If the Delhi defeat to Arvind Kejriwal was an annoying boil on the nose for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bihar is a deep, suppurating wound that threatens blood poisoning within two years of its sweep to power in the Lok Sabha elections.
The defeat is a bitter blow for party president Amit Shah, who camped in the state through October, and is a setback to popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made speech after rousing speech on the campaign trail hoping to get voters to ditch the tried and tested chief minister Nitish Kumar.
In the event, Nitish rode to a victory that surpassed all expectations, a reward for a decade in power that has seen the most backward of states make significant progress on the development front. The triumph sets him up as a potential nucleus around which a Third Front can agglomerate come the next national elections in 2019.
Video: Why BJP must stick to its development agenda
His choice of Lalu Prasad as coalition partner raised eyebrows given the latter’s corruption taint, but Lalu turned out to be a trump card: He contributed nearly half the tally of the Grand Alliance, likely confirming that in addition to admiring development, Bihari voters vote their caste when they cast their vote. The results give Congress, the third party in the partnership, cause for a celebration that has become all too rare: it is on track to 24 seats, six times its 2010 tally of four.
Expect the Bihar verdict to make the BJP’s task in getting legislation through Parliament even tougher, as it pushes back the attainment of the hoped-for numbers in the Rajya Sabha. A hardening of positions on the real estate bill is likely; the Congress could drum up support to stall even a sitter like the Goods and Services Tax legislation. Stock markets and foreign investors are likely to take this badly. It’s no use trotting out stats that show governments in power at the Centre often lose state elections in the first two years after their national victories.
Why does Bihar matter so much? The numbers make this fairly obvious – with a population of nearly 100 million, if it were an independent country, it would be the world’s 14th most populous. That nugget aside, it sends 16 lawmakers to the Rajya Sabha and 40 to the Lok Sabha. It sits neatly between electoral top priority Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the BJP’s next holy grail. The result will cause unease about the 2017 assembly elections in UP (where the BJP faces a strong Mulayam and possibly a resurgent Mayawati) and puncture any optimism about making a mark in Bengal, where Mamata recently swept the civic polls.
It was also a test case for unifying the Hindu vote in a state riven by caste, and that experiment seems to have failed. During the campaign, a Muslim man was lynched over a purported beef meal in UP; rather than douse the flames, BJP ministers made provocative statements calculated to polarise the electorate in neighbouring Bihar.
The temptation to do this will arise again in Assam and Bengal, border states where there are strong communal undercurrents and elections are due next year. Bihar suggests that voters are tired of this tactic and would prefer to focus on the very development that is PM Modi’s own calling card. Between the years 2005 and 2014, Bihar’s agricultural economy outgrew the national average handsomely; the state’s development expenditure to GDP ratio was double the national average; between 2004 and 2012 the proportion of its population below the poverty line shrank from a half to a third.
Will the BJP get the message, or will habit take over?