Modi Vs. Nitish
Who will win in Bihar? This is the most important question doing the rounds in Delhi’s political circles. Of course, the outcome of the elections to the state Assembly in Bihar next month will not affect the stability of the central government led by Narendra 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 the Modi’s BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar polls will certainly dent the credibility of the Modi 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. 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, will certainly complicate manifold his visions for reforms and development in the country.
Let it also be admitted that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is seeking a third term for himself, this time in alliance with his former bête noire Lalu Prasad Yadav (who, along with his wife Rabri Devi had ruled the state for 15 years), is widely perceived to be the real anti-thesis of Modi and what he stands for. In fact, it is Nitish Kumar (then an important pillar of the NDA), who is the first politician in the country to have openly devised a master strategy to block the march of Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, from Gandhinagar to Delhi. Modi’s critics within the BJP, let alone his enemies outside, systematically had fed then the overwhelming sections of the national media to propagate the theory that Modi is a deeply divisive figure and that he would be a political disaster for the BJP outside Gujarat. There was a similar vitriolic campaign that the BJP as a party would disintegrate if Modi became the Prime Ministerial candidate. It was also said that the allies in the NDA would desert if a divisive Modi led the BJP. In fact, there are elements of truth that certain anti-Modi elements in the BJP misguided the JD(U) (one of the BJP’s longstanding allies) leader and the Bihar Chief Minister to part ways with the NDA over Modi, thinking that by so doing Modi’s anointment as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the alliance would be stalled. That Nitish fell into the trap and left the NDA even before the BJP’s formal decision to make Modi its leader for the 16th general elections in the country is something that he will rue for the rest of his life, given his worst electoral performance at the hustings, notwithstanding all his bravado. Predictably, Nitish resigned, albeit for a brief period, and his party-led government since then has been critically dependent on the support of another party led by his erstwhile principal political opponent Lalu Yadav.
Now, Nitish and Lalu have formally formed a “grand alliance” along with the Congress.
The point that I am making is that the coming election in Bihar in a sense will be another manifestation of the continuing personal battles between Modi and Nitish. And this being the case let us analyse pros and cons of both their respective alliances. In my considered view, Modi is weaker on the following fronts:
First, the NDA does not have as yet 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 has been clearly projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate if the “grand alliance” wins. 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.
Thirdly, if one goes by the performance of the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar in 2014, then Modi-led NDA lags behind the Nitish-Lalu 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 the Congress was about 45 per cent. If the voters behave the same way they did last year, then next month’s election is no contest at all. Nitish, from this angle, looks simply unbeatable.
But then, there are also other angles to look at the situation from. That Nitish’s grand alliance is unbeatable is premised on two factors: one that voters of the JD (U), RJD and the Congress will forget their mutual contradictions (after all they had fought separately so far) and will vote en- bloc. After all, Nitish and BJP had fought together last two Assembly elections, that too against Lalu. Now, to expect that all the supporters of Nitish will vote for Lalu’s candidates and all the supporters of Lalu will vote for Nitish’s candidates may not be a realistic proposition. And this is particularly when Lalu Prasad has the notorious distinction of being India’s first major politician (a former Chief minister and Union Minister) who has been convicted of corruption and debarred from contesting elections.
Secondly, it is wellknown that Lalu’s basic electoral strategy so far has been on exploiting “identity politics”—he appeals for raw instincts of voting in the names of the caste (basically Yadavs) and religion (Muslims). However, I am getting increasingly convinced that predicting electoral outcomes on the basis of identity politics is a risky proposition these days. In fact, Modi, given his electoral successes in the last Lok Sabha polls and the successive Assembly elections last year, has forced the political scientists the world over to review the existing theories that explain Indian politics. Modi has proved the limitations of the often lauded identity politics of caste, creed and region. People are no longer voting on caste and communal
lines. In fact, the other day, a senior colleague of Lalu—RJD MP Taslimuddin—created a flutter within his party by saying that the BJP would get Muslim votes in the Seemanchal region of Araria, Purnia, Katihar and Kishanganj with 24 Assembly seats.
I am of the strong opinion that Indian democracy will be much stronger if one votes as an Indian, not as a member of a particular caste or religion or region. Unfortunately the dominant sections within the Indian polity, and this includes its intelligentsia, glorify the identity politics. For instance, if Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits vote as a block, they laud the phenomenon as consolidation for their respective rights. If somebody opposes this trend, he or she is branded as communal. In my considered view, in the last Lok Sabha election, people at large rejected this phenomenon and its champions. Whether it is going to be a durable counter-phenomenon or not remains to be seen in Bihar.
Similarly, what is heartening in the elections of late is that the Indian youth, including those who voted for the first time (it is said of the 814.59 million registered voters in the country, about 100 million were first-time voters), have solidly rallied behind those who talked about the safety, security and development for all Indians. Most of them found Modi aspirational. And it is not only the young who believed in Modi. The poor too, both in the urban and rural areas, seemed to have reposed their faith in Modi and rejected the politics of glorification of poverty. After all, they need to be empowered so that they can overcome poverty, not remain perennially poor to receive the government’s alms and act as vote-bank of the ruling parties. That explains why despite the UPA government’s various populist schemes, all brought about over the last six months with the specific intention of buying votes, people did vote for the BJP. Modi has proved that the politics of dole and distributing sops will not fetch votes any longer. He has to prove it again in Bihar.
In sum, Bihar elections next month is going to be a battle between Modi-led NDA, which talks of development and, and the Nitish’s grand alliance, which glorifies identity politics and politics of entitlement (that the state has to provide for everything through caste-based reservations, and subsidies). Let us wait till November to see who the people of Bihar are siding with.
By Prakash Nanda