It will be a while before the last word is written on the Bihar electoral outcome. There will be plenty of explanations and speculations. On explanations, from the NDA’s point of view, there is no better than a line from the ABBA lyrics of Mamma Mia: The winner takes it all. The loser has to fall… Nothing more to say.
In a sense, any explanation for the NDA’s setback is not too complex. The arithmetic of a Lalu-Nitish-Congress combine was always adversarial. The combination of 16% Muslims, 4% Kurmis, 14% Yadavs and the traditional Congress votes made it an uphill task for the NDA. This was particularly so, given a rare chemistry among the Mahagathbandhan partners and the unexpected success in transferring their votes to each other. The BJP made a determined, though unsuccessful, attempt to dilute this chemistry through an alternative combination in one of the most rigorous recent election campaigns.
The tenacity, persistence and perseverance of BJP president Amit Shah have few parallels. The debate on how much of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political capital should have been used in a state election will continue. Equally, on whether Modi’s development theme, evident in the earlier phase, was masked by other extraneous issues. On several of them, it was a reaction or counter-reaction to unpleasant episodes. All this is now history.
We must look beyond the Bihar elections on two levels — the national and sub-national. At the sub-national level, Bihar’s developmental challenges are well known. The electorate has reposed its trust in the Nitish-Lalu combination and we hope that outcomes will meet electoral expectations. At the national level, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, reacting to the Bihar outcome, goaded Modi to press the accelerator. It is another matter that this is an inherited old car with somewhat rusted engines.
The broader issue engaging public minds, particularly the investor community, is whether the ongoing economic reforms would be stalled, if not reversed. The health of the economy has improved in recent months with incipient signs of an investment revival. This is reflected in revenue buoyancy, the improved fiscal space for the government to enhance public outlay even while adhering to fiscal targets. Improving the reach and quality of poverty alleviation programmes is beginning to gather momentum. Improvement in the ease of doing business is becoming noticeable.
Redressing the financial health of the power sector by addressing problems of stocks would have immediate positives. Addressing the issue of stock would still leave the problem of flows: Abiding solutions must address issues of a regulatory capture, faster phase-out of cross-subsidies and realising power dues in real-time. These need both administrative skills and political willingness. Similarly, the pace of road construction is picking up but needs to be pursued. The problems of stalled railways projects and reforms in general continue to pose multiple challenges. Many of these do not require legislative changes. There are other areas, however, like the passage of the Goods and Services Tax Bill, enactment of the proposed new bankruptcy Act, financial sector reforms, land acquisition Bill, which will need changes in law. Fostering a competitive culture among states has multiple benefits in areas like labour laws, faster land acquisition and hopefully a quicker resolution of disputes.
The outcome of the Bihar elections could further delay a government majority in the Rajya Sabha. However, no rubric of governance can accept a permanent stalemate in parliamentary business. The challenge of developing ‘a chemistry of trust’ between the ruling and the Opposition parties needs skills of political management and a milieu of accommodation on both sides. Fortunately, this is a route the government has not shied away from. Getting Parliament to function is an inescapable national priority.
Given our electoral cycle, state elections will take place every year. We will shortly have elections in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and thereafter in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh. Outcomes of state elections were never intended to annually validate the mandate of national governance. It is a pity that alternative suggestions to synchronise all electoral cycles have found neither space nor time for serious consideration with the lawmakers. The time and energy spent in state elections detract focus from the governance of India as a whole. The electorate differentiates between national and state elections. Legislators need to do the same. The mandate for governance of India is for five years. This government still has around three and a half years to go. State elections can be a distraction but not an instrument to constantly assess the legitimacy, mandate or credibility of its policies.
There is need to proceed simultaneously on both executive and legislative action. The need to build consensus, particularly on legislative action, needs greater consensus building. Earlier governments have encountered the same challenges. Economic reforms of 1991, during Narasimha Rao’s governance, witnessed greater turmoil within the Congress than the Opposition from outside. Under the Vajpayee government, similarly, far-reaching changes in telecom, banking and privatisation needed difficult balancing of inter- and intra-party politics. The sound health of the economy and soft oil and commodity prices reveal no incipient crisis. Nonetheless, India cannot be seen to respond only to a crisis.
Incremental changes do not necessarily add up to quantum changes. The Bihar outcome cannot rob the central government of its legitimate obligation to pursue the national mandate. This is a mandate for faster growth, reforms, job creation and ushering in more visible changes. This is consistent with the Modi vision. He is scarcely oblivious of these compulsions.
I wish all readers a Happy Diwali.
NK Singh is a member of the BJP and a former Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal