The Bihar Lessons
The unprecedented scale of the victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar under the leadership of the chief minister Nitish Kumar in the latest round of assembly polls came unexpected, though the JD (U) – BJP combination retaining power was a safe conclusion. If we go by the explanations offered by our political pundits in the television channels, then many new political “landmarks” were registered during the latest polls and on the basis of those there would be new political realignments at the national level. In my humble opinion, such observations have been in line of our traditional Indian traits of going hyper at the slightest pretext. A dispassionate analysis will prove that the Bihar results have not provided any new lessons for Indian politics.
First, let us talk of the margin. India has witnessed more or less similar margins of victories in the past. The 1980 and 1985 general election results , Orissa Assembly results in 2009 and to certain extent the Left front victories in West Bengal on a couple of occasions had been equally one-sided. And as it had been in all these cases, this time in Bihar, too, the stupendous margins did not mean that the victors got more than 50 per cent of the polled votes. Though the ruling alliance won 206 seats, leaving the combined Opposition clutching only 37 seats in a House of 243, its percentage of polled votes was only 39. In other words, the latest results in Bihar proved once again that because of the prevailing first-past post system, the number of seats that a party wins is not exactly a reflection of its acceptability among the voters.
Secondly, the obvious corollary of the above point is the fact that most of our television anchors and political reporters have exposed their superficiality when they say that Lalu Yadav is a spent force in Bihar. Though Lalu’s alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan only managed 25 seats, it must be noted that nearly 26 per cent of the Bihar’s electorate did support that alliance. And that was not inconsiderable, considering that individually the JD (U) polled 22.61 per cent and the BJP 16.46 per cent of votes. In fact, the combined vote share of the Lalu’s RJD, Paswan’s LJP, the Congress and the Left is around 36.40 per cent. In other words, the vote-gap between the ruling parties and the combined opposition is only about three per cent. That means, despite its massive majority, the Nitish government cannot afford to be complacent in the days to come.
Thirdly, the assertion of the Nitish Kumar soon after his victory and its ready acceptance among our chattering classes that the Bihar electorate went beyond “caste” in the elections needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. As has been pointed, Lalu remains a force in Bihar. That means his blatant casteism of is not dead. In any case, the choosing of the candidates by the NDA was also done by taking into caste and ethnic factors. You cannot say that you do not believe in caste as an electoral factor as long as you choose your candidates on the basis of their ethnicity. I think that Nitish was cleverer in exploiting the caste factor, and he has been doing it consistently over the last five years, by courting of “Maha-OBC” and “Maha-Dalit” among the backward castes and dalits. He knows it well that in the name of caste and the consequent caste-based reservations, only a tiny minority—Yadavs from the OBCs and Paswans from dalits—are enjoying all the jobs and political power. Nitish has been extremely successful in exposing this exploitation by Lalu and Paswan and has reaped the rewards from the overwhelming majorities of the OBCs and dalits, who continue to remain in abject poverty. If anything, Nitish’s successful experiment underscores the exploitation by the “creamy layer” in the midst of the OBCs, SCs and STs in monopolizing the benefits of reservations. But that is a different story and beyond the ken of this column. The point, however, remains that caste did play a role in Bihar elections and thus continued to remain a disease in Indian polity.
Fourthly, Nitish and his countless admirers are right that the NDA won the elections on the plank of development and good governance. But it is little too much to believe our television anchors when they compared the Nitish-version (“good governance”) vis-a -vis Narendra Modi version (“communal card”) in winning elections. In fact, it is Narendra Modi who, arguably, proved for the first time in India’s electoral history that a government can retain the popular mandate by overcoming the so-called anti-incumbency on the basis of the record of governance. Same has been the case with the governments led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and Sheila Dixit in Delhi. Nitish’s victory has only reconfirmed this trend and it is really heartening. Our anchors need not pontificate it to the BJP, because the party should be given credit for being the first to start it in Gujarat, notwithstanding its long history of communal riots and tensions, latest being the horrible and condemnable communal riots in 2002. In fact, despite BJP’s communal image, the Muslims, of late, have started voting for the party because of its comparatively better governance in the states it rules. This new trend had already been seen in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. And that explains why the BJP candidates did remarkably well in the Muslims-dominated constituencies in Bihar this time.
Of course, the fact that Muslims could vote for the BJP has not been taken kindly by our leading television anchors and left-dominated media elites. They have been systematically trying to wedge a gap between the JD (U) and BJP over the years. And now in the wake of the alliance’s massive victory, they have floated a theory whether a secular Nistish, given his track record in good governance, should be projected as NDA’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general elections. It is to the credit of Nitish that he has not fallen into the trap and made it clear that he would be concentrating on Bihar alone. He is realist enough to realise that the JD (U) has hardly any influence outside Bihar and that leadership in any national alliance will come from the constituent that has more MPs. Politics, after all, is a number-game.
That being the case, the Congress and BJP will continue to remain the two principal poles in Indian politics around whom alliances, whether it is the UPA or the NDA, will revolve in foreseeable future. What, however, could change is composition of these two principal alliances, with some of the minor constituents changing their principal partners. And this has happened before. The DMK, for instance, was in the NDA and now it is in the UPA. Viewed thus, the so-called secular elites in the media need not despair. Theoretically speaking, Nitish could join the UPA. But will the Congress make him a Prime Ministerial candidate? I do not know the answer; perhaps our all-knowing television anchors do.
By Prakash Nanda