In a huge blow to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which fielded Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its chief campaigner in the Bihar assembly elections, the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance virtually swept the polls with almost three-fourths of the 243 seats. While the BJP’s humiliating loss in the Delhi assembly election was seen as an aberration after its stunning victories in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand, the second straight loss has raised serious questions about its national expansion plans.
As the BJP leadership goes back to the drawing-board to analyse the reasons for its drubbing in Bihar, the party has a lot to ponder over. After abandoning development as its central plank, the party lost the plot as it played into rivals’ hands by raking up controversial subjects such as the Bihari DNA, reservation policy, beef consumption and Pakistan. The development narrative has been Modi’s strength -- and the Achilles’ heel for main contender Lalu -- but the BJP chose to engage the RJD chief on what has been central to his politics: caste and religious identities.
Desperate to neutralise Lalu’s caste equations, the NDA made little attempt to target Nitish Kumar’s image as a ‘vikas purush’, which turned out to be a strategic mistake. Even the extremely backward classes (EBCs), who voted for Modi in the last Lok Sabha election and who the BJP so assiduously wooed in this election, switched their loyalty to Kumar.
While the BJP has to do a re-think about the multi-pronged strategy it used in Bihar, Sunday’s verdict could have a serious bearing on national politics.
The success of the Mahagathbandhan, despite its inherent contradictions, is set to result in renewed efforts at the national level to put up a joint front against the NDA government. Sensing the BJP’s vulnerability, some of its allies like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the PDP in Jammu & Kashmir may start flexing their muscles again.
The immediate fallout of a possible opposition regrouping could be the government’s economic reforms agenda that requires parliamentary approval, including the Constitution amendment bill to enable the rollout of the goods and services tax and labour reforms. After the Bihar elections, opposition parties may try to stymie the government’s efforts to pursue its reforms programme in the winter session of Parliament likely to begin in the last week of November.
The BJP was hoping to win in Bihar and carry the momentum to the next round of assembly elections in five states early next year. In these states, parties may seek to emulate the Bihar model of a Mahagathbandhan for survival in the face of a resurgent BJP. Given its failure to neutralise self-proclaimed Lohiaites in Bihar, the BJP has reason to be worried about its poll strategy in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, which will go the polls in early 2017. Since the Lok Sabha election, the BJP has been fielding Prime Minister Modi as its chief campaigner instead of letting him focus on governance. Sunday’s results could lead to a review of this strategy. After the defeat in Delhi elections, the BJP reverted to its strategy of not fielding a chief ministerial candidate but it didn’t pay off in Bihar.
The results also brought some hope of revival to the Congress, which seemed headed for its best performance in the state in the past two decades, after a string of electoral debacles since the last Lok Sabha election.
The Congress was a marginal player in Bihar and contested only 41 seats. It had won 25 and was leading in two seats by Sunday evening. It’s the first time since the last Lok Sabha election the Congress has seen an upswing in its electoral fortune. Following its success in Bihar in bringing friends-turned-foes Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad together, the Congress leadership may be inclined to play a more pro-active role in bringing like-minded parties together in states and at the national level.