The fact that Modi's vote pulling power has flagged to such an extent in a little over a year is surely bad news for the BJP.
Confounding the predictions of opinion polls and exit polls alike, the electorate of India's Bihar state has delivered a verdict whose imprint will be seen and felt in national politics almost immediately.
For an election fought on the face and name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the fact that his vote pulling power has flagged to such an extent in a little over a year is surely bad news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
What explains the abject failure of the BJP in Bihar? The party spent lavishly and deployed Modi for no less than 30 rallies - all of which were well attended. But the BJP knew that in Chief Minister Nitish Kumar it faced a formidable foe. His track record as chief minister was creditable and all surveys showed him as people's first choice as chief minister. The tangible development that Nitish had delivered over the past two decades - electricity, better roads and jobs, especially for women - stood in marked contrast to the 'announcement raj' that has marked Modi's performance on the development front so far.
That is why the party high command, including Modi himself, took the decision to change tack, and play communal politics as a means of polarising the electorate and consolidating Hindu votes behind the National Democratic Alliance.
However, making a spectacular comeback after the severe drubbing in the last year's parliamentary polls at the hands of Modi, the newly-formed Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress alliance secured 178 seats in the 243-member House. Now that the results have come in what are the main takeaways from this election?
1. Not arithmetic but politics
The BJP is technically correct when it points to the fact that the 'index of opposition unity' - which helped it in 2014 - went against it this time. But opposition unity is the arithmetic expression of a political process. Were it not for the sangh parivar's drive to push ts communal agenda on various fronts and the BJP's 'winner takes all' approach to the opposition, the Bihar coalition may never have emerged. The BJP's attitude is pushing the Congress and other national and regional parties to reassess the role of alliances in states like West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu. It may even produce a miracle in Uttar Pradesh.
2. Beef did not help
The BJP's blatant attempt to communalise the campaign - particularly in the fourth and fifth phases involving nearly half the seats - did not help the party change the course of the election and may even have further damaged its prospects. Amit Shah promised an election around the "chemistry" of Narendra Modi. What he delivered, especially at the end, was a cocktail of toxic chemicals, but even these proved ineffective in the face of the mahagathbadhan's appeal.
3. Nor did HAM
While Nitish Kumar blundered in the manner in which he first made Manjhi chief minister in 2014 and then ousted him, the defection of the mahadalit leader to the NDA camp did not prove as catastrophic to the mahagathbandhan as was initially feared His HAM did win 2.2% of the popular vote but this means a chunk of dalit and mahadalit voters continued to repose their faith in the Nitish-Lalu combine.
4. The EC chickened out
This is the first time in recent memory that the Election Commission has been constrained to ban a campaign advertisement issued by a ruling party on the grounds that it would fuel communal hatred. The EC ought to have acted in December 1984 when some of the Congress party's advertisements in the general election played on anti-Sikh sentiments but it was too weak, institutionally, to act against the government of the day. The EC no longer faces such constraints as its functioning has been made more independent over the years. Still, the fact remains that it failed to call out Prime Minister Modi for his divisive remarks on Muslims even as it faulted the BJP advertisement which followed the same line. If the print ad was deemed communally divisive and hence banned, surely the EC ought to have issued a notice to Modi as well for having verbalized the inflammatory contents at various public rallies.
5. It's not the face but the message
A lot of media time has been spent in analysing (and faulting) the BJP for not projecting a chief ministerial candidate of its own when the Grand Alliance had Nitish Kumar to project. However, the BJP's loss had less to do with the absence of a face than with the absence of a positive and credible agenda for governance. While Lalu played the caste card, so did the BJP, by projecting the 'backward caste' identity of Narendra Modi and even Emperor Ashoka as a 'Kushwaha'. Not only did these attempts to use case fall flat, but the development plank too failed. The fact that key cabinet ministers from Bihar in Modi's cabinet have all failed to deliver on issues of common concern did not help the BJP's case. Food minister Ram Vilas Paswan has not brought dal prices down; Skills minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy has not helped create new skilled jobs for the youth; Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh has proved ineffective in the face of mounting farmer distress. Even IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, with his attempted ban on "obscene" websites, would not have endeared himself to young, net-savvy voters.
6. The BJP is unlikely to learn the right lessons
Had the BJP won Bihar, the result would have been seen as a vindication of the communal turn that its campaign took. But sadly, the converse is unlikely to be true. The BJP, from Narendra Modi downwards, knows that the unprecedented support the party had last year has declined due to the incendiary, divisive rhetoric of senior leaders and various sangh outfits. Yet, the prime minister has done nothing concrete to put a stop to this politics. A rational politician would conclude, after Bihar, that ministers like Mahesh Sharma, V.K. Singh and Sanjeev Baliyan need to be shown the door, and that habitual offenders like Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj need to be expelled from the party. But the chances of such action being taken are virtually nil. What we will get, instead, is a repeat of the mealy-mouthed assurances that usually accompany each incident of violence or intolerance, even as the offenders carry on doing what they do best. Don't expect the 'beef politics' or the attempts to intimidate and strong-arm dissenters to end any time soon.
7. The Congress has got a lease of life but should know its limitations
After being down and out for 18 months, the Congress party is likely to get energised by the Bihar verdict. This is only natural. But the fact remains that its leaders did not invest the kind of time and energy they ought to have in order to win the right to claim a decisive role in the outcome. At stake is not the right to brag but the need for the Congress to be modest about the role it will play in national politics over the next few years. It will go into the forthcoming state elections in Punjab and Kerala and Assam as a leading player but in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh (which will vote in 2017) as a junior partner. More importantly, the younger Gandhi has not done enough to emerge as a national rival to Modi and ought not to harbour the idea of getting there either. Rahul played a key role in conceptualizing and encouraging the formation of the mahagathbadhan in Bihar. It would be smart politics on his part to focus on extending the experiment to other states and eventually, to the whole country.
8. Nitish Kumar will be the new pivot in national politics
Even during the Bihar campaign, a number of key regional or 'third force' parties - Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party - had indicated their willingness to gravitate towards a Nitish Kumar-led political pole at the national level. The Bihar result, coming as it does at a time of national disquiet over the direction the Modi government is taking the country, is bound to further give shape to a more coherent opposition to the BJP. The next general election is more than three years away but the battle of Indraprastha is slowly beginning to take shape. - www.thewire.in
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