BJP’s own analysis of the Bihar election is rather simple: arithmetic beat chemistry. Its leaders have put out the argument that the caste-based mobilisation of the Grand Alliance scored over the language of development used by the NDA. The Nitish-Lalu combine had a distinct advantage because they are ‘caste leaders’ and had the backing of the Muslim vote.
This analysis ignores the fact that the BJP used the caste card as strongly as the Alliance: it hosted caste meetings, it did deals with caste leaders to win votes, it selected candidates on the basis of caste, like the alliance did in many cases. It ignores the fact that Nitish scored over the BJP on the development record. It glosses over the errors in ticket distribution, where anecdotal evidence suggests party leaders selected candidates on grounds besides winnability and there were financial transactions involved. It also protects the leadership from its errors in judgement in futilely using communally divisive rhetoric towards the end of the campaign.
But let us assume for a moment that the BJP is right - that it was all about arithmetic. This means that neither the Modi card nor an appeal to the youth across castes worked. If it is true, the party has a lot to worry about.
The first problem in the arithmetic game is that the BJP starts with a huge disadvantage--it does not have Muslim votes. Muslims do not always consolidate and there is remarkable diversity within the community. ‘Secular’ parties are often at odds in the quest for Muslim votes. Indeed in 2014, we saw a host of parties competing for the minority vote in states like UP and Bihar. But the fact is that while other parties can hope to get a minor share or a substantial portion of minority votes, which can go up to 25% in key states, the BJP feels lucky if it gets a fraction. So losing out such a major share (from one seventh to one fourth in battleground states) of the electorate does not seem very smart politics.
You could compensate for the loss in Muslim votes if you had a consolidation of the majority community votes. This fits in with the Sangh’s ideal of Hindu unity; it also explains why BJP tries to consolidate the Hindus by painting Muslims or Pakistan as the other.
But the problem is that this does not translate into favourable arithmetic often because of the stunning diversity among Hindus, on caste, class, region and other faultlines. Politics is about contradictions. Take a Hindu dominated village: there are bound to be contradictions between neighbours, between social groups, between young and the old, among the young and among the old, between the dominant and the marginalised, between the landowning and the landless, among the landowners, among the landless, between families and among families. It is these contradictions that manifest itself in politics. It is only in ‘wave’ elections that all such contradictions collapse. 2014 was one such election in parts of north, central and west India. But when you fight normal elections, you have to work within this framework.
The third problem BJP faces is a result of its success. As long as it was perceived as weak, opposing forces were happy to go it alone. In arithmetic, this meant fragmentation of anti-BJP votes. But the BJP’s expanding footprint has made them cautious. It has made them see this moment as a battle for political survival. They have realised that keeping up the index of opposition unity is key to defeating the BJP. Bihar was a reflection but if we see this replicated in other states, a new model of anti-BJP politics will become clearer. Come together to stop the division of votes. This can only be countered with BJP managing its own coalitions, with strong local partners.
So if we are witnessing a return to electoral behaviour in keeping with past patterns, where arithmetic matters more, BJP is in trouble. With Muslim votes alienated, Hindu consolidation difficult or almost impossible to achieve, and opposition parties ganging up, BJP needs to rework its politics of arithmetic.