Shortly after the BJP’s rout in the Bihar assembly election became irrefutable, a crestfallen Union minister and former chief party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad told NDTV, “I am at a loss to understand the enormity of the defeat”. Had the voting figures been available when he spoke, he would not have been so much at sea.
Opinion is unanimous on three main conclusions: This has been a personal defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed more than 30 rallies in the state and turned the elections into a personal referendum; the twin strategies adopted by BJP president Amit Shah of appealing to surreptitious (and later overt) communal polarisation while simultaneously seeking to weaken the Grand Alliance by dividing the caste vote on the ground, failed; and that the record turnout of 56.8% was at least partly responsible for the rout.
The voting figures broadly confirm all three hypotheses, but not in the way that Sunday’s instant analyses suggested. They also carry an enormously important message that no political party, least of all the BJP, can afford to ignore.
The voting figures show, first, that the rout was in seats and not votes. The NDA’s vote share fell by only 2.26% from 36.36% in the 2014 general elections to 34.1% in the assembly elections. The vote share of the GA actually fell slightly more, from 45.04 to 41.9%. The reason for the BJP’s rout is that in 2014, the Congress, JD(U) and RJD fought the elections separately. This time they fought together. This turned the election into a straight contest. The simple majority voting system did the rest.
Modi and Shah were aware that to win they had to bridge the 8.68% difference in the vote share of the two alliances. This required not only increasing the NDA’s vote share by more than 4.34%, but doing this directly at the expense of the GA. They tried to do this initially by splitting the caste vote base of Lalu and Nitish. The decline in the GA’s vote share, and the 4.9% of votes taken by Upendra Kushwaha’s RSLP and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM, show that they did, in part, succeed. But the fall in the BJP’s own vote , of 5.4%, shows that some of the success was at their own expense.
As the first rounds of voting began to reveal to their party workers that they were not likely to succeed, the BJP abandoned restraint and turned to instigating communal polarisation to overwhelm caste loyalties. It is here that they made their biggest mistake. For the voters, even in ‘backward’ Bihar, are no longer voting on caste alone. While the bulk of the vote remains anchored to caste, more and more of them are demanding performance. This is what has shored up Nitish’s support through three elections. This is what the voters expected from Modi in 2014. Today there is a strengthening perception that Modi has failed to deliver at the national level, while Nitish has not faltered. Could the record turnout have made the difference? Again, the 56.8% turnout is only half a per cent higher than the turnout in 2014. But this parity is deceptive, because the 2014 turnout was also a record turnout that reflected the hope that Modi would revive India’s stalled economic growth, from which the Bihari migrant labour was the biggest loser.
So why was there a record turnout again when this hope had been belied? The presence of a large number of women holds the answer: It was an expression not of hope but fear. Bihar is the poorest state with the largest migrant labour force in the country. Its poor have, therefore, the most to lose from any form of violence and social disruption. The RSS’ communal polarisation campaign promised precisely the disruption that they fear the most, because the families of the migrants are the main sufferers. That is why the women came out to vote.
The message from the Bihar elections is the same one that the country has received several times, but which Modi and Shah, and the RSS in particular, chose to ignore. The simple majority voting system magnifies the seat share of the larger parties at the expense of the smaller, so to become large enough to count small parties need to coalesce. A coalition, however, forces them to make compromises on their programmes. This process requires the dilution of ideology.
As parties grow larger and become fewer the struggle becomes one for capturing the undecided vote. This vote is invariably in the middle of the political spectrum so it further grinds out ideology in favour of pragmatism.
AB Vajpayee and LK Advani realised this in 1991 when the BJP did well but did not come within shouting distance of forming a government. They then spent the next eight years moderating the Hindutva ideology and forging alliances. In 1999, this process gave India perhaps its best government in 40 years. But the NDA’s defeat in 2004 triggered a silent revolt within the BJP that brought a new, untried leadership to the fore, and the Congress’ abysmal performance propelled this leadership into something that the older BJP had never seriously aspired to — absolute power at the Centre.
Today, this new BJP has to learn that lesson all over again, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to do so under the current dispensation.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal