It is tempting, but inaccurate, to posit the Bihar election as one merely between caste and development (as the BJP does), as just a forward-backward fight (as Lalu Prasad suggests), as a secularism versus communalism battle (Congress narrative), or only a personality contest between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi (a tool used by both sides during the campaign). Bihar 2015 was about all of the above. It was about vikas — development; jaat — caste; dharma and mazhab — religion and faith; and neta — leadership. Both sides played all these four cards.
The Mahagatbandhan/Grand Alliance (GA) won, because it played it better.
Early on, the GA decided they had to leverage Nitish Kumar’s image, with Lalu Prasad’s social base. The JD(U)’s strategists wanted to make this a presidential contest. Workers were told to go out and ask three questions: Was Bihar in a better state today than 10 years ago? Had all sections — even if in varying degrees — benefited from this progress? And if the answer was yes to both, did the man who led this change — Nitish Kumar — not deserve another chance? By framing it thus rather early on, the Mahagatbandhan did not let anti-incumbency grow. The BJP was in a bind on leadership. They knew nominating one state leader would lead to a bitter backlash from the others. They also had no one to match Nitish.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to invest his personal capital and make it a direct contest. The Nitish team used three rhetorical devices to counter Modi. Would the PM take on the additional charge of a state CM? What was it that he had delivered in the past year and a half? And why do you need a ‘bahari’? The message hit home. Amit Shah was the second-most prominent face in the campaign. And while his political skills may be masterly, he is no mass leader.
Both sides played the caste card.
The BJP relied on a complete ‘forward caste’ consolidation, which did happen. They banked on Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi to win the Dalit and Mahadalit vote. They struck deals with leaders of smaller EBC castes to penetrate into a traditional Nitish constituency. They hosted many caste meetings. They gave tickets to the Yadavs to try to break Lalu’s constituency.
The Mahagatbandhan banked on the Yadavs consolidating behind Lalu. His performance indicates this has happened. The Kurmis stuck to Nitish. His various welfare schemes for EBCs and reservations paid off in bringing in key sections of the group. And even among the Mahadalits, if Manjhi’s dismal performance is anything to go by, communities stuck to Nitish.
The RSS chief’s statement on reservations came as a huge bonus because it dashed any hopes for the BJP of winning the youth among backward castes. It is a myth that the young don’t care about caste. They are deeply conscious of caste, for they know their caste status is a big factor in getting government jobs — the ultimate aspiration for many in Bihar.
The religion card worked differently.
The Muslims of Bihar did not want their votes split and put enormous pressure on Nitish and Lalu to stay together. But they were discreet and asked the leaders not to talk about issues of Muslim security and identity. The Muslims feared this would lead to a counter Hindu consolidation. So they voted aggressively, but silently.
The BJP knew that the only way to break the forward-backward caste binary was to play up the Hindu unity card. For this, they had to paint the ‘other’, read Muslims, as the problem — crackers in Pakistan, the scare-mongering that quotas would be handed over to another community and beef politics were all geared for that. It did not work. The rupture within the ‘Hindu vote’ was too strong. The Hindus split on castes the Muslims stayed united.
Development too mattered.
Nitish had a track record — roads, school enrolment, law and order, and electricity. The BJP exposed the limits of Nitish’s development — by pointing to migration and promising jobs. Bihar’s voters know more than anyone that the state is still backward. But they had to choose among a tested player who had done his bit though slacked a little in the second term, and an untested player who had not really done much at the Centre. They played safe.
So here it is — a decisive win for the GA, through age-old political techniques coupled with modern communication strategies, emulated straight from the BJP textbook.
The verdict will have national reverberations.
From the end of 2013 through May 2014’s historic verdict until now, politics was marked by the BJP’s steadily expanding footprint and Modi’s almost total dominance. But politics is deeply dynamic. Bihar’s outcome is a reflection of social contradictions; and the inherent tendency of democracy of installing checks on power.
At the end of 2015, Indian politics has found a strong voice of the opposition. Delhi’s AAP victory was a sign, but Bihar’s win is confirmation that Modi’s political capital is diminishing, even as he remains the most popular pan-Indian leader. The non-NDA formations also now have a model for state elections — create alliances and forge tactical unity. How parties use it in West Bengal and Assam next year, and UP in 2017, has to be watched closely. A phase of renewed democratic contestation in parliament and outside is imminent. Brand Nitish will go national, with many already billing him as a challenger to Modi in 2019.
The paradox is Modi postponed the tough decisions when he was at his strongest — from reining in Hindutva storm-troopers to focusing on reforms. He is weaker now and this is a reminder that all is not well. Unless the BJP and Modi effect an immediate course correction, in political messaging and government operations, their achhe din of 2013-15 will not return.