The morning after the electorate has spoken its mind is the best time to reflect, to introspect. It holds true of the victor — yet applies more to the vanquished.
A party in power at the Centre losing a provincial election isn’t unprecedented. But Bihar became prestigious on two counts: The coming together of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad through the interface of the Congress and the BJP’s anxiety to demolish the alliance to forestall its replication at the Centre.
That hasn’t happened. So what must the BJP look for to resurrect its fortunes as a ‘party of governance’ with national ambition? Conventional Indian wisdom tells us that India is at ease, socially, intellectually and politically, with parties that are an implicit coalition of ideas.
Like the Congress of yore — an amalgam of the Left, right and centrist thought — that lost its way in the course of the Shah Bano debate and Ayodhya that was the right-wing response to VP Singh’s affirmative action politics of Mandal. High on the saffron check-list should therefore be a review of their social policies often dictated and hijacked by the fringe.
Pandit Nehru is much maligned by the BJP. But the largely federal Congress he bequeathed remained relevant for over two decades after his death in 1964. Then blue star happened, Indira Gandhi was killed and Rajiv Gandhi assumed power after the 1984 election with a majority bigger than his mother or his grandfather.
A neophyte hustled into politics, Rajiv failed to preserve the mandate for myriad missteps — some of his own and some not. His departure set the stage for a fragmented polity necessitating coalitions.
Narendra Modi ended that cycle 25 years later. He’s faced now with the governance/credibility crisis on the social front too soon too fast, a la Rajiv who also had Bofors to encounter.
But there’s a difference. The BJP’s single party rule isn’t complete, unlike the Congress edition, given its lack of numbers in the Upper House and control over a lesser number of states.
Even otherwise, Modi should desist being a latter day Indira in his treatment of regional satraps. She weakened her party by showing herself as superior. He can learn nevertheless from her stylistically: She was a woman of immense power and strength who let her actions speak.
Quite instructive in that context is the message from Bihar. It conveyed unambiguously that the Gujarat model isn’t a country standard for fighting elections. The overdose of Modi rhetoric that clicked in his home state backfired in the poor but politically savvy eastern province.
A case in point: The 2012 Gujarat assembly polls saw the BJP accusing the Congress of a sell out on Sir Creek during a visit of the Pakistan interior minister. The allegation caught currency. Modi used it in his speeches after a press briefing by his party in Ahmedabad.
But in Bihar, the last ditch saffron effort to polarize voters through newspaper advertisements on terrorism and beef begot them popular anger, not as much approval. The specter had one looking for the line that divided the BJP fringe from its core.
So, a consensual, genuinely inclusive approach beyond sloganeering — sabka saath, sabka vikas — could go a long way in repairing the BJP’s post-Bihar perception. The party would also do well to endorse cooperative federalism in the classical sense and not confuse it with the unitary form — as was evident in its poll-overture that one party in power at both ends could help the state develop faster.
It was a bit rich for the BJP to give that call in the state that was JP’s battleground against Indira’s autocracy in the seventies. That is why perhaps one saw on November 8 a flashback to the 1977 polls that dislodged a great leader gone wayward!’