Among many points brought home by BJP’s debacle in Bihar is the lurking fear of a comeback of policy paralysis. Narendra Modi had promised to break this jinx through the run up to his ascent to the top post. And ever since taking over as Prime Minister, he has consistently been trying for a breakthrough on the economic front. He staked too much in the Bihar polls to simply get an endorsement of his economic agenda so that reforms like Goods and Services Tax (GST) do not meet the same fate as had been the case a few months ago with his new land acquisition law. Yet, the results of the Assembly polls in Bihar have been so disappointing for his party as to give way to fears of having a crippling effect on the Government too.
Thus, no sooner the results of Bihar polls were out, the Central Government came out with a list of as many as 15 crucial sectors, including defence and media, where extent and norms for Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) were eased. Critics of the Government hastened to point out that New Delhi took this step with an eye on Prime Minister’s London visit and, thus, under Britain or the West’s pressure. Whatever may be the case, the fact is that Narendra Modi and those close to him in the party were in a tight spot. And, thus, the step aimed at dispelling the impression that the Centre was going to be bogged down by the reverses brought by Bihar and before that by Delhi Assembly polls.
Modi, exuding his usual aplomb, also knows when to bend or take a U-turn; and, thus, he pulled out the instance of an extraordinarily talented Muslim app maker – Imran Khan - from the arid lands of Rajasthan who was able to make his mark despite his humble moorings.
In his overwhelmingly attended Wembley Stadium talk, the Prime Minister lavishly lauded the hitherto ignored Imran Khan for accomplishing a remarkable feat without intending to make a penny, yet benefiting scores of poor students spread across so many vernacular schools all over the northern parts of the country by virtually gifting them his learners’ apps.
This was as much a tribute to the astounding success of the Alwar apps buff as to Modi’s own shrewdness to score with the minority ranks with who he, and some of his party and Parivar cohorts, are seen to be at loggerheads. This polarisation that ran right through the run up to Bihar polls. The majoritarian thrust failed to pay dividends and minority bashing was repudiated by the electorate.
Some of the BJP patriarchs were also quite miffed with the personality-centric campaign of Modi along with his lieutenant Amit Shah. However, the Bihar elections showed that anyone who believed that the polls were like a gamble where aces alone matter most, need to think again.
All who believed Nitish Kumar a knave for his gambit of resigning, bearing moral responsibility for Janata Dal (United)’s dismal performance after the 2014 countrywide general elections for the Lower House of Parliament, were proved soundly wrong. Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was crowned Bihar’s Chief Minister on Nitish’s resignation, is the lone MLA from his party – HAM - or Hindustani Awami Morcha, to have won this election. All his grand vows of breaking Nitish’s back have come to nought.
The tussle between Nitish and Manjhi is significant because soon after the BJP’s defeat there is a clamour in the party to make heads roll and fix the moral responsibility for the defeat of National Democratic Alliance led by Modi-Amit Shah duo.
Contrary to this, the 18-month old Nitish-Manjhi episode has proved today that an adverse tide can be reversed not by a stunt like quitting the post, or shrugging off a position but taking defeat in one’s stride and re-strategising and regrouping.
Nitish did exactly this by taking the reins of power again in the State after sacking Manjhi and leading the grand alliance from front. Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress formed his flanks.
The Deputy Director of the research institute, Lokniti, Sanjay Kumar, feels that the Bihar mandate is more about a pro-Nitish wave rather than an anti-Modi wave.
“The Bihar verdict reflects development that Nitish Kumar has undertaken over the last 10 years; the electorate of Bihar have reposed their faith in Nitish on the basis of his two good terms,’’ said Kumar.
Thus, the developmental spirit created by Modi through his last year’s campaign during the general elections continued unabated in Bihar. Except, if the ‘psephologist’ cited above is to be believed then the only difference this time was that in Bihar the development copyright changed hands from Modi to Nitish.
Thus, from job quota to cow to a possible crackers’ show across the frontiers or for that matter all other arsenals in BJP’s veritable armoury did not work. Instead, Har Har Modi turned into Arhar Modi. The messages of the slogans got mixed, dragging a strategist like Amit Shah into a virtual hot lentils’ soup. The cost of this proved to be as high for BJP as to render its huge rallies, charged rhetoric and formidable organisation into a fatal cocktail.
The paratroopers writing a prescription for Bihar could not help and ended up earning the sobriquet of Bahari (outsiders) vis-a-vis Biharis. Strangely, this happened despite the long drawn deliberations over BJP’s debacle in Delhi Assembly polls held in February this year. It had clearly revealed the inefficacy of negative campaign and the dangers of sidelining local leaders. The exalted self-confidence of the two men at BJP’s helm seemed to have gotten the better of them.
The grand alliance was quick to mark this out. It lost no time to cash in on Modi’s infamous ‘Nitish’s DNA’ remark that raised Bihari hackles across the state. Elsewhere too, Modi’s partymen and those from the RSS were misconstruing the signals. The BJP in all TV debates and everywhere else were reiterating Modi’s development plank for Bihar while its war room was tinkering with complicated caste arithmetic of the State. The party ended up giving tickets to as many as 22 Yadavs, yet, just about six of them finally won.
The Prime Minister too seemed confused; from his exalted development messiah status he took every opportunity to flaunt his “ati-pichhda” or extremely backward provenance in almost every rally.
The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat talked about the need to relook at reservations, hurtling backward class vote bank right back into the arms of the ‘secular’ alliance.
On the other side, Union Minister Giriraj Singh fired another salvo by asserting, “An upper caste cannot be the Chief Minister of Bihar. It is certain that if the BJP-led NDA comes to power, the next Chief Minister will be either from the OBC or EBC ranks,” disgruntling a substantial section of the upper caste vote bank.
In essence, in two strokes the two gentlemen had alienated both the backwards, who were already sceptical of the BJP, as well as the party’s natural or traditional vote bank - the upper castes. In the final calculations both deserted them with the Congress emerging as the biggest gainer, winning seats like Begusarai, Bettiah and Buxar.
Shah’s reputation as a master strategist also meant that just as the grand alliance’s initial experiments of wooing the whole of once-upon-a-time Janata Parivar had fallen apart over the Samajwadi Party’s unhappiness with the number of seats offered to it, the likes of RJD MP Pappu Yadav and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi would put up candidates at later stages for seats where BJP had a tough fight. Analysts immediately started linking this to Shah’s covert moves and shrewd planning.
It did not help that Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in no uncertain terms that Owaisi being in the fray would benefit the BJP. None of the putative vote cutters fulfilled that role. And the lynching of Akhlaque in Dadri right in the middle of the Bihar campaign threw upon altogether a different issue. Beef forced development and all other major issues that Bihar confronts today to the backseat.
This made BJP blissfully oblivious of its promise of Sabka Saath SabkaVikas. It started distributing pamphlets about cow protection, and went after Lalu Yadav for his comment on Hindus eating beef as unbecoming of “Yaduvanshis” as they are meant to protect cows. This shelved the development talk.
Close on heels of this came Amit Shah’s ‘crackers bursting in Pakistan’ remark to ward off defeat in Bihar. By now it must have made some sort of a record in Whatsapp jokes. The desperation had started showing by the end of the fourth phase.
BJP may have made a fool of itself through the initial hours of counting on November 8 morning with premature sweet distribution and raising a cloud of gaudy Gulal dust amid beating of drums. So much jubilation was unbelievable since the party simply cannot be so removed from the ground as not to have read the warning signs flashing all around.
Sometime in the first week of October Shah, who had been camping in Bihar had rushed back to Delhi amid murmurs that he had come to brief Modi about the “worrying” reports from the ground. The party never admitted to such a meeting and explained away Shah’s return for a “pre-scheduled” meeting with a Kerala outfit. But it was right then that a clutch of ministers were asked to leave all ministerial work in Delhi and camp in the poll-bound State, much like the model the party had followed through the Delhi Assembly elections.
Ministers including Kalraj Mishra, Niranjan Jyoti, JP Nadda, Dharmendra Pradhan, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Radhamohan Singh, Giriraj Singh and Ananth Kumar camped in Bihar. Quite a few of them extended their stay following survey reports that indicated that the caste equation may not be going BJP's way and the decision to go without a CM-face could end up being a hindrance given the clean image of Nitish Kumar and his track record of development. Bhagwat’s comments had already set alarm bells abuzz. But in this very model of “crisis management” lay BJP’s Achilles’ heel.
Says an insider, “In a party like BJP it is the Karyakarta, or party’s foot soldier, who wins or loses elections. In this case the parachute model led to alienation of ground level workers. Local units’ inputs were not taken into account. Also, not going with a CM face meant that there was no leader in the State who had a sure stake in a BJP win. In Maharashtra there was no declared CM candidate but Fadnavis was the man in charge. In Haryana there was no ambiguity that a non-Jat would be CM. Here we only gave mixed signals.”
It is unlikely to be included in any future ode to Amit Shah’s mastery over election management that his party lost more than 20 seats to rivals by margins smaller than the vote tally of the BJP’s rebel candidate fighting as independent.
In Narkatiaganj, BJP candidate Renu Devi lost to Congress’s Vinay Varma by 16061 votes. Sitting BJP MLA RashmiVarma who was denied a ticket fought as an independent and got 39,200 votes. Most of these constituencies have an upper caste presence. Had they been properly tackled the verdict would have gone in BJP’s favour.
It was not just BJP’s failures that made them lose. A combination of factors worked like clockwork for the rivals, something that Arun Jaitley rued in his post post-mortem press conference when he said that his party’s main mistake had been in assuming that the three partners of the grand alliance would not be able to transfer their votes en bloc to each other.
Laloo Yadav’s vote bank which has now been out of power for a decade rose to the occasion and women voted overwhelmingly rewarding Nitish for ending the “Jungle Raj” - a term unwittingly brought back to popular imagination by BJP. Seats where female voters outnumbered men were mostly won by Nitish-led alliance.
Says a Bihari doctor staying in Delhi, “I had asked my wife, who is based in Bihar to vote for the upper caste BJP candidate, a Thakur. After the results I asked her what she thought went wrong. And she told me she had voted for the lantern (RJD’s electoral symbol) I could not believe it. ‘I voted for Nitish,’ she told me.”
In fact, post poll analyses by CSDS-Lokniti showed that JD (U) had transferred its votes to RJD much more than RJD transferred its base to JD (U). It found that in seats where RJD contested three of four voters chose it. But in seats contested by JD (U) three of five voters voted for the grand alliance. Kurmi (Nitish’s caste) consolidation behind the alliance was almost the same in both sorts of seats – whether fought by RJD or any other alliance partner.
Even the number of Paswan candidates winning from the Grand Alliance was 9 as compared to a two from the National Democratic Alliance of which Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti Party is an ally.
Moreover, only four Mahadalits could win on NDA’s ticket as compared to 12 from the Grand Alliance out of whom 9 were from RJD.
From Grand Alliance, 12 EBC candidates, a community which forms 30 percent of the total electorate, won the polls while only seven EBCs could win from the NDA.
So, contrary to the belief that Paswan and Manjhi could inflict a dent the in the Grand Allaince’s Dalits and Mahadalits support base, it was NDA that couldn’t get their votes.
The unforeseen debacle of BJP may have many relishing the prospect of Shah losing his aura as the master of election management. But that may take attention away from Laloo Prasad Yadav being the biggest story of these Bihar elections.
A leader who cannot fight an election for a long time to come and one who has been in the wilderness for several elections, is now back with a bang having won 80 of the 101 seats his party contested.
It is also an irony that BJP may find hard to gulp that a party that dethroned Congress a year-and a-half ago on its promise of clean governance has paved the way for the electoral rehabilitation of a politician who is debarred from contesting elections because of corruption.
The skyrocketing prices of pulse and other food items and rising intolerance has kept Narendra Modi’s government on the back-foot over the past few months. The Bihar mandate has given a wake-up call to the PM that he is yet to fulfil the promises that he made to the electorate about job creation, curbing inflation and lending pace to development.
For Congress, an unexpected tally of 27, is more a symbolic triumph at a time when it has lost five states on the trot. However, it does give the party a psychological edge to counter BJP as the principal opposition party. The Congress is well aware of the probability of a swing in the mood of the nation if the Modi Government fails to deliver on its promises. This may well make the oldest political party the inevitable beneficiary in future.
The other worrisome factor is the infighting within the BJP which is now surfacing on an almost daily basis with senior leaders expressing displeasure over dominance of the party by a select few. After Shatrughan Sinha, RK Singh, and Arun Shourie veterans like Advani,Yashwant Sinha, Murli Manohar Joshi and Shanta Kumar have come out in the open against the dictatorial tendencies that the party has stumbled on ever since it came to power in Delhi.
Another worry for the saffron party is the spate of irresponsible statements made by leaders like Mahesh Sharma, Yogi Aditya Nath, Sadhvi Prachi, Sakshi Maharaj and Kailash Vijayvargiya. Together they have tarred the image of the Government and it remains to be seen how the Government tackles them.
The return of awards by writers and academics throughout electioneering in Bihar over rising intolerance also seems to have affected BJP’s fortunes. The sooner the Government realizes that ‘intolerance’ won’t be acceptable and development can be the only USP or Unique Selling Point to retain power in the 2019 elections and before that winning state assembly polls, the better.
With West Bengal Assembly elections coming next year, the BJP high command is well aware about the impact of Bihar mandate on Bengal. Mamta Banerjee had extended open support to Nitish Kumar throughout the polls and the popularity of the saffron party has also dipped in Bengal in recent times.
Amit Shah’s strategy to bank on fringe groups capable of cutting votes from rivals kitty in Tamil Nadu where polls are due next year may also backfire as has been the case in Bihar. In addition, BJP needs to review its modus operandi of sidelining local leaders which has not gone down well with party’s rank and file.
BJP, a cadre based party, is largely losing its credibility of being a democratic party. This is quite evident by the voices raised by veterans like Advani. So either the party has to shed its dictatorial image that has stuck to it or it would have to continue losing State Assembly polls in the times to come.