Package route

Print edition : September 18, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the National Democratic Alliance's "Parivartan rally" at Saharsa in Bihar on August 18. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development package for Bihar gives a fresh impetus to the BJP’s election campaign in the State but starts a debate on the soundness of his largesse route.

“Political analysts may like or dislike it and may hail or castigate it, but there is little doubt it has become an important agenda on the ground for the forthcoming Assembly elections. And the very debate on it will help the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and its allies advance their electoral plans forcefully.” This was how Patna-based BJP activist Gyan Ranjan Sharma elucidated his self-professedly “objective and impartial” views on the Rs.1.25 lakh crore Bihar development package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the third week of August. The local leader’s choice of phrase to describe the debate on the package does indicate that it is not entirely appreciative or favourable. Sharma admits that there are many, among both the intelligentsia and the common masses, who have already termed the exercise as cynical election rhetoric.

However, he has little doubt that as far as the BJP is concerned it is a game changer. “As far as I am concerned, the organisational impetus it has given to the BJP and its allies is invaluable. It has brought a new focus and new energy to the election campaign of the BJP and its associates such as the Lok Janshakti Party [LJP], the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party [RLSP] and the Hindustani Awam Manch [HAM]. Our leaders have started campaigning aggressively about what the announcement of the package holds for Bihar. The central thrust of the message is that through this step we are fulfilling a long-standing commitment to the people. Whether it will ultimately work electorally or not, there is little doubt that it has brought about a change in Bihar’s electoral discourse. More importantly, this change in discourse has also brought about greater confidence in the rank and file of the BJP-led combine as well as the other organisations in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar that they can take on the caste and community combination put together by the alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal [RJD], the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress.” Sharma added that the package and the campaign around it was designed in such a manner as to target the youth and those sections of the middle class that were not happy with the dominance of caste-oriented politics in the State.

“The national and State leaders of the party call this segment of the population the ‘aspirational class’. The estimate is that they constitute about 20 per cent of the electorate. It is expected that the package, its provisions and the campaign around, will attract this section, though they may not impact a vast section driven essentially by caste considerations,” Sharma told Frontline.

The Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore pointed out that the primary impact of Modi’s Bihar package would be on the rank and file of the BJP-led combine. “About a month and a half ago, when the Janata Dal (United), the RJD and the Congress formally announced their decision, the combination was perceived to be a formidable one by the political class and observers in general and the workers of the BJP-led combine. But over the past month or so, the BJP-led combine has been working assiduously to claw back into the electoral tussle. The package should help it in some way in this process,” Kishore said. He, however, hastened to reiterate that this would only help in some way and not fortify the BJP combine’s prospects substantially.

“The reasons,” Kishore added, “are evident.” “Bihar is an extremely politically aware State. The people of the State imbibe and discuss political affairs deeply. Every farmer or tea shop vendor or rickshaw puller or schoolteacher believes that he or she can teach the political leadership one or two things in terms of political manoeuvring. In such a context, the announcement of a development package in the run-up to the elections is taken with a tonne of salt by the average Bihari. By any yardstick, Modi’s announcements for the development of Bihar have come late in the day.” Kishore drew a comparison with a similar package proclamation by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi before the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. “At that time Rajiv Gandhi declared a largesse of Rs.5,500 crore for Bihar. But that found no reflection in the elections. The Congress was defeated. This time around, the results may not be exactly similar. But Modi’s and the BJP’s mileage has certainly been affected negatively by the timing [of the announcement],” Kishore said.

Negative impact

The discussion on the details of some components of the package has also had a negative impact in terms of public perception. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the BJP combine’s principal individual adversary in Bihar’s current political context, is leading the discussion on the nitty-gritty of the development package. According to him, the Prime Minister has cleverly incorporated a large number of ongoing projects in the so-called new development package with the obvious intention of hoodwinking the people of Bihar in the forthcoming elections. Nitish Kumar’s contention is that projects worth Rs.1.08 lakh crore shown in the Modi package are ongoing. He also pointed out that Bihar was in the process of undergoing a loss of Rs.50,000 crore because of the new devolution rules as per the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. Nitish Kumar argued that many of the projects Modi had inaugurated during his frequent visits to Bihar in July and August were schemes that had been initiated by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre.

Others, including independent economic analysts and political observers, have also pointed to the same characteristics of the package though the figures highlighted by them are not to the tune of Rs.1.08 lakh crore. The economist and political analyst Mohan Guruswamy points out that the package is shaky when the details are analysed closely. He asserts that allocations for Central projects that are being taken forward simultaneously in other States have been included in the so-called new development package for Bihar. In his assessment, the money that is being actually spent on Bihar and Biharis is just Rs.38,000 crore. He is also of the view that the package does not take an objective view of the growth trajectory shown by Bihar in the past few years and that it does not have an approach to substantially address or reduce Bihar’s unique concerns and problems (see article by Mohan Guruswamy on page 37).

These glaring loopholes in the Modi package have been highlighted by social and political organisations other than the Janata Dal (United)-RJD-Congress combine, including the Left parties and some non-governmental organisations. These campaigns are also part of the growing debate on the Modi package. It has also been pointed out, as part of this developing debate, that Modi in his earlier avatar as Chief Minister of Gujarat was opposed to the concept of development largesse and packages. His concept was that the States must find their own resources and unique plans for development. However, that he has turned around dramatically to the “package route” for Bihar is only on account of the severe drubbing that the BJP suffered in the Delhi elections.

Will this change of heart help Modi capture Bihar and further consolidate his hold at the Centre? Past records of the Congress, even after Rajiv Gandhi’s 1989 fiasco in Bihar, are not heartening for the BJP. The Congress had announced packages for Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in 2009 and 2014 with the objective of making gains in the 2012 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh. The Congress lost both elections badly. Evidently, there is much more work to be done by Modi and the BJP if the “package route” has to result in substantive gains. In other words, it will have to be supplemented by other manoeuvres.

A number of Bihar-based political analysts, including Kishore, are of the view that the package provides a basis for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to club the development plus Hindutva agenda as was done during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. “The fact that the number of mini or micro communal incidents that have not grown to full-fledged riots has increased from approximately 250 three years ago to around 675 to date points towards some forces that are systematically at work.”

Is this a potential strategic formulation that could manifest concretely in the Assembly elections of 2015? Bihar and its political firmament surely know what these strategic formulations are and how they will unfold in the days to come.

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