Eight takeaways from Bihar’s stunning election result
Seen superficially, the victory of the Grand Alliance, or mahagathbandhan, is an arithmetic one. In reality, the result is deeply political and even ideological.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress individually polled 3% more votes than the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. Yet, Narendra Modi walked away with 31 of the 40 seats – which translates to 172 assembly segments. Fighting together, the three parties have now won or are leading in 179 seats in a house of 243, while the NDA is down to 60. Though the vote share of the Grand Alliance has fallen by around 4 percentage points and stands at 41.5%, the collapse in the NDA’s support over the past 18 months is dramatic. Not only did the NDA poll just 33.3% of the votes, but its 2015 share includes the 2.2% won by the Hindustan Awam Morcha of Jitan Ram Manjhi, who left the JD(U) to ally with the BJP.
For an election fought on the face and name of Narendra Modi, the fact that his vote pulling power has flagged to such an extent in a little over a year is surely bad news for the BJP.
What explains the abject failure of the BJP in Bihar? The party spent lavishly, deployed Modi for no less than 30 rallies – all of which were well attended – and also put together an arithmetically formidable ‘social coalition’ stretching from the upper castes who traditionally favour it to the dalits and mahadalits that Manjhi was meant to bring to the NDA kitty. BJP president Amit Shah personally led the campaign and imported thousands of volunteers from across India to canvass support – a strategy he has used elsewhere to devastating effect.
The BJP knew that in Nitish it faced a formidable foe. His track record as chief minister was creditable and all surveys showed him as people’s first choice as CM. As soon as the campaign began, moreover, the BJP found itself on the back foot because of the clever – if slightly tendentious – use Lalu Prasad and other grand alliance leaders made of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks calling for a review and debate on reservations. As far as its own messaging was concerned, the BJP realised after the first two phases that fighting the election on the plank of vikas, or development – as it had done in 2014 – was not proving to be particularly useful. For one, public attitudes towards Nitish Kumar’s government were not hostile in the way they were against the UPA government of Manmohan Singh. If anything, the tangible vikas that Nitish had delivered over the past two decades – electricity, better roads, and jobs, especially for women – stood in marked contrast to the ‘announcement raj’ that has marked Modi’s performance on the development front so far.
That is why the party high command, including Narendra Modi himself, took the decision to change tack, and play communal politics as a means of polarizing the electorate and consolidating Hindu votes behind the NDA.
Modi led the charge. In a rally at Buxar on October 26, Modi unveiled this new strategy. “These leaders are making a devious plan,” he thundered, openly pitting Hindu voters against Muslims. “They are conspiring to take away five per cent reservation of dalits, mahadalits, backwards and extremely backwards and give it to a particular community.” Over the next few days, Modi would repeat this incendiary charge two more times On October 30, the BJP placed an advertisement in newspapers making the same anti-Muslim point. The same day, the Election Commission banned the party from using the offensive ad (and another advertisement which accused the Grand Alliance of being soft on terrorism in order to please a particular “votebank”) which, it said, had “the potential of aggravating the differences between different classes of citizens of India and also creating mutual hatred, ill-will and disharmony.”
On November 4, the BJP issued another communal newspaper advertisement, this time focusing on the threat to cows “held sacred by all Indians” if the opposing alliance were voted to power. This too was banned by the EC, which then issued a blanket ban on the publication of any election advertisement that was not pre-certified by it. In the interim, Amit Shah had made the astonishing statement that the defeat of the BJP would lead to celebrations in Pakistan – tantamount to accusing any one in Bihar who voted against it of being unpatriotic and anti-national. The EC pulled up the BJP president for this remark, on the grounds that it was likely to generate hatred between citizens.
Now that the results have come in what are the main takeaways from this election?
1. Not arithmetic but politics
The BJP is technically correct when it points to the fact that the ‘index of opposition unity’ – which helped it in 2014 – went against it this time. But opposition unity is the arithmetic expression of a political process. Were it not for the sangh parivar’s drive to push ts communal agenda on various fronts and the BJP’s ‘winner takes all’ approach to the opposition, the Bihar coalition may never have emerged. The BJP’s attitude is pushing the Congress and other national and regional parties to reassess the role of alliances in states like West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu. It may even produce a miracle in Uttar Pradesh.
2. Beef did not help
The BJP’s blatant attempt to communalise the campaign – particularly in the fourth and fifth phases involving nearly half the seats – did not help the party change the course of the election and may even have further damaged its prospects. Amit Shah promised an election around the “chemistry” of Narendra Modi. What he delivered, especially at the end, was a cocktail of toxic chemicals, but even these proved ineffective in the face of the mahagathbadhan’s appeal.
3. Nor did HAM
While Nitish Kumar blundered in the manner in which he first made Manjhi chief minister in 2014 and then ousted him, the defection of the mahadalit leader to the NDA camp did not prove as catastrophic to the mahagathbandhan as was initially feared His HAM did win 2.2% of the popular vote but this means a chunk of dalit and mahadalit voters continued to repose their faith in the Nitish-Lalu combine.
4. The EC chickened out
This is the first time in recent memory that the Election Commission has been constrained to ban a campaign advertisement issued by a ruling party on the grounds that it would fuel communal hatred. The EC ought to have acted in December 1984 when some of the Congress party’s advertisements in the general election played on anti-Sikh sentiments but it was too weak, institutionally, to act against the government of the day. The EC no longer faces such constraints as its functioning has been made more independent over the years. Still, the fact remains that it failed to call out Prime Minister Modi for his divisive remarks on Muslims even as it faulted the BJP advertisement which followed the same line. If the print ad was deemed communally divisive and hence banned, surely the EC ought to have issued a notice to Modi as well for having verbalized the inflammatory contents at various public rallies.
5. It’s not the face but the message
A lot of media time has been spent in analysing (and faulting) the BJP for not projecting a chief ministerial candidate of its own when the Grand Alliance had Nitish Kumar to project. However, the BJP’s loss had less to do with the absence of a face than with the absence of a positive and credible agenda for governance. While Lalu played the caste card, so did the BJP, by projecting the ‘backward caste’ identity of Narendra Modi and even Emperor Ashoka as a ‘Kushwaha’. Not only did these attempts to use case fall flat, but the development plank too failed. The fact that key cabinet ministers from Bihar in Modi’s cabinet have all failed to deliver on issues of common concern did not help the BJP’s case. Food minister Ram Vilas Paswan has not brought dal prices down; Skills minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy has not helped create new skilled jobs for the youth; Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh has proved ineffective in the face of mounting farmer distress. Even IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, with his attempted ban on “obscene” websites, would not have endeared himself to young, net-savvy voters.
6. The BJP is unlikely to learn the right lessons
Had the BJP won Bihar, the result would have been seen as a vindication of the communal turn that its campaign took. But sadly, the converse is unlikely to be true. The BJP, from Narendra Modi downwards, knows that the unprecedented support the party had last year has declined due to the incendiary, divisive rhetoric of senior leaders and various sangh outfits. Yet, the Prime Minister has done nothing concrete to put a stop to this politics. A rational politician would conclude, after Bihar, that ministers like Mahesh Sharma, V.K. Singh and Sanjeev Baliyan need to be shown the door, and that habitual offenders like Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj need to be expelled from the party. But the chances of such action being taken are virtually nil. What we will get, instead, is a repeat of the mealy-mouthed assurances that usually accompany each incident of violence or intolerance, even as the offenders carry on doing what they do best. Don’t expect the ‘beef politics’ or the attempts to intimidate and strong-arm dissenters to end any time soon.
7. The Congress has got a lease of life but should know its limitations
After being down and out for 18 months, the Congress party is likely to get energised by the Bihar verdict. This is only natural. But the fact remains that its leaders did not invest the kind of time and energy they ought to have in order to win the right to claim a decisive role in the outcome. At stake is not the right to brag but the need for the Congress to be modest about the role it will play in national politics over the next few years. It will go into the forthcoming state elections in Punjab and Kerala and Assam as a leading player but in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh (which will vote in 2017) as a junior partner. More importantly, the younger Gandhi has not done enough to emerge as a national rival to Modi and ought not to harbour the idea of getting there either. Rahul played a key role in conceptualizing and encouraging the formation of the mahagathbadhan in Bihar. It would be smart politics on his part to focus on extending the experiment to other states and eventually, to the whole country.
8. Nitish Kumar will be the new pivot in national politics
Even during the Bihar campaign, a number of key regional or ‘third force’ parties – Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party – had indicated their willingness to gravitate towards a Nitish Kumar-led political pole at the national level. The Bihar result, coming as it does at a time of national disquiet over the direction the Modi government is taking the country, is bound to further give shape to a more coherent opposition to the BJP. The next general election is more than three years away but the battle of Indraprastha is slowly beginning to take shape.