Combine efforts of Nitish Kumar & Lalu Yadav helps Mahagathbandhan to win Bihar Election 2015

Lalu & Nitesh form government in Bihar
Lalu & Nitesh form government in Bihar

PATNA: Few forecast the dramatic verdict in Bihar. But no one foresaw that the key architect of the resounding defeat handed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not be incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar; instead it would be his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Lalu Prasad, the feisty backward caste leader.

Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ended up as the single largest party, winning 79 seats. A central takeaway from the verdict has to be, undoubtedly, the return of Prasad; consigned to political wilderness—in fact some were even writing his political epitaph, especially after he was convicted by a court in a graft case—he has returned to the centrestage. This has overshadowed the impressive record of Kumar, who will become chief minister for a third consecutive time.

In the process, Prasad has reset the political narrative of the state which, in the high-voltage face-off between Kumar and the BJP, was veering away from caste politics to development. Not only will the BJP, which is back to square one as the principal opposition party in the state, have to deal with the new politics to script a comeback, for Kumar, the challenge will be equally daunting in managing a delicate balance with the aggressive associates of Prasad within and outside the government.

Nationally, the outcome in the Bihar polls has for the time being hit the pause button on the progress of the BJP-led political juggernaut. Since the BJP pulled off a stunning win in the 16th general election, managing a majority of its own, the first in 30 years, it has, but for the exception of its humiliation in Delhi by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), won every contest—rewriting electoral history in Haryana and Maharashtra. While the BJP will remain the principal pole of Indian politics, this defeat should stoke a regrouping of the political opposition, making consensus in Parliament that much more difficult.

Return of Prasad

In the run-up to the election in Bihar, two broad narratives stood out. At one level, given the state’s abysmal ranking on social parameters, it framed a debate around development versus caste and on another it resumed a bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kumar.

Nitish Kumar & Lalu Yadav celebrate after election result Nitish and lalu celebrate the bihar election
Nitish Kumar & Lalu Yadav celebrate after election result

If indeed this had been the only focus, then there is every chance that the BJP would have been home comfortably. However, the entry of Prasad, initially perceived to be a liability, changed the equations unexpectedly. In caste arithmetic, the combination of Prasad and Kumar overwhelms the BJP.

Of course, inopportune remarks at the beginning of the campaign, first by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat (who questioned the idea of caste-based reservations) and later statements attributed to former army chief V.K. Singh (where he is alleged to have made uncharitable references to Dalits in the context of the attacks on a Dalit family in Haryana), restored the focus of the debate on caste—revival of the compelling narrative of backward-versus-forward castes (or agada-pichada, as it is known in Bihar).

From the BJP’s point of view, this is exactly the narrative it wanted to avoid. In a state dominated by backward castes and Dalits, the BJP started the race with a handicap. By keeping the debate focused on development, it could have managed to hold off the pressures of caste politics. However, Prasad’s aggressive campaign along caste lines from the get-go forced the BJP to respond with its version of social identity politics—drumming up mobilization along religious lines. The reverberations of these fault lines, defined by the controversy around the consumption of beef, were felt far beyond Bihar. Ex-post, it is apparent that this did not benefit the BJP, while at the same time it is struggling to mitigate the negative fallout both nationally and internationally.

It is also clear, in retrospect, that the BJP failed in splitting the backward-caste vote; particularly disappointing would be its inability to woo the Most Backward Castes (MBCs), who account for a quarter of the vote share in Bihar and have suffered social oppression historically at the hands of the upper castes and contemporarily under the Yadavs—during the 15-year tenure of Prasad.

In the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had managed to overcome the caste handicap with a campaign focused around Modi and his appeal to the aspirations of a state which has the largest number of young people (going by Census 2011, nearly one in six voters in this election was a first-time voter). Clearly, the same formula failed to cut ice a year later; neither did the dirty tricks department of the BJP succeed in wresting the initiative the party’s way.

Vikas purush Nitesh Kumar

Kumar clearly found a perfect companion in Prasad; though many perceived it to be an alliance smacking of an insatiable desire for power and desperation (to keep a resurgent BJP out). If Prasad framed the appeal on social identity, Kumar was the voice of development (often referred to as the vikas purush or ‘development man’).

Nitish & Lalu Jodi in Bihar Nitish and Lalu Jodi makes government in Bihar
Nitish & Lalu Jodi in Bihar

Besides record growth rates, the state also saw visible improvement in infrastructure, particularly highways (for example, an excellent highway between Patna and Gaya has reduced the commute time to about a third of the six hours that it would have taken previously). The investments in infrastructure (given their multiplier effects on the economy) have spurred economic activity in the state. Together with a step-up in entitlement spending, Bihar recorded a spectacular fall in the level of poverty from 54.4% in 2004-05 to 33.7% in 2011-12.

However impressive these macro numbers are, basic development statistics for the state are abysmal. Census 2011 data reveal that nearly one in two women are illiterate (while in the rest of the country we measure literacy, in Bihar you measure illiteracy), compared with the national average of one in three; drinking water is available to less than 5% of households, while nationally it is over 40%; and fewer than one in four households have a latrine, compared with the all-India average of nearly one in two households.

But the voters of Bihar were clearly unfazed. The ‘Bahari’s’ (Modi) claims on the ‘Bihari’ (Kumar) and his development track record clearly did not cut ice.

Clearly, Kumar has his task cut out in the next five years; winning such a clear mandate has put the onus on him (a lot will depend upon how Kumar manages his difficult alliance partner, who will logically seek out the fruits of power in recompense for all the years that he has been out of it) in closing out the unfinished development agenda.

The fallout

The verdict has no doubt also posed difficult questions for Modi—who took a big risk by staking all and leading the campaign. He addressed 26 rallies across the state; the massive turnouts seemed to suggest that the PM had not lost any of his mass appeal—but somehow, he was unable to translate this goodwill into electoral gains for his party. The outcome also showed that the trend of assembly elections turning glocal (read global as national in this context) has been reversed and local issues have returned to the centrestage.

The defeat, coming just weeks ahead of the start of the winter session of Parliament, will no doubt embolden growing critics of the PM, both within and outside the party. While there will be no serious challenge either to Modi’s leadership (given the fact that the BJP has 282 MPs in Parliament) or the government, there will be a greater demand for accommodation.

The defeat (as bad in scale as the humiliation in Delhi) would also pose questions on the role of fringe saffron groups. In the last six months, it has been a case of the tail wagging the dog instead of the other way round. The BJP has to take a call, either way, on the role of fringe groups and their ability to negatively influence the atmospherics and that too, so emphatically.

With no elections due for some time and the fact that there is a pile-up of key agenda items (like passage of the goods and services tax bill and seeing off the judicial challenge on the use of Aadhaar), it may be an opportune moment for the PM to reach out to the opposition and engage in some house-cleaning. In the past, the PM has exhibited a keen political sense and there is no reason to believe that this has deserted him. At hand would be his indefatigable optimism and self-belief.

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