From Bihar, a larger message | HT Editorial
A competitive election, demanding voters, and inclusive coalitions bode well for democracyUpdated: Oct 29, 2020, 05:32 IST
The Bihar elections kicked off on Wednesday with the first phase of polling. The fact that this is the first time voters in any part of India are getting to express their political choice in the middle of the pandemic makes the election significant. But its political importance goes beyond that, due to the nature of political competition, the issues that have now become a part of the poll discourse, the personalities involved, and what the outcome will reveal about the preferences of the electorate.
For one, the election, from being widely seen as a one-sided race in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has become a more open political contest. This is good for democracy because voters deserve options and alternatives, and only strong challengers to established parties can change incentives in favour of performance and delivery. The energy brought forth by Tejashwi Yadav, the critique of the government by Chirag Paswan, and the palpable fatigue with Nitish Kumar has opened up democratic space, irrespective of the outcome. It will keep the next government on its toes. Second, in a reflection of both the growing aspirations of citizens and the economic distress of contemporary times, there is a deep yearning for higher incomes and better living standards. This has manifested itself most sharply in the demand for jobs. To his credit, Mr Kumar has delivered on a range of public goods — particularly infrastructure and law and order — in the past, but was unable to move to the next stage of reforms. The electorate wants more, and rightly so. This shift in the discourse towards employment is positive, for it reflects the rise of a demanding voter. But the fact that the rhetoric revolves around government jobs is a sign that the public sector is still equated with stability and status, and the private sector is yet to make both deep economic and psychological inroads in Bihar.
Three, the election has forced each party to look beyond its comfort zone of loyal social groups and create wider alliances. So, for instance, the NDA is giving tickets to Yadavs, while the Rashtriya Janata Dal has sought to give tickets to leaders from sub- groups belonging to the extremely backward classes, and even the upper castes in alliance with the Congress. This mix of a competitive election environment, a more demanding voter, and a new and more inclusive form of social engineering bodes well for democracy.