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Common sense wins

Nitish Kumar's victory has a lesson for other parties: negative campaigns don't work anymore; the voters are seeking a message of hope. Barkha Dutt reports.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 17:01 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

Two years ago when the world was still mesmerised by Barack Obama’s historic election victory, I asked if India's political culture would ever allow us our own Obama, metaphorically speaking, that is. Was there anyone within sight on our own political firmament who could qualify as a desi Obama? While many of the answers were predictable, historian Ramachandra Guha came up with an interesting and unusual answer. He said, his choice would be Bihar's Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar.

At first glance, in terms of personality Obama and Kumar are antithetical and placed at opposite ends of political style. Obama is a master-rhetorician whose flamboyance and oratory catapulted him onto the centrestage of global imagination. Understatement may not even be a word in Obama's lexicon. But that in fact is the word that best captures the much more quiet, earthy, workman-like essence of Kumar. At the time, of course Guha's comparison was probably based on the perception that both were self-made politicians marking their own in a world which has very few lateral entries and both were possible symbols of hope. The irony is that as time goes by, many have begun to question whether the US president was more about charisma than content. And in Kumar's case the question has been the opposite. As he delivers an extraordinary verdict in his state, driven by a dignified, performance–oriented electoral campaign, it's worth asking whether the Indian voter has matured beyond caste and creed and now cares mostly about content.

As if to underline the voters' impatience with the rhetorician, Kumar's erstwhile rival, Lalu Prasad — once the darling of the TV soundbite soldier — seems horribly stuck in time with his frayed humour and feeble attempts at flair.

Some political scientists have accused the media of romanticisng the Bihar verdict. The results, they argue do not mean the absolute end of identity politics in a state where the joke used to be that you voted your caste, instead of casting your vote. Instead, they say Kumar has turned out to be a master at social engineering, bringing together a larger coalition of identities, such as ‘Mahadalits, Muslims and Mahila' under one umbrella, with a Chanakya-like cleverness. That may be so, but almost everyone agrees that none of the caste configurations or electoral mathematics would have mattered had it not been for substantive, identifiable governance. Whether it's Kumar's pet scheme of giving cycles to young girls so that they have an incentive to go to school, better roads where none existed, or the thousands of criminal convictions in the last five years, commonsensical policy interventions have worked on the ground.

Add to this, is what Rajya Sabha MP, NK Singh, has described as "economic engineering". Bihar's attempts at economic recovery have created a new set of aspirations blurring the lines between caste and breaking down the typical prejudices and silos of competitive identity politics. Interestingly, shortly after his victory, one commentator described the verdict as a victory for left-of-centre politics. But while, Nitish's political origins may have been shaped and formed by the socialism of Ram Manohar Lohia, whilst in government he appears to have borrowed freely from both the Left and the Right to evolve a genuinely centrist ideology.

Therein lies an important takeaway from this election for the BJP as well. The BJP's stand-alone performance has been extraordinarily successful; it's relative gains impressive markers of an efficient and energetic party organisation. In fact, many BJP leaders have been privately commenting on how Kumar's personality may have defined the election, but his party's own organisational strength can hardly compete with the BJP's. In other words, they argue that Kumar may have been the general, but the troops were the BJP's.

While that may be true, the deeper lesson for the BJP is that governance is much more moot for the voter than ideological distinctiveness. Elections don't always needs an emotional flashpoint to build relationships with the voter. Despite some key ideological differences between two parties, Kumar and the BJP fought this election on the same platform. Measure us by our performance, they said to the voter, and he did. Wherever, BJP leaders have sought to do this — whether it's Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh or now, in Bihar, the voter has met them half-way. Even Narendra Modi — who Kumar adamantly kept away during the campaign, has refashioned himself in the mould of a chief minister who delivers on governance.

Of course, Modi is a more debatable example for several reasons and hasn't altogether abandoned emotion as a tool of mobilisation. But largely, the Bihar example makes it clear that there is more than enough room in India for a responsible, moderate right-of-centre party. The BJP's big advantage is that it is has allowed regional leaders to grow and thrive and craft their own agendas. It must now step back and look at the big picture nationally. Many of its pet issues belong to the past, and in a changing India, they simply have no resonance with the voter anymore.

Arun Jaitley succinctly described the verdict as one that had taken Bihar from Fear to Hope. That may be the biggest change in the Indian voter today. Negative campaigns don't work anymore but if you give people something to look forward to, even if it's a work-in-progress, they will be willing to walk the hard journey, along with their politicians. And for those who like to distribute TV sets, or rice or electricity connections as populist ways of wooing the voter, remember, you can also do it the Kumar way. If you must be a salesman, the wares you carry, must include Hope.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Nov 26, 2010 20:38 IST