Understanding The Bihar Mandate
There are some merits in the logic that Modi’s failure (hence success of Lalu and Nitish) lay in the fact that the NDA did not have a Chief Ministerial candidate, a factor that plays an important role in any election, be it local or provincial or national. On the other hand, Nitish was clearly projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the grand alliance
Who is the real victor of the just concluded Assembly elections in Bihar? And who is the real loser here? What could be attributed to the success of the victor or the victor’s alliance? What went against the party or the alliance that lost? And finally, what are the implications of the Bihar results, 2015, for national politics?
These questions, I suppose, are more or less common for every political watcher or analyst in the country. But there are bound to be different answers. Though all the questions are inter-related, for me the last question is most significant; hence I will devote more space to that.
However, let me begin with the first question. For me the real victor is Lalu Yadav. A person who happens to be contemporary India’s first major political leader( a former Chief Minister, a former Union Minister) to be convicted of corruption and hence ineligible to contest elections for six years (till 2019), Lalu has done really wonders as his Rastriya Janata Dal(RJD) has emerged as the single largest party with 80 seats. On the verge of being written off for his party’s dismal performance first in the 2010 Assembly polls(22 seats) and then 2014 parliamentary polls (just four seats), Lalu is now the king-maker in Bihar, a role which now can play the best at national level.
What about the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar? Well, the mandate has been renewed for him through his alliance with the RJD and the Congress. Similarly, it can be said emphatically that Nitish has convincingly knocked out Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this round of duel that they, the two friends-turned-foes, have been fighting over the last two years after his Janata Dal (JD U) left the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But, Nitish, for me, is the biggest loser in this election. For the last 10 years, he has been the undisputed numero uno (number one) leader of Bihar, but no more. He may remain the Chief Minister, but it will be highly contentious if his supporters and admirers continue to claim that he still is numero uno. Viewed thus, the issue of leadership in Bihar (between Nitish and Lalu) remains unsettled even though the election is over.
Let us go by some hard facts. In the outgoing Bihar Assembly, JD (U) has 115 seats. But in the new Assembly, though Chief Minister, Nitish will seat with 71 seats, a loss of as many as 44 seats. Secondly, from being the premier political party in the state, JD (U) has been reduced to the third after the BJP (yes, BJP paradoxically) and the RJD. On single-party basis, the BJP managed a vote share of nearly 24.8 per cent—higher than individual shares of 18.5 per cent for the RJD and 16.7 per cent of the JD-U. Election Commission data show the BJP having got over 91.5 lakh votes on a consolidated basis, followed by RJD’s 67.9 lakh and about 62 lakh for the JD-U. The Congress, which fought elections as part of the grand alliance, could manage a vote share of only about 6.7 per cent, even though in terms of seats it got as many as 27, its best ever performance in Bihar after 1995. Given the fact that the Congress had got only four seats in 2010, this time its strike rate of success is over 65 per cent; but much cannot be said about its real strength since it is the junior most partner in the alliance and its present strength is due to its piggybacking on allies Nitish and Lalu.
That brings us to the BJP-led NDA. From 91 in 2010, the BJP has come down to 53. Its allies have let it down badly. So much so that the NDA overall got only 34 per cent against victorious grand alliance’s about 46 per cent. A gap of nearly 12 percent between the winner and loser in Indian elections can be described as massive. And as the NDA was represented by none other than the Prime Minister, it is Modi’s colossal defeat, particularly when the NDA under him had won 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
What explains the success and failure in this election? The answer depends on whether the victorious got votes for them or against Modi’s BJP. But then it is little difficult to be definitive over it. If one buys the logic that Modi and BJP went on negative campaigning, then it becomes a vote against Modi. And this view gains further strength from the fact that Lalu and Nitish, during the campaign, said less about why people should vote for them but more about why people should not vote for Modi because of his “communal politics’, “failure to deliver over promises”, “anti-poor measures” and “arrogance”. Each of these allegations, however, is debatable and can be applied against the grand alliance. I am not sure if it is the BJP that communalised elections after the dastardly lynching in far-away (from Bihar) Dadri of a Muslim over alleged killing of a cow and consumption of its meat. Dispassi-onately seen, it is Lalu who talked of Beef politics first in the elections under his concern for Muslims and secularism, and the BJP, foolishly, fell into his trap by going hyper in its reactions.
People find fault with BJP’s language and style. But then what about that of the grand alliance? If the BJP made seemingly-anti Muslim slogans, Lalu went to the town by mobilising Muslims and some castes to vote en block, thus making the atmosphere highly polarized. I simply cannot understand how mobilizing Hindus for a candidate is communal but doing likewise with the Muslims is a secular act. I cannot fathom that if Modi’s language against Nitish and Lalu is termed hostile that of Lalu against Modi (normally unprintable) is said at the same time to be a legitimate and “excellent” manifestation of political communication! All told, 90 percent of Modi’s election-speeches was devoted to developmental issues in contrast to that glorification of identity politics (of castes and minorities) by Lalu, Nitish and Rahul Gandhi(the Congress Vice President); but Modi becomes divisive, whereas leaders on the other side are projected as apostles of national unity and integrity!
Here, I will like to highlight the slogan of Nitish Kumar that the election was between “Bihari and Bahari” (resident of Bihar vs. outsider), appealing to the voters to trust a “Bihari” like him than a “Bahari” like Modi. Nothing can be more dangerous to the national unity and integrity than winning election on this slogan. This slogan of Nitish, in essence, is the glorification of the nefarious “son of the soil” policy by extremist outfits in various states of the country. It is doubly dangerous for the Biharis, particularly when cities like Mumbai, Surat and Bhopal, not to speak of the National Capital Region, are full of Biharis who have made great contributions in their places of work. Now if, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or the BJP in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh applies Nitish’s slogan, the country will literally burn. Nitish’s logic is all the more absurd as Modi is the Prime Minister of India, hence Bihar; he is not an outsider.
There are some merits in the logic that Modi’s failure(hence success of Lalu and Nitish) lay in the fact that that the NDA did not have a Chief Ministerial candidate, a factor that plays an important role in any election, be it local or provincial or national. On the other hand, Nitish was clearly projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the grand alliance. Secondly, Modi, who had swept the Lok Sabha elections in May last year, is not the same force today in popular perceptions. He is increasingly being perceived to be indecisive and not delivering.
However, the most important reason that determined the Bihar election this time was the combination of arithmetic of votes and chemistry of voters in favour of the grand alliance. If one goes by the performance of the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar in 2014, then Modi-led NDA was bound to lag behind the Nitish-Lalu-Rahul alliance significantly. The simple arithmetic is that the NDA in 2014 polls had secured 38.8 per cent of the vote, whereas the combined vote-share of Nitish’s JD (U), Lalu’s RJD and Rahul’s Congress was about 45 per cent. But since Lalu and Nitish had fought separately, the BJP-led NDA had swept the polls, by winning 172 of the 243 assembly segments. If the opposition had been united in 2014 as they were united this time, the NDA would have only won 92 seats, leaving 145 seats for the grand alliance. And here add, as veteran analyst Surjit S Bhalla pointed out brilliantly, based on expertise over election – studies all over the world, 6(six) percent vote-shares/seats that a ruling party loses in the first two years post a national election.
“All things considered, the NDA should find it difficult to top 80 seats with a reasonable probability of obtaining seats in the 50 to 70 zone. If forced to make a point estimate, I would say 175 seats for JD (U) + and 60 seats for the NDA”, Bhalla had predicted. And he has proved to be prophetic! So it is no mind-blowing why the NDA lost. The only way it could have won if there was no chemistry among the voters of the grand alliance; that is, if voters of the JD (U), RJD and the Congress had not forgotten their mutual contradictions (after all they had fought separately so far) and not voted en- bloc. But it is clear that the chemistry worked, too.
What are the implications of the Bihar results on the national scene? Of course, the outcome will not affect the stability of the central government led by Modi, given the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha. But it has to be admitted that at a time when it is increasingly perceived that the Modi-charisma is on a decline, a setback to Modi in Bihar polls will certainly dent the credibility of his government at the centre and embolden the anti-incumbency sentiments against a Prime Minister who has more than three and half years to complete his term. Besides, a defeat of Modi in Bihar will not only damage the prospects of the BJP to emerge as a strong force in eastern India, including Assam, but also, and this is more pertinent, certainly complicate manifold his visions for reforms and development in the country. The opposition, both inside and outside the Parliament, will get more entrenched and try its best to foil his plans.
All this does not mean that we have now clarity how will the national opposition behave in the general elections in 2019(or whenever held). As I have argued, the real leadership issue is not even settled in Bihar. So it is all the more difficult to conjecture if the opposition will fight a united election against Modi under a single leadership? And if it does, it is difficult to identify that leader now.
Will it be Nitish Kumar? Will it be Lalu Yadav (if he wins the case against his conviction in the Supreme Court in near future)? Will it be Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal? Will it be Mulayam Singh Yadav? Will it be Mayawati? Or, will it be Rahul Gandhi? All these are million dollar questions and the Bihar outcome has in no way made their answers easy.
On the other hand, the Bihar outcome does not suggest that Modi’s leadership in the ruling BJP has come under a cloud, something the chattering classes in Delhi are focussing on. If Nitish Kumar, or for that matter a Lalu Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, can reinvent themselves after the severe drubbing they got in 2014, what does prevent Modi from regaining his lost touch in times ahead? I think that Modi, or for that matter, the BJP, can convert the present challenges into opportunities by delivering on the fronts of governance and development and sidelining the elements of rabid Hindutva.
It is now nearly 18 months since Modi assumed office. But red-tapism and the license raj syndrome continue. India is still a very difficult country to do business with. Modi is still unable to lift the nation to the top 50 to attract investors. Other than facing archaic laws, a foreign company invariably faces hostile politicians and media, if not at the national level certainly in local quarters. Even on seemingly simple matters, the bureaucracy continues to complicate and prolong the process.
Modi had promised to break India from this Nehruvian mould and present us a different model of governance. The voters responded to his call for trying a Modi-model for five years. And here, people had reposed faith in Modi, not the BJP as such as the party suffers from every ill associated with Nehurvianism. So far one does not know how Modi will be able to overcome resistance form his own party, the BJP, and the larger Sangh Parivar, which deeply resent against globalisation and liberalisation. In fact, the RSS hates Modi’s “Make in India” programme. And, the BJP, all told, still remains a highly populist party.
There are three issues that ail Modi and his BJP. I have written about them in the past in some form or the other. Let me repeat them since without addressing them, Modi cannot recover his lost ground. First, there is the growing distance between Modi (and his ministers) and the party-workers/supporters. After assuming office, the ministers are living not only inside “secluded forts”, having shut doors to the activists and well-wishers who had relentlessly worked for him and party’s victory over the years in some way or the other. And what is worse, their lifestyles have changed. The supporters and sympathizers certainly have not taken kindly to Modi wearing costly cloths (though it is a huge myth that his suits cost ten lakh rupees) or his ministers furthering the VIP culture. The one standard argument that one hears is that the ministers are not accessible because they do not want to meet these activists and supporters who are only obsessed with seeking favours from the government. Though that is not exactly the case always and that sometimes well-wishers want to convey meaningful suggestions to the ministers, the fact nonetheless remains that in every established democracy (and this includes the US and Britain), political patronage is a legitimate affair.
No leader should think that it is the will of the God that it is he or she who will enjoy the fruits of electoral victory by being a minister and that his or her party workers and supporters should tirelessly strive for the party cause without expecting anything in return. In fact, a successful politician is he or she who maintains the loyalty of his or her supporters and yet is not parochial or sectarian in furthering or doing the bigger national task. Modi should talk to the leaders in the “Sangh Parivar”, RSS in particular, and explain to them why in the long term national interests, sectarianism and extremism have no place and why the hotheads in the Parivar should mend their ways or get out. Let it be noted that unlike in the past, there are now many in the RSS who are not known for their social service and commitment to truth, honesty, integrity and self-sacrifice. While overall RSS’s commitments towards nationalism and reforms in and welfare of “Sanatan Dharm” must be commended, Modi must ask the organisation to shed its growing image of a hardball-playing, narrow Hindu-vote-focused, quasi-political entity.
Secondly, Modi is perceived to be talking too much but doing too little at the ground level, be it the Swachh Bharat programme or Cleaning Ganga project. Similarly, he is talking of “Make in India” programme, but that does not mean much in the absence of first a suitable education policy that will make Indian graduates employable, and secondly concrete administrative reforms. And what is worse, despite all its bravado, the Modi government has not brought under the control the rising food inflation that hits every middle class or poor household very hard. In my opinion, this slow burning food inflation has played havoc with Modi’s electoral fortunes in Bihar. The farmer does not benefit a single pie extra because of this inflation. If the rates of the food items at the retails are 400 to 700 per cent higher than what the farmer gets in reality, then the distribution system has certainly gone beyond Modi’s control. And solving these problems relating to governance and administrative reforms do not need Parliamentary approval. All of them can be dealt with at “Executive” (Modi’s Cabinet) level.
The third is the fact that Modi continues to face a very hostile national media that is based in Delhi. The same is true of national intelligentsia. As I have argued always , the national perception-makers are overwhelmingly dominated by academicians, artists, journalists and contributors who are moulded in what is said to be the Nehruvian framework or establishment–“Left/Liberal/ Secular” and this establishment literally hates Modi, BJP or for that matter anybody who has an alternate worldview. But then this establishment should not be silenced or overthrown, even if Modi has the power to do so. Doing that will be resorting to fascism. The members of this Nehruvian establishment are so ideologically moulded that they cannot be bought or coerced all that easily—in itself a great virtue for freedom of expression and hence democracy. But what Modi can do is to facilitate and promote the entry of talented people having different points of views, particularly right of the centre (not to be blindly equated with that of the RSS), in universities, think-tanks and media, where the government has a say (the Left-liberals continue to dominate even today in Doordarshan and All India Radio, not to talk of elsewhere), to enliven the Indian academia, media and democracy. But then, it is going to be protracted process. Modi has to learn to live with an intelligentsia that will have different yardsticks to judge him for the rest of his term. He has to find out some concrete ways how to nullify the perception built about him and his government by this hostile intelligentsia. And there are ways how to do it without silencing the dissent against him.
In sum, Modi has no alternative than living simply, working hard and implementing his promises. That will be the best way of recovering his lost aura and neutralising the domino effect of Bihar. Modi must realise that the Bihar election marked the end of his beginning as the Prime Minister; only his work record will ensure that it is not the beginning of his end as the Prime Minister.
By Prakash Nanda