The results of the Bihar Assembly election are not only surprising but also come as a huge jolt to the BJP. It reconfirms yet again that psephology in India remains a highly inexact science, and opinion (and even exit) polls are unable to accurately gauge voters' mood. Predictions went horribly wrong in the Delhi Assembly elections last year; no pollster had a clue about the scale of newbie Aam Aadmi Party's victory.
Arguably, some Opinion/Exit polls were broadly right for the Lok Sabha election of 2014, maybe because the Modi wave was too huge to miss. Even ordinary people were convinced that Narendra Modi was heading for a landslide win; pollsters merely reaffirmed public sentiment. Looking at the size of the victory of the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) in Bihar, it is strange that every informed opinion declared it "too close to call" till Saturday - a day before the counting of votes. Those who were bold enough to predict the outcome either gave a narrow lead to the Grand Alliance (GA) or declared an edge for the BJP-led NDA.
It seems that the low-key GA campaign and its decision to project soft-spoken Nitish Kumar as the Chief Ministerial candidate did the trick, with voters rejecting the high-pitched BJP campaign crafted by party president Amit Shah. The BJP may not be guilty of the entire multitude of sins its critics have thrust on it. Certainly, the communalisation charge volubly levelled against it is quite untrue. Also the award-wapsi movement spearheaded by politically motivated artists and intellectuals found no resonance in Bihar despite the efforts made by the agitation's sponsors.
But ultimately Bihar demonstrated that it is far from rejecting caste as its main political currency. When its electorate gave a resounding 30-seats-to-10 victory to Prime Minister Modi barely 18 months ago, there was a glimmer of hope that Bihar had risen above its defining political paradigm, namely caste. Probably, for once, the electorate had pushed caste to the backburner and believed in Modi's all-encompassing development plank. But when voting for a government in the state, caste reared its ubiquitous head. Although the sectoral break-up of voting patterns are yet to be computed satisfactorily, conventional wisdom that upper castes and a section of Dalits have voted BJP, while the dominant middle castes like Yadavs and Kurmis, along with Muslims, have opted for the GA, appears to have been reinforced.
It is an established fact that when casteism determines voting intentions in North Indian States, the BJP ends up as the main loser. And in the attempt to match caste with caste, BJP strategists erred in their calculations.
The BJP did make an effort to highlight its supra-caste agenda by pushing Prime Minister Modi as its principal campaigner along with its national president Amit Shah. But Bihari sub-national pride did not reconcile itself to the party not projecting local leaders - the Bahari versus Bihari slogan, craftily coined by the Lalu-Nitish duo, seemed to receive traction as the campaign progressed.
In the process of caste reasserting itself, we are faced with a regrettable situation in which Lalu Yadav's party has won more seats than Nitish Kumar's JDU. This does not augur well for the State's governance. Much as Lalu Yadav and his acolytes may aver that Nitish Kumar is their declared choice for Chief Minister, it is obvious that the remote control of the next government will rest in the RJD chief's hands. Apart from extracting his own pound of flesh by imposing one of his sons as Deputy Chief Minister despite their political and administrative inexperience, Lalu Yadav is certain to push his other agendas with vehemence.
If Nitish was able to build his image as a Vikas Purush (champion of development) and pursue restoration of law and order and bijli-sadak-pani (roads-water-electrcity) issues during his earlier stint in power, it was mainly because during his alliance with BJP, he was left alone to govern. It will be very difficult to repeat this feat by him with RJD holding the key to his government's stability.
As in real-life dramas, elections in India are contested in a hero-villain syndrome. Whichever party is able to portray its opponent as a villain, has a natural advantage. However the Bihar poll was fought without a villain in the picture. For the BJP, its regular villain, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was only a bit player, almost without a speaking role in the long-running drama. By opting for a back seat, Lalu ensured he did not fit that role either. And Nitish, with the fully deserved epithet "Susashan Babu" (good governance leader) could not have been acceptable to the people as the villain. So it ended up as a contest between two heroes - Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. The campaign was devoid of any rhetoric against the incumbent Chief Minister, a rarity in Indian elections.
It must also be borne in mind that the BJP had never emerged as the leading political force in caste-dominated Bihar. Thus it tried to stitch up alliances with marginal players like Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, the extent of whose own political support was questionable. In order to become a viable alternative to the Nitish-Lalu combine, the BJP needs to assiduously build its base, overcoming the formidable challenge of caste alliances which tend to work against the BJP's ideological core. In this context, the need to cultivate a powerful local leadership cannot be overstated.
The results will pose a larger problem for Prime Minister Modi, already hamstrung by the Opposition's strength in the Rajya Sabha. A more politically inclusive approach towards Opposition parties is what the doctor will definitely prescribe.
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also BJP MP of the Rajya Sabha.)
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