The result of the Bihar assembly elections couldn't have come at a worse time for the UPA. Ordinarily, the initial years after a general election are a period of comfort for any government. The electorate is willing to pardon lapses in the hope of improvement. The second year of UPA 2 has so far been nightmarish.
A splintered opposition has brought no relief to the government. Instead, there is parliamentary coordination between major opposition parties. The UPA's honeymoon with the Indian media is now over: indulgence has been replaced by competitive scam-busting and Congress spokespersons are routinely avoiding inconvenient debates. A major international event like the Commonwealth Games, far from bringing credit to the government, has nurtured doubts over its integrity. The 2G spectrum allocation scam was in the public domain for the past two years - the Rajya Sabha debated it extensively on July 23, 2009. Then, public opinion was willing to overlook it. Today, the government is no longer entitled to the benefit of doubt. A hostile pubic is demanding answers.
An uneasy relationship has been created between the Congress and some other components of the UPA. Andhra Pradesh is a case in point. The sheen of teflon coating around the prime minister is withering away. The country expected him to be decisive. Now it's losing faith in his ability to act.
Amid this gloom, the result of the Bihar election comes as a ray of hope. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) always believed that the politics of development was not vote-earning. It put its faith in a social combination of caste and religious groups and their feeling of empowerment. The result was that the Yadav-Muslim combine enabled the RJD to rule for 15 years even when the state showed visible signs of deterioration. Non-governance, family rule, an environment of fear, ransom-collection, collapsing institutions and non-existent infrastructure were features of that rule.
The 2005 vote which brought the NDA to power was substantially a negative vote. Most social groups joined hands to throw out a non-performing combination. The Congress had always rescued the RJD when the latter was in trouble. In 1998 when the RJD lost majority on account of defections and split, the Congress came to its rescue. Again in 2000 when Bihar voted a hung assembly, the Congress appointed all its 23 MLAs as ministers with one Speaker and sustained the government. The Congress suffered on account of its over-identification with the RJD.
It goes to the credit of the Nitish Kumar-led NDA that it brought back legitimacy to governance. Thousands of criminals stand convicted, the law and order has improved, a network of roads has been built in the state, government offices now function with regularity. School education has benefitted the most. Schemes to incentivise young children to go to school have shown significant results. Medical aid is now available in government hospitals and dispensaries. Business and trade have improved on account of better law and order. These are only initial signs of development and governance. A lot of distance has yet to be covered.
The 2010 verdict is a victory of hope over fear. It is a victory of optimism over despair. It is an acceptance of the credibility of the political leadership in as much as there was a visible desire to bring back the Nitish Kumar-Sushil Modi combination. People were readily willing to give them another chance.
Was the politics of caste completely absent in this election? The politics of development has a secular reach; it influences and impacts all. While the RJD was the principal opponent with its limited caste appeal, most other social groups rallied behind the NDA giving it the support of a social combination that acquired the proportion of a rainbow coalition. The image of personal integrity added to the credibility of the Nitish Kumar-Sushil Modi combine.
A national message that emerges out of this analysis of the Bihar election results is that the age of aspirational politics is back. Mere caste combinations can't deliver victories. Development is important but not the only mantra for success; it must be blended with clever politics. Thus, a mix of a broad-based coalition, a large combination of social support base and a credible image of the leadership coupled with a development track record is a near certain guarantee for success. To win an election is always easier than getting re-elected. Most chief ministers who have been re-elected in the past not only had a credible developmental record but also a relatively clean political image. A combination of the two gave the incumbent a decisive edge.
The Bihar results provide a challenging opportunity for the NDA to consolidate. The magnitude of the victory has brought the NDA back to the centre stage of Indian politics. Its credibility of governance in more than one state has inspired confidence. The stature of several of its state leaders is capable of consolidating its gains in the next Lok Sabha elections.
The challenge before the NDA is to now expand itself as the only alternative to the UPA. The Third Front's ability to re-group is likely to be further diminished when the nucleus of the Third Front - namely, the Left - may suffer a setback in West Bengal and Kerala. For the first time in 33 years the Left may be left without a significant state presence. For most others the options of the Third Front may get marginalised.
The RJD and the UPA were unable to write a script for the Bihar elections. The RJD had a disastrous record with governance. The Congress had an identity crisis; it was too small to form a government on its own. In the past it had only supported the RJD. There was no reason why it would not do so again. It failed to read the emerging aspirational desires of the electorate of Bihar. The response of both the RJD and the Congress was that the glamour of the families controlling the two parties was sufficient response to the merit, credibility and performance of Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi. The electorate rightly rejected this.
A major challenge to the Congress in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha elections would be a complete absence of credible leaders in the states. For the Centre it relies again on the next generation of dynasty. We witnessed a major irritant against the Abdullahs during the recent visit of the parliamentary delegation to the Kashmir valley. The triumph of merit over dynasty could well be an agenda for the politics of the next Lok Sabha elections.
The more this happens the better it is for India.
(Arun Jaitley is the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha The views expressed by the author are personal)