh—a factor that contributed to the BJP’s overall tally—has already begun strategizing and implementing plans to win the key states going to polls later this year.

Known for his meticulous planning and effective execution beginning from the grassroots level, Shah has had a minor setback last month when his party failed to win by-polls to three seats in Uttarakhand, which went to the Congress.

The cadre and leadership of the BJP are relying on Shah and his result-oriented approach to brighten the party’s prospects in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, where assembly elections are coming up. The BJP is not in power in any of these states.

While three BJP legislators in Delhi vacated their seats after getting elected to the Lok Sabha, party veteran Gopinath Munde’s sudden demise opened up a seat in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, the Prime Minister has vacated his Vadodara Lok Sabha seat.

These elections are particularly important for Bihar, where 10 seats are going to polls, said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

“These elections are important for Bihar. If this alliance (JD-U and RJD) does well, it will continue for assembly elections in Bihar; and if not, it will be a little difficult. For the BJP, too, Bihar is going to be the real test and, naturally, Amit Shah would try to put in a lot of effort for these seats," Kumar said.

“If Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar win even half the seats, it would be a big setback for the BJP, because all these 10 seats are BJP strongholds," he added.

A victory in Karnataka is critical for the Congress, whose workers are demoralized after its Lok Sabha strength crashed to 44 from 207.

Success in Karnataka and Punjab could also be the party’s last chance to instill some zeal among its workers. Its prospects appear bleak in Congress-ruled Haryana and Maharashtra.

In Karnataka’s Shikaripur constituency, BJP veteran and former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa’s son B.Y. Raghavendra will contest.

The Election Commission’s announcement of by-elections has exposed the differences between the father-son duo of Karnataka’s Janata Dal-Secular. While former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda is against the cash-starved party fielding candidates, his son and former state chief minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, argues that staying away from polls will demoralize the cadre.

For the Congress party, which has run a successful campaign against Madhya Pradesh’s three-term BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan on corruption, the by-elections in Vijayaraghavgarh, Bahoriband and Agar would be an opportunity to see if it could dent the BJP’s popularity in the state.

In Punjab, where the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP has been facing a strong anti-incumbency factor, the Congress may find itself in a triangular fight with the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, also.

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