Bihar Assembly Elections

Grand sweep

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Nitish Kumar greets supporters after the Grand Alliance's victory in Patna on November 8. Photo: Aftab Alam Siddiqui/AP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi an election rally at Darbhanga in Bihar on November 2. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Nitish Kumar exchanges greetings with RJD chief Lalu Prasad and his wife and former Chief Minister, Rabri Devi, in Patna on November 8. Photo: PTI

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with party workers, celebrating the Grand Alliance's victory, at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

Ram Vilas Paswan, Union Minister and Lok Janshakti Party chief, at an election meeting in Alamnagar constituency of Madhepura district on October 31. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

During the fourth phase of voting, in Muzaffarpur on November 1. The huge presence of women voters at the polling booths, grateful to the Chief Minister for empowering them, was particularly disconcerting for the BJP. Photo: PTI

Bihar rejects the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance’s divisive politics and anti-people policies and votes to power the Grand Alliance, giving Nitish Kumar a third consecutive term as Chief Minister..

The import and impact of the Bihar Assembly elections verdict are manifold, but to paraphrase a statement of the victorious Janata Dal (United) leader, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the most important message relates to the resounding popular acceptance of one development paradigm and the equally emphatic rejection of another. Bihar has voted for development with social justice and democracy and endorsed the political leadership that advanced this idea both conceptually and practically. There is a pointer to India as a whole in this massive ratification—that this development paradigm, as well as the political leadership that has advanced it, is more suited than its rival to the interests of the socially and economically marginalised sections of the country. The electoral assertion in the Hindi heartland State, significant in terms of political, demographic and geographic parameters, makes a decisive departure from a so-called development model that has dominated the national scene since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The primary political advocate of the development model, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who aggressively campaigned on this concept, has been unequivocally rejected by the Bihar electorate. All the other social, political, cultural, organisational and personality-oriented implications of the verdict emanate from this central message.

Nitish Kumar, who achieved a hat-trick by being elected for a third term as Chief Minister, had put forth this aforementioned perspective on two conflicting approaches to development in a brief individual interaction on the sidelines of a press conference in the early stages of the long election campaign in the State. When asked what he thought was the central issue in the Bihar elections, he told this writer that it was essentially a battle between two ideas of development.

“The concept of development with social justice on the one side and the notion of development that promotes crony capitalism and seeks to cover up this anti-people mission by perpetuating communal divisions in society, on the other. The former nourishes democracy and through that the lives of the people. The latter helps a select few get richer while unleashing economic hardships and social divisions in society, literally debilitating democracy. The people of Bihar have seen and experienced both. They also know from my governance track record of the past 10 years as well as Narendra Modi’s record at the Centre of about one and a half years as to what each of us represent personally and politically. I have no doubt they will choose wisely.”

In the final analysis, the electoral verdict of November 8, marking the decimation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the victory of the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, comprising the Janata Dal (U), the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Congress, has upheld his assessment and confidence.

The manner in which Bihar voted for the idea of development with social justice and democracy can be deduced from a closer inspection of the thematic projections that guided the election campaign. Throughout the campaign, a key argument of the BJP-NDA leadership was that the Grand Alliance represented the antithesis of development and signified the return of jungle raj (rule of the jungle), or jungle raj II. This was a hark back to the three terms of the RJD in office in Bihar from 1990 to 2005, which were termed by a sizable number of political observers as jungle raj on account of the tumultuous law and order situation that prevailed during that period. Top NDA leaders, including BJP president Amit Shah and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, argued that the coming together of the Janata Dal(U), the RJD and the Congress marked the formation of “an alliance of the desperate” and “since politics is a matter of chemistry and not arithmetic, the people of Bihar will see through this act of desperation and reject outright the alliance that will bring back jungle raj II”. This argument concluded with the assertion that Bihar would choose “real development” as represented by Modi, the BJP and the NDA. More than anything else, it was this repeated reference to jungle raj and real development that became the BJP’s undoing.

The RJD regime was marked by law and order problems, but more importantly, it saw emphatic social and political assertion of the historically marginalised communities belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), the Most Backward Castes (MBC) and Dalits. As the American anthropologist Jeffrey Witsoe observed in his seminal book Democracy Against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India (University of Chicago Press, 2013), one of the consequences of this enhanced participation of the lower castes in the democratic process was that “it radically threatened the postcolonial patronage system by systematically weakening its institutions and disrupting its development projects”. One of the chapters in Witsoe’s book is titled “Lalu Yadav’s Bihar: An incomplete revolution”, assimilating this unique interplay between enhancement of democratic participation of the lower classes and castes and the effect it has had on the patronage system of development. It was this “revolutionary social justice quality” in terms of ensuring greater democratic participation of the marginalised sections of the RJD regime that helped it win three consecutive Assembly elections between 1990 and 2005. In castigating the RJD’s 15 years in office and the socio-political forces that drove it using the jungle raj epithet, the BJP-NDA sought to insult the very sections of the population that sustained the RJD through three consecutive Assembly elections.

According to key members of Nitish Kumar’s think tank, who do not wish to be named, the decision to formulate the Grand Alliance, particularly the alliance with the RJD, was taken with an intrinsic understanding of the larger democracy factor that went into the formation and sustenance of the RJD regime. “It was not just arithmetic as the BJP leaders imagined but also understanding of political chemistry. In terms of social and political empowerment of the marginalised sections of society, the Nitish Kumar regime of the last 10 years was, in many ways, advancing in the path laid out by the RJD regime. However, there was a significant difference. The Nitish Kumar regime combined enhancement of democratic participation of the marginalised sections and social justice with a unique, people-oriented model of development. It laid emphasis on empowering more marginalised sections, including women through reservation in Panchayati Raj institutions, and improving public health services and primary education as also basic infrastructure such as roads and electricity, particularly in rural areas. Thus, the combination became the political formulation of development with social justice and democracy. The BJP leadership had no clue of the power of this combination when it went on harping on jungle raj II.

Some members of the Janata Dal(U) think tank were of the view that in spite of this fundamental flaw in the BJP’s approach to the election campaign, sections of the MBC and Mahadalits, who are traditionally known to have apprehensions about the muscle power of Yadavs, the dominant OBC community that forms the core support base of the RJD, were gravitating towards the BJP. There was a kind of churning among the MBCs and Mahadalits, and these segments began to show signs of going against the Grand Alliance. The BJP’s game plan right from the beginning was to repeat the 2014 Lok Sabha election formula of clubbing development with communal politics, which was being advanced through low-intensity communal conflicts in various parts of the State long before the actual campaigning started. In this context, the early campaign forays, based on the so-called Modi model of development and the announcement of the “special Bihar package” of Rs.1.26 lakh crore, did generate some signs of tapping into the MBC-Mahadalit vote bank, along with retaining the support of the historical perpetrators and beneficiaries of the patronage system, the upper-caste communities.

But this, too, got neutralised soon on account of two crucial developments on the campaign front. First, the virtual demolition of the Modi package under the leadership of Nitish Kumar, who unleashed a sustained campaign employing diverse means, including traditional political communication as well as social media. Commenting on this counter campaign, the sociologist and political analyst Shaibal Gupta told Frontline that the role played by the electronic media in exposing the Modi package was tremendous. “Television is a double-edged weapon. On the one hand it can build and propagate fanciful images of political leaders and on the other become a powerful instrument of demystification. It was the latter role that the electronic media played in the case of the Modi package”. The second factor that came up was the statement made by Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), on reviewing the policy of reservation. The statement from the top-most functionary of the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is also a part, more or less put an end to the churning within the MBC and its tilt towards the BJP. The lower-caste communities started moving more and more pronouncedly towards the Grand Alliance. “Bhagwat’s statement was the tipping point,” a member of the Janata Dal(U) think tank said.

This consolidation of the forces of development with social justice and democracy, including the lower castes and the vast majority of women, was evident right from the first two phases of polling, and this set off more panic reactions in the BJP and the NDA. The huge presence of women voters at the polling booths, extolling the Chief Minister for empowering them, was particularly disconcerting for the BJP-NDA. From then on, the NDA seemed to lose all sense of direction. Its attempts to communalise the elections, initially through low-intensity communal conflicts in different parts of Bihar employing fringe Hindutva groups, was led by the top leadership itself. Narendra Modi went on record with a purported expose of Nitish Kumar’s advocacy of reservation for Muslims divesting the quota allotted for the OBCs and the MBCs. He described himself as the “son of an MBC” throughout the intensive campaign that he unleashed after the first two rounds of polling. BJP president Amit Shah issued a warning: “Firecrackers will go off in Pakistan if the BJP loses Bihar.” The BJP also came up with posters depicting a cow and a girl, and accused the Grand Alliance of not doing enough to protect the cow mother.

In the middle of all this, there was a flip-flop in terms of the initial projections on what kind of government the BJP was trying to establish in the State. First, the party campaigned for a government in Bihar under the direct control of Modi by projecting only the Prime Minister in the campaign material. Later it was changed to same-party governments in the State and at the Centre through a projection of a clutch of State BJP leaders. Evidently, it was a frenzied campaign pulling itself towards disarray.

The Grand Alliance, on the other hand, supplemented its development with social justice and democracy platform with points such as “Bihari vs Bahari” (Biharis versus outsiders), highlighting the individualised, but ethnic, tussle between the two-man “Bihari” political army consisting of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad and the two “Bahari” men, Modi and Amit Shah. The larger national debate that erupted over the “beef killing” at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh as well as the “intolerance debate” generated by the movement of writers, artists and other sections of the intellectual community all contributed to the growing support for the Grand Alliance. In many ways, these supplemented the Grand Alliance's development with democracy platform. It was the cumulative effect of all this that reflected in the election results.

The post-election scenario, in the context of the stunning defeat suffered by the BJP, is hugely challenging for the Modi-Amit Shah leadership. A senior Sangh Parivar activist from Lucknow jokingly told Frontline as the Bihar results were coming in that Modi was increasingly earning a reputation for losing elections wherever he campaigned, a la Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. “He made himself the face of the campaign in Delhi and took on Arvind Kejriwal personally and was roundly defeated. In Bihar, Modi made himself the face of the campaign and has been once again thrashed electorally. In places like Buxar and Bhagalpur, where he held prestige rallies, he recorded comprehensive defeat. Indeed, he is almost on a par with Rahul Gandhi’s record after 2009,” the leader said sardonically.

The mood prevailing in the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents is such that “off–the-record” comments like this one will be more frequent in the days to come. Already several BJP leaders such as Rajnath Singh and Ram Madhav have started questioning the manner in which the campaign was conducted. The questions are pertinent in view of the fact that the campaign was essentially controlled by Modi and Amit Shah. State BJP leaders are full of stories about how even the selection of candidates was managed directly by them. By all indications, the comments on the Bihar campaign are euphemistic: these are statements about the way in which Modi and Amit Shah have run both the party and the government since June 2014, controlling every aspect, including the appointment of secretaries of top leaders and Ministers like Rajnath Singh.

These expressions are bound to acquire more concrete form and shape in the days to come. There are already murmurs that senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, along with Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, will make serious moves against the Modi-Amit Shah duo. Indeed, the first step could be denying Amit Shah another term as party president. His term comes to a close in January 2016. What concrete shape this and other moves against the two-man army will take is to be seen.

In terms of governance, too, it will be difficult for Modi to pursue unhindered the so-called development plank he has put forth, the model that hinges on the principles of liberalisation and promotion of crony capitalism. In other words, to borrow former BJP Union Minister Arun Shourie’s remark, the NDA government’s economic policies are no different from those of the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. “The way to characterise this government is Congress plus the cow,” he said recently. On the other hand, the Bihar verdict has further lifted the spirit of the opposition parties, coming as it does after the crushing defeat the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) inflicted on the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections in February.

With the Bihar victory, which has asserted, among other things, the cementing of a development paradigm that is built on the twin pillars of social justice and democracy, the prospect of Nitish Kumar throwing a challenge to Modi at the national level has risen exponentially. But there are other factors that have to come into play before this becomes possible—factors such as acceptance of his leadership by a wide array of opposition parties, including the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (which walked out of the Grand Alliance after initially being part of it), the Left parties and other anti-BJP regional forces such as the Trinamool Congress. These are factors and challenges that are likely to emerge in the days to come. As of now, all the big battles have to be fought by Narendra Modi, who projected himself as the ultimate vote-catcher of India during and after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and as the one-stop solution to all the travails of the country. Will this challenge force him and his associates in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to alter their calculated combination of crony capitalism-oriented development concepts and sometimes blatant, sometimes discreet communal propaganda?

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