Snap judgements are dangerous and nearly always wrong. So, all those who want to treat the Bihar assembly election as a referendum on the central government should ease up on the schadenfreude. An assembly election is not necessarily a verdict on the performance of the Centre. All the opinion polling evidence suggests that Narendra Modi is still the most popular leader in India. There is no obvious alternative to him as prime minister in any party and were a parliamentary election to be held tomorrow, the BJP would still emerge as the single-largest party in the new Lok Sabha.
That said, there is no denying that the humiliating defeat in Bihar will damage Modi largely because he had invested so much of his credibility in the election, campaigning extensively across the state and not nominating a chief ministerial candidate, to whom some of the blame could be shifted — as it was to Kiran Bedi after the Delhi debacle.
The extent of the defeat is still to sink in. But it bears remembering that both Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Prasad’s RJD individually got more seats than the BJP could muster. And the Congress, dismissed as a joke by BJP campaigners, won 27 seats (at the time of going to press). More worrying is that the BJP did not sense that a debacle was imminent. When early trends (based mainly on postal ballots) seemed to give the BJP an advantage, its spokesmen fell over each other on TV channels to praise the electoral savvy of Amit Shah, who had engineered this massive victory. When reality dawned, the party reacted with shock and surprise.
The prime minister does not like to concede points to his critics or to change course. But this electoral disaster should give him reason to pause and rethink his strategy.
First of all, he needs to stop seeing himself as prime campaigner and recognise that he is actually prime minister. His stated aim may be to create a Congress-mukt Bharat where the BJP is the dominant force. But that’s not what he was elected to do. The mandate was for development, not for endless campaigning. And as the delivery on the development agenda is delayed, his passion for campaigning is beginning to annoy the electorate. Worse still, from Modi’s point of view, is that the campaigning is not working. Both Delhi and Bihar are deeply embarrassing rebuffs to a prime minister who is always in election mode.
Secondly, he needs to rethink his messaging. He won the Lok Sabha poll by first listing the failures of UPA 2 and by denigrating his opponents. He then presented himself as the alternative, asking for votes on the basis of his leadership qualities and personal charisma.
It is an approach that works well when a) the incumbent government is seen as incompetent or corrupt and b) when people have only Modi’s record as chief minister of Gujarat to judge him by. But when his opponents are not viewed as dishonest or venal — as neither Arvind Kejriwal or Nitish Kumar is — this approach backfires. Moreover, people now have Modi’s record as prime minister to judge him by and are less impressed by his claims that he has all the solutions.
Consequently, the Gogia Pasha-style campaign, where people are told that if they vote for Modi all their problems will magically disappear, has stopped working.
Thirdly, there is the decency factor. The BJP’s time in Delhi has seen a sharp decline in the level of national discourse. It isn’t just the abusive trolls on social media, some of whom Modi himself follows or fraternises with. It is also the arrogance and offensive smugness of the BJP’s TV spokespeople. And it is elements within the Parivar who are happy to denigrate women or launch veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) attacks on Muslims. At a time when the prime minister wants to focus on development, his supporters focus on ghar wapsi. When the prime minister talks about the advancement of people, his party talks about the protection of the cow.
The atmosphere has now turned so ugly that many of those who supported Modi because they believed he would lead a triumphant India into the 21st century now wonder why he does not speak out against those who are dragging India back to the Middle Ages.
In contrast to this unpleasantness and bigotry — much of which found its way into the Bihar campaign — the word most often used to describe Nitish Kumar is ‘decent’. While Modi fought a high-cost, high-voltage, high-rhetoric, high-in-a-helicopter campaign, Nitish went quietly from village to village, addressing relatively small meetings and refrained from personal attacks or any kind of rudeness. Bihar is not Madison Square Garden and Nitish’s low-key, unflashy style connected better with voters.
Everything we have seen suggests that Modi regards stubbornness as a synonym for courage. He will never yield to pressure. He won’t let anyone resign (not even Gajendra Chauhan!). So, it is unlikely that he will pay heed to the murmurings in his party about Amit Shah’s stewardship of the Bihar campaign.
But he must know, deep within his heart, that things are not going according to plan. The euphoria of the 2014 victory is fast dissipating. His own charisma is no longer enough to win elections. And as intolerance and unpleasantness mar all discourse in India, he must be concerned with the turn events have taken.
So far, he has followed a policy of benign neglect towards the bigots and haters in his Parivar. But as the promised economic recovery is still to arrive and electoral humiliations rock his government, even Modi must begin to wonder if it is time for a course correction.
He is too shrewd a politician not to recognise that it all threatens to go badly wrong. And he is smart enough to know that only he can intervene and turn the tide.
(The views expressed are personal)