We asked Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar what he thought of the high-intensity campaign by the BJP before his state goes to the polls. It was early August and Kumar was in this newspaper’s office in Delhi, chatting with our editors. He quickly replied: “They have adopted a do-or-die approach.” He might as well have been talking about his own party, the JD(U), which will contest the elections in alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress. The Bihar elections, which will be held in five phases beginning October 12, will be both keenly fought and keenly watched.
While the media hype, which will build up inevitably as the election dates approach, may not be of any special significance, what happens in Bihar’s elections will matter. Most of all, it will matter to the BJP, the party that Kumar says is fighting with a “do-or-die” attitude. In February 2015, the BJP was trounced by AAP in Delhi, a trophy state that it badly wanted to win. The BJP has not fully recovered from that humiliating defeat — it won just three of the 70 seats in Delhi, while AAP won 67.
If it wins Bihar, it could help salvage some of that lost pride. The Bihar elections will offer a rare chance for it to try and do that. Rare because there will be few chances for the BJP to win in a state election for some time. In 2016, four states and a Union Territory go to the polls: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry. With the exception of Assam, the BJP has no base that it can bank on to win in those polls. So, before the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017, Bihar will be the only state election that the BJP can seriously hope to win.
But for the BJP and its allies, a win in Bihar is not only about recouping its loss of pride or the swagger that it had acquired after its decisive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the early months after it came to power at the Centre, the Modi government took bold decisions such as increasing rail fares and slashing fuel subsidies. But now the reformist streak has petered out.
It hasn’t been able to push crucial reforms. After issuing three consecutive Ordinances for the land acquisition Bill and not being able to pass it in Parliament, the Modi government has timidly reverted to the UPA version of the law; on labour reforms, it has met resistance from trade unions across the political spectrum and has been forced to move in slo-mo; and the widely touted GST Bill to make India’s markets more unified remains un-enacted.
Does Bihar’s election have anything to do with all of this? Yes. A win for the BJP in Bihar can embolden the Modi government and weaken the resistance that it is facing from the Opposition in Parliament. On the other hand, if the BJP loses Bihar, the opposite can happen: the government could retreat even further from the reforms path; and, in the near-term at least, face more resistance from the Opposition parties. Losing could also increase the influence of the RSS and its affiliates, which have been critical of several government proposals, including the land Bill and labour reforms.
Bihar’s elections will also matter a lot to Kumar, whose alliance with the RJD, a party whose rule became synonymous with violence and corruption in Bihar, is seen as (to quote him out of context!) a “do-or-die” strategy. If Kumar wins Bihar for the third time, it would elevate his stature and his pro-development image and, who knows, even catapult him as a prime ministerial probable in 2019. But if he loses it would be a serious political setback.
There is also a personal thing for Kumar in these polls. Till 2013, the JD(U) and the BJP were in an alliance, which he broke off in protest when the BJP chose Narendra Modi to head its Lok Sabha campaign. That gave rise to considerable animosity between the two. The coming polls could be an arena for the two, particularly PM Modi, to try to settle scores.
In Bihar, as Delhi’s pundits will tell you, ‘caste’ and ‘vote banks’ always play a dominant role in electoral contests. But next month as Bihar’s voters head for the EVM machines, it will also be a contest that Modi and Kumar will fight head to head. Does that matter? You decide.
(Sanjoy Narayan is HT's editor-in-chief. He tweets at @sanjoynarayan)