Bihar 2015 brings out memories of Spain of the 1930s. The Second World War and the issues over which it was fought in the 1930s was anticipated by the bitter Civil War in Spain. India may be a country and Bihar is a State. But the comparison between the micro and the macro holds because Bihar was made into a national referendum by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah team and the RSS. The Bihar elections of 2015 was historic, because at no time has the Prime Minister of the country left aside the governance of the nation to campaign so intensively for a state election and project himself as the face of his national party in a state. Issues of caste and community were made the lynchpin of the electoral campaign by no less than the PM. The initial platform of development was sidelined by Dadri and Cow, charges that Pakistan would celebrate if non-BJP parties were elected by voters, and of who represented the EBCs and Mahadalits. The NDA’s loss in Bihar is a game changer.
There are three crucial spinoffs from the Bihar verdict. The immediate one is that Mr Modi’s position is severely shaken. The long-term significance is that extreme, anti-minority polarisation has not succeeded. The other important implication is that the social justice platform is re-forming itself.
The Modi-Shah strategy, supported by the RSS and the BJP, is to supersede local, party leaders and power brokers while keeping local leaders and factions of the party in a state of mutual suspicion of each other’s ambitions. This goes beyond the centralisation that Indira Gandhi had pioneered for the Congress. The national leadership of the BJP now campaigns at a local level and begins to micromanage the party. Logically, a victory of the Modi-Shah combine would have meant a micromanagement of Bihar from the PMO . This drift to an incredible centralisation has been nipped in the bud by the BJP loss.
Equally consequential is the fact that Mr Modi now has a national level challenger. It was Mr Modi’s direct campaign that raised the stakes and made Mr Nitish Kumar a pan Indian figure. Nitish accepted the challenge. His victory is more substantial than Mr Kejriwal — the other potential pan Indian challenger to Mr Modi — because Bihar is much more representative of the country and far more consequential than Delhi. The fate of the next round of State level elections depends a great deal on this result. Second, the coalition of non-BJP parties has — at least electorally — brewed a new chemistry of unity which no longer is dependent on numbers. The RJD played a subdued, even subordinate, role despite possessing a much larger base than JD (U) simply because of Nitish’s pan-Bihar acceptability; the Congress remained humble despite its pretensions to a pan Indian presence. This arrangement has generated a momentum that has resulted in the Mahagatbandhan getting a much greater number of seats than the simple arithmetic of adding caste would produce. The confusion this has created in the BJP can be seen in the way that their media spokespersons are now talking about the Index of Opposition Unity in playing the key role in the elections. The much-acclaimed chemistry of the NDA appears to have migrated to the other side.
Further, the Nitish-Lalu combine represent a fresh departure from the aggressiveness of political language that BJP has established. Nitish has pioneered a style of politics that is non abrasive, low profile, dignified. Nitish’s political style has actually embodied the slogan that the Mahagatbandhan has proclaimed of —Development with Harmony. This is a reinvention of the centre point of Indian politics that was being dangerously driven towards a policy of Development in Polarisation in recent times by the ruling party.
Elections are being increasingly seen as temporary wars by Hindutva. In non-election times, development is projected as something that includes all communities. As the time of elections approach, development is given the added colours of anti minority mobilisation. Large and small scale conflicts breakout, centuries old communal issues raised in colonial times like cow slaughter are dusted up and forced into public attention again. All this is mixed up with contemporary attitudes of antagonism against Pakistan. The beauty of this potent chemistry is that it can be trivialised as an attitude of “all is fair in war” once the elections are over. What is sought to be covered over in these jokish statements is that with each such election campaign, there is an attempt to intensify and consolidate memories that can tear apart the social fabric of the country.
But there is another, deeper polarisation. The development model itself has started a rightward class polarisation that is directed against the rural sectors and the poor. This has resulted in a popular perception of the “Suit Boot Sarkar”. This sentiment may have been voiced by Rahul Gandhi but is popular because it’s also an indictment of the policies of his own party. In this context Development with Harmony promises something more than just communal harmony alone. It also opens up the question of development without victimising the poor and the rural.
The Bihar result indicates another thing. The social justice platform of the early 90’s has begun to disintegrate. Umbrella like caste categories such as the EBCs or Mahadalits are no longer successful in mobilising voters. Castes which were, for some time, unified by large categories such as these, are now getting divided by sub-castes and by different social and generational expectations. This is what allowed the BJP to expand from its consolidated upper caste vote bank. On the other hand, the division and then reunity between the RJD and JDU reveal the phenomenon of the decomposition of the caste based, unifying platform of Social Justice from the other side. This does not mean that caste has disappeared from Indian politics. Far from it. But caste can no longer be the sole, not even the main, basis of mobilisation. Electoral mobilisation has to take into account the need for social mobility of the young and of women, of the fears and expectations of the rural populations and the urban poor and, of course, the demands of the middle and upper classes. Electoral mobilisation, the Bihar verdict tells us, may be moving towards a phase of mixed and changing social alignments with ideological directions that reject programmes of polarisation and of extreme centralisation.
This is where the comparison with the “1930’s Spain” ends. Hitler’s Germany, which was the main ally of the Spanish fascists, had been encouraged by its victory in the Spanish civil war to make minority bashing into a programme of the global cleansing of gypsies, Jews, homosexuals and political antagonists. Instead, the Bihar result points to, indeed demands, the making of a new politics of inclusion.
P.K Datta is a Professor of Politicial Science from Delhi University