Aspirational Bihar tilts towards Modi-led NDA
So many poll watchers have tried to decipher the outcome of the assembly elections in Bihar where the voters have reposed faith again and again in Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance.
They have shown their belief in the BJP’s promise of a better future though not so much in the ability of its ally, Janata Dal (United).
One can go on splitting hair on the minimal differences in the vote-share or number of assembly seats between the NDA and the grand opposition alliance, the Mahagatbandan, consisting of the RJD, Congress, Left and the extreme Left.
Though aware of the diminishing returns of Nitish Kumar’s leadership in this election, Modi did not relent in his campaign, which brought a huge swell to the BJP’s tally and saved the JDU from collapse.
More voters backed the BJP than the JDU. Finally, the NDA won 125 seats (BJP 74, JDU 43 and smaller allies VIP 4, HAM 4). On the other hand, the Mahagatbandhan was restricted to 110 seats (RJD 75, Congress 19, Left 16).
Playing the role of “vote cutters” (vote kata in local parlance), Asaduddin Owaisi-ked AIMIM got five seats at the cost of the Mahagatbandhan in the Muslim-stronghold of Seemanchal.
The other “vote cutter” — the LJP— only bagged a single seat. But in terms of damage to the NDA, particularly to the JDU, it was very substantial.
After the first phase of voting on October 28, which helped the RJD to consolidate its position as the single largest party, a last-minute swing in the mood of voters pushed the voters more towards the NDA in the second and subsequent phase. Women voted in larger numbers than men across Bihar and backed Nitish.
We can go threadbare into the factors that shaped one of the closest elections of recent times and the many aspects of the narrow victory of the NDA in terms of caste and community and why women voted more than any other section for continuity in the dispensation.
At the macro-level, the central message is very clear that, while all the voters of Bihar may not be very happy with Nitish Kumar-led ministry’s performance in the last five years, they cannot forget the improvement in the quality of life in the state under Sushasan Babu, as Nitish has been known, since 2005 when he became chief minister.
Secondly, they may be impressed with the efforts of a new generation of leaders led by RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, the son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, to win their confidence and move away from their legacy of gross mis-governance.
Yet, when it comes to making a choice, the quality of the governance model under Tejashwi does not inspire complete confidence and cannot match up to what Nitish can still offer under Modi’s leadership at the centre. Nitish was able to overcome the inevitable fatigue after three terms in office as CM, due to his rival not being seen as an option and the performance of the Modi government at the centre.
The voters’ experience of the RJD rule both under Lalu and his wife Rabri Devi from 1990 to 2005 leave no scope for an aspirational Bihar to opt for a switch now from Nitish to Tejaswhi at this point of time. The collective memories of “jungle raj” among the voters, particularly among women, non-OBCs, non-Yadav OBCs and dalits and mahadalits, cannot go away easily.
That is why, as the final results showed, Tejashwi’s party seemed to have hit a glass ceiling in his quest for power —despite the RJD winning the status of single largest party. As expected, Rahul Gandhi-led Congress failed to deliver not more than 20 seats while an extreme left wing, the CPI(M-L) made hay with 12 seats and two factions of mainstream CPI got two seats each.
But the underlying message was that the future is open with possibilities if Tejaswhi were to continue his role as a fierce opposition leader, who is willing to stick to issues of governance and ready to go beyond the considerations of his caste-community support base.
Undoubtedly, Tejaswhi did put up a creditable performance in a short time, leading an alliance consisting of an underperforming Congress and the Left as well as extreme left that has ridden piggy back on the anti-BJP bandwagon with aplomb.
Tejashwi did recover from his political setbacks since the last Lok Sabha polls. He re-energised the RJD with an unimplementable but definitely a very attractive promise of securing 10 lakh government jobs for the sons of the soil. What more, age is definitely on his side.
His other advantage is that many first-time and very young voters have not seen the chaos of the period under his father or mother. They were willing to give him a change to prove his ability to govern and deliver results on the ground.
On the other hand, several factors were working against Nitish. His government’s performance appeared to be hitting a plateau after several deliverables on the social sector front.
The pandemic had crushed the economy of the state like in the rest of the country. Thousands of migrant workers and their families returned home, with many of them literally trekking back from big cities and towns.
However, voters did not forget the succour provided by the Modi government by way of free ration to more than eight crore people of Bihar for more than six months. The PM kept his word that not a single person went hungry to the bed in the night when thousands were jobless and left without a penny.
The government transferred more than Rs 13,000 crore into the 4.7 crore accounts opened under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) in Bihar. Of these accounts, more than 2.5 crore belong to women.
Through his campaign, Modi asserted that the development of India is incomplete without the development of Bihar. The next phase of the state’s development will focus on making an ‘Atmanirbhar Bihar.’ With penetration of optical fibre network, creation of IT parks and by leveraging opportunities in the food processing sector, Bihar will start afresh on the path of growth.
Modi’s running theme was that the economic opportunities lie in re-inventing agriculture in the state by promoting the cultivation of fox nuts, litchi and maize, and focus on fisheries.
If the basic aspects of bijli, sadak and pani were taken care of Nitish, he will ensure that Bihar witnesses the next generation of development and revival of its lost legacy. That’s why Modi insisted that he needed Nitish as CM to continue the saga of development.
Yet, Nitish was hit severely by the loss suffered by his party, JDU, because of a combination of reasons, which included the role of a NDA ally, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which was founded by late Ramvilas Paswan and inherited by his son, Chirag. Not only Chirag tapped on the anti-incumbency issues bedevilling Nitish but also wrought damage to several JDU candidates by channelising the mood of voters who were disappointed with the incumbent CM in his third term. Also, Chirag kept up the stance of backing the PM with a promise of supporting a BJP-led ministry in the state.
On the other hand, the BJP did not see a similar backlash because of Modi’s standing and popularity among the voters and what the Centre had done by way of building houses for the poor, providing gas and electricity connections and begin a major initiative for the supply of drinking water. This was despite the pandemic wrecking havoc among the very poor sections of Bihar.
This brings us to the question of the future of the political arrangements in Bihar. A diminished Nitish is very unhappy that the JDU’s numbers have gone down very significantly and he is more than dependent on the munificence of the BJP, which has emerged a bigger partner.
JDU leaders have blamed the leadership of the BJP for not reining in Chirag Paswan and allowed him to cause immense damage to their party’s tally by showcasing himself as Modi’s “Hanuman”, and thereby, putting JDU at the mercy of the BJP.
Of course, a sensitive top BJP leadership has stepped in to request Nitish to continue to be the CM even if their party has scored much more than the JDU. They have dismissed the murmurs about the demand or talk within the BJP to seek the CM’s post.
Modi does not wish that the BJP should do anything that will hurt the dignity of Nitish as he enters his fourth term. Nitish is not just an individual or a leader of an alliance partner whose ambitions seemed constrained by the nature of the Bihar verdict.
Nitish represents the aspirations of a large section of silent, non-assertive voters who belong to the non-dominant sections like women, extreme backward classes (EBCs) and mahadalits.
Modi needs Nitish in the seat of power in Bihar for his grand plans for India’s growth before the next parliamentary elections in 2024. Therefore, the BJP has done well to quash the talk of any alternative at this juncture. Unless Nitish wishes to shift out of the state himself and move to the centre, it will be in the interest of the BJP to continue to allow him greater room to speed up the growth story of Bihar.
Any change of strategy by either side is fraught with uncertainty and a walkover to the opposition, given the numbers in the new Bihar Assembly.
Modi’s open praise of the Nitish rule several times during the campaign and after the results has seen the top party leaders asserting that there is no question of any going back on Nitish. Modi would like to prove that he sticks by his word.
A lot is at stake for Modi and the BJP in running the coalition in Bihar though many are upset with the style of functioning of Nitish.
In the new scenario, Nitish needs all the skills to manage the demands of the big partner than before and speed up much-needed changes and reforms in the governance model adopted thus far in Bihar.
Nitish must adapt himself to the new situation and think beyond the welfare system. It is true that the large sections of people in Bihar will need to be secured by an effective delivery of socio-economic programmes, which cannot be slackened at any cost.
But an aspirational Bihar is rearing to go beyond welfarism. Its entrepreneurial energy needs to be unleashed so that ambitions of the youth can be channelised for the betterment of the state.
Though constrained to think in terms of his socialistic mooring, Nitish has to only challenge himself for thinking in new ways to make the best of the Centre’s plans for self-reliance across sectors and attract investments in agriculture and allied areas as well as in the manufacturing sector in Bihar to create more jobs.
The BJP’s manifesto holds out a lot of promise in terms of ideas. Nitish may do well to adopt the proposals as his own too. Otherwise, Tejashwi’s promise of government jobs will haunt him again.
This time, Modi has saved the NDA from a drubbing in Bihar. But the overall success of the country demands a resurgent Bihar on a trajectory growth. Only Modi and Nitish can do it together, setting aside the differences of their respective parties in the approach to the problems.
The elections of Bihar and by-polls in other states had taken place against the backdrop of severe economic stress caused by slowdown in trade and business, urban joblessness and rural distress weighing down on voters.
By winning Bihar, Modi has shown that he retains the confidence of a majority of voters in his formula for India’s emergence as an economic growth story.
Similarly, the results of the by-polls in key states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have shown the BJP has the popular backing under respective chief ministers.
In Madhya Pradesh particularly, a BJP win was crucial for ensuring sufficient number of MLAs for the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government to continue unhindered. Rebel Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia has proved his leadership by ensuring victory for the BJP candidates. He had switched to the BJP to pull down Kamal Nath-led Congress ministry early this year. Now, Scindia awaits a bigger role as a minister in the Central government.
It is Bihar that has given Modi a big opportunity — before the UP polls in 2022 and the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 — to fix a host of issues that bedevil not only Bihar but also the economy of the nation.
Modi can work harder to tackle the crisis caused by the lack of growth and job opportunities, which is deeply troubling India’s youth for whom the bread-and-butter issues, along with quality education, are crying need of the hour.
As the people’s expectations grow, Modi too may have to go on faster on the economic reforms and other structural changes, which his government is already beginning to indicate with a slew of policy initiatives to spur the concept of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India.)
More importantly, a large section of voters will constantly look for alternatives in younger leaders like Tejashwi— notwithstanding his party’s past record in governance— and even if his allies like Rahul Gandhi-led Congress are unable to meet their aspirations.
The Bihar voters have shown that Modi continues to enjoy the primacy among all political leaders.
The poll results have also given the message that the BJP does not depend only on a single effective leader like Amit Shah to manage the poll machinery. J P Nadda, as his successor and the party chief, can as well manage the poll machinery under the former’s guidance.
The verdict is a feather in Nadda’s cap because it was his first major challenge, particularly under the situation caused by the pandemic. Nadda had begun his political career in that state as a student activist in the 1980s.
The Bihar verdict is bound to boost the morale of BJP cadres in neighbouring West Bengal where Amit Shah is back in charge to oust Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress from its bastion.
Bengal goes to polls in April-May 2021, along with Assam where the BJP is better poised to retain power as the government led by Sarbananda Sonawal has shown results despite issues like the botched-up NRC, which has revived fears and polarisation among the communities
Even in deeper south, the BJP may be tempted to try its luck harder in the dravidian parties-dominated Tamil Nadu and Kerala where it is always a musical chair between a Congress-led UDF and the Left Front. These two states also have elections early next year. The opposition DMK may be tempted not to yield to the demands of the Congress in Tamil Nadu after seeing its performance in Bihar, which prevented from Tejaswhi from wresting power from Nitish Kumar.
By Shekhar Iyer