What’s at stake in Bihar? Is the election’s importance exaggerated? Is it a contest that will decide the future of the Narendra Modi government? One has heard such questions so often that they would appear tiresome. Yet, this is not to suggest that state elections never have a bearing on national politics.
The defeat of the Congress in 1987 in West Bengal and Haryana indicated the limits to the Rajiv Gandhi mandate of 1984 and that a reversal was afoot. In the winter of 1998, the hammering the BJP received in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi influenced the adventurist and short-term alliance that voted out the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in Parliament a few months later. In 2012, the Congress pinned such hopes on Uttar Pradesh and Rahul Gandhi that it postponed any hard decisions — including increasing fuel prices — till the election was over. As it happened, the Congress finished fourth and the UPA government was crippled.
Each of the examples listed above was different. Each occurred in specific circumstances. As such, to suggest that all or any of these is comparable to the BJP’s hopes and challenges in Bihar would be inappropriate. The eventual result, the nature of the result — the margin of victory or defeat — and the response to the outcome, whether the despondency is reversed or the fresh political capital received is adroitly used, as the case may be, all determine how a big election comes to be seen.
It would be lazy to call the Bihar election a referendum on the Narendra Modi government. Voters are not delivering a judgement on Modi’s performance as prime minister.
They recognise it is too early to do so. Neither is it that a victory in Bihar will solve all of the Modi government’s problems and fill the gaps, in delivery or personnel, that exist. Nevertheless, Bihar is a political test for Modi, for BJP president Amit Shah and for their generation in the BJP.
The BJP is fighting to prove it has learnt its lesson from Delhi and is not walking into an election overconfident. It is taking care in not attacking its principal adversary with such hostility that, paradoxically, this gives him publicity and the public mood turns sympathetic to him. This is what happened with Arvind Kejriwal. It is not happening with Nitish Kumar.
The reason here is not just that Delhi, a sprawling metropolis, is far apart from a diverse and heterogeneous province such as Bihar. It is also in the realisation that a personalised hate campaign against Kumar may not quite work. The outgoing chief minister remains popular. Having said that, he is a man bereft of a party, an organisation and a viable social coalition. There is also the additional benefit that the voter may perceive in electing a state government that is politically aligned with a still trusted and well-regarded prime minister and the central government. This, more than in a personality clash with Kumar, is where the BJP sees a chance.
Kumar is further handicapped by the fact that his new-found ally, Lalu Prasad, is a polarising figure in Bihar politics, a man whose governance record scares many people. That aside, Prasad’s career is on the decline and he is looking to retain enough of a hold — somehow, anyhow — so as to ensure a fruitful succession for his sons and his daughter who are in politics. In that sense, he is not really striving to make Kumar chief minister or to give Bihar a new agenda. His goal is limited to maintaining a grip on a critical mass of Muslim and Yadav voters. It is a defensive goal.
Kumar and Prasad have run Bihar for 25 years now. However, the social coalitions underpinning them have been very different. Prasad built a winning team around the Muslims, Yadavs and sections of Dalit voters. Kumar appealed to non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs), particularly the Most Backward OBCs (MBCs), and added urban and upper caste folk. He did so with the organisational support of the BJP and the Sangh network. The contest in Bihar is not so much between the Lalu-Nitish-Congress grand alliance and the NDA. It is about who inherits the social coalition that won in 2005 and 2010: The BJP or Kumar?
On his part, Shah has drawn from the social engineering that made the BJP a force in the Hindi heartland in the early 1990s, and ensured a government for the party in Uttar Pradesh (in 1991) only when enough incremental OBC support had been added to a largely upper-caste base. In Bihar, a state that has fewer cities and urban pockets than Uttar Pradesh, the challenge is greater. The BJP’s, and Shah’s, hope will be in winning over enough MBCs and Dalit voters (hence the alliance with three caste-based parties) and in using the Modi, governance and development card to ensure that those Yadavs who voted for the BJP in 2014 stay true this time.
If this works, the party could win an impressive and famous victory, and Modi and his ministers could greet a deflated Opposition in the winter session of Parliament. If not, the monsoon session will inevitably repeat itself.
(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed are personal)