It is clear that the Bihar assembly election was no ordinary event and will deeply impact the way both the ruling coalition and the opposition conduct themselves in the months ahead.
For starters, an open power struggle has already begun within the BJP, with senior leaders led by L.K. Advani shooting off a very strongly worded letter suggesting that the “consensual character” of the party has been “destroyed”. The letter argues that a review of the humiliating defeat in the Bihar election cannot be done by the few who were responsible for it.
The spin doctors in the government are desperately trying to ring fence Narendra Modi and Amit Shah by saying the Bihar defeat is a matter of “collective responsibility”, a principle established by none other than stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani decades ago. However, what the spin doctors conveniently hide is that Vajpayee and Advani also ran the party much more democratically and local leaders had a big say in the conduct of the state elections.
After Narendra Modi’s arrival, the BJP is being run the way Indira Gandhi ran the Congress in the 1970s, with the head of the government fully controlling the party.
BJP watchers say that under previous presidents the Parliamentary Board would have regular meetings, almost every month. This practice has discontinued for the past year and a half. Under Vajpayee, the general secretaries of the BJP were also strong personalities who spoke their minds. That is no more the case. In fact, this kind of centralisation of state elections – with Modi as the face of the campaign and no chief ministerial candidate declared in advance – was never practised by the BJP earlier. This was very much part of the Congress culture. No wonder, the letter written by Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar says the Bihar defeat suggests no lessons have been learnt from the stunning Delhi defeat.
There is no doubt that Advani’s letter is aimed at the fence sitters in the party who have been very uncomfortable with the way Amit Shah has been conducting the party affairs.
The ‘Margdarshak Mandal’ led by Advani is trying to ensure that the party is autonomous of the government. The real test of this campaign will be seen in January when the BJP president’s post comes up for renewal. At the current rate, it appears a section of the BJP will seek elections. Normally, the RSS plays a critical role in deciding a candidate by consensus. Will Amit Shah get another term? That is the most important question.
All in all, it is a big test for Modi and even if he wins this battle, his dependence on the RSS will have increased. For only Nagpur can rescue Amit Shah at this stage.
Centralisation has backfired
Modi has wasted an enormous amount of his political capital needlessly trying to centralise power both within the government and the party. Both seem to have backfired in their own ways. The humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar have brought the Modi brand several notches down. This is particularly so because of the way he chose to stake his personal reputation in both elections. This in turn will have an impact on his functioning as the head of the government.
For instance, Modi gave global investors the impression that he would personally ensure all necessary reforms were delivered to make India an easy place to invest. While world leaders and investors remain hopeful that the Prime Minister has the necessary authority to override the system and deliver on economic reforms, it is increasingly clear his political authority has been considerably eroded.
After such a humiliating political defeat, the global community will likely question his real authority and capability. The winter session of Parliament will show how much equations have changed. The Prime Minister will be under tremendous pressure to create a broader climate for faster economic growth. So far, his ego has come in the way of personally reaching out to opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi. Modi himself has chosen to postpone key reforms to focus more on the Bihar assembly election. Industry leaders feel it was bad strategy on Modi’s part to delay economic decisions for the sake of consolidating political power via state assembly election victories. In any case it seems unlikely that the BJP will get to the halfway mark in Rajya Sabha by 2018.
It will be interesting to see whether Modi changes tack for the crucial assembly elections of West Bengal, Assam, Punjab, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh over the next year and a half.
Climate needs changing
In the winter session of Parliament which is due to begin end of November, the opposition hopes to see a chastened Modi get off his high horse. Nitish Kumar’s advisor and JD(U) member of the Rajya Sabha, Pawan Varma, said, “Our party will support reforms but we will not for a moment tolerate statements reflecting intolerance and divisiveness coming from the BJP ministers as well as MPs.” That is a clear warning for Modi that he better control the zealots in his team if wants to conduct business in Parliament. Arun Jaitley is already trying to woo Nitish and is suggesting Bihar would be a big gainer from the introduction of GST. Jaitley must realize that Nitish will not budge until Lalu is also taken on board. It won’t be so easy for the Modi-Jaitley combine from here onwards.
The truth is that the BJP, under Modi’s leadership, has created a singularly hostile climate in which even the allies of the party are deeply unhappy. The most telling comment after Modi’s stunning Bihar defeat came from the Shiv Sena MP and spokesperson, Sanjay Raut. Asked whether the BJP should now seriously introspect on its loss, Raut said sarcastically, “Why introspect? They know everything. I can tell you if elections are held in Maharashtra today, the BJP will suffer the same fate.”
What does that tell you about the way Modi and his chosen men are conducting politics? No wonder the old guard in the BJP is so nostalgic about “consensual politics”.