With the Election Commission announcing the Bihar poll dates on Wednesday, the country is headed for the most important political event of the year. Bihar has always played a large role in defining national politics. It was the site of Congress dominance for the first thirty years after independence. It witnessed the Jayaprakash Narayan-led anti Indira movement. It was in Bihar that the politics of backward assertion led to the empowerment of castes long excluded from the power structure.
The state is at the crossroads. After a prolonged run with lawlessness and lack of development, there was a spurt of growth in the past decade. But political instability since 2012 has taken the attention away from governance. A clean mandate is necessary so that the next government can focus on improving the lives of Bihar’s citizens.
But the impact of the election will go far beyond the state.
For the BJP, Bihar matters in many ways. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to invest an enormous amount of political energy in the elections. He has already addressed four rallies, announced a substantial package, and the party is asking for votes in his name in the absence of a CM candidate.
If the BJP wins, it will replenish the PM’s political capital and reinforce the message that his popularity is intact. It will also boost party president Amit Shah’s credentials in the party. The BJP will get the confidence to face a difficult opposition in parliament, and push ahead with reforms and its governance agenda. It will also set up the BJP nicely for the 2017 elections in UP.
Precisely for these reasons, Bihar matters to the opposition. If the grand alliance is able to stop the BJP rath, they will project it as the beginning of the end of Modi. It will boost the morale of the opposition in parliament; it will offer a model to other parties to unite against the BJP to avoid the fragmentation of votes.
Nitish Kumar suffered a humiliating rout in the Lok Sabha elections; his party organisation is fragile and a defeat could mean political marginalisation. Alternately, a win would set him up as the first leader to have directly taken on Modi in a heartland state successfully. Lalu Prasad is convicted; he has lost the last four elections; he is not in the best health and his children are struggling politically.
While a defeat could finish his chances of a comeback, a win will show that his Muslim-Yadav alliance remains formidable and backward caste politics has deep resonance. Congress is marginal in the state, but a win will help it raise the stakes against Modi nationally.
The next eight weeks will have long-term consequences for Indian politics.