The script for the 2015 Assembly elections was one of a battle between incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, widely regarded as someone responsible for the turnaround of Bihar's fortunes and the prime minister Narendra Modi who personifies his party, his government and to his supporters, even the nation-state itself. Political outcomes rarely subject themselves to a script. There are the arithmetic vagaries of the first past the post system that push results in unforeseen directions. Added to this is the peculiar nature of Bihar's politics - the higher number of effective parties (parties that are relevant in each constituency), the coherent social bases of respective parties within the fray, and how of course the way elections were spread out and conducted in phases.
The outcome of these variables was of course a victory for the incumbent Janata Dal (United) led coalition - the Mahagatbandan - but what must be a surprise was the emergence of the Rashtriya Janata Dal of convicted former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, as the single largest party in the state. The phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes, as the veteran politician, convicted in the fodder scam and debarred from contesting elections, managed to resuscitate the fortunes of a party which was expected to wither away following his conviction. They did so, not just by the dint of their steadfastness in holding against the BJP, but also due to a confluence of political factors.
Nitish Kumar's principled decision to break the longstanding alliance between the JD(U) and the BJP in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls was termed as a severe strategic blunder then. After all, Mr Modi was blazing a path toward sure success and the wind was behind the BJP's sails and it neither made political nor electoral sense for an incumbent to break a rather successful alliance. But Mr Kumar's decision was seeped as much in Realpolitik as in principle. The long time backward classes' leader's discomfort of sharing power with a party that had consolidated the support of the upper castes heightened following the assertion of upper castes against some of his welfarist aims in his later tenure. Mr Kumar sought to appropriate the support base of the backward classes (apart from the Yadavs), the extreme backward classes and the Mahadalits as well, whom he had carefully nurtured through various government schemes and presumed that this coalition of classes and castes will help him thwart the BJP.
It was not to be in 2014 as Mr Modi's national message of development overcame caste-class contradictions rendering Mr Kumar's project a failure and leaving him with no other option but to forge a new alliance, this time with his long time bete noire Lalu Prasad. The alliance brought a theoretical edge in terms of arithmetic. The respective social bases of Mr Kumar and Mr Prasad could clearly outweigh the base of the BJP in terms of numbers. But it required something more than mere arithmetic to surpass the Modi effect, which was now combined with yet another feature of Indian politics, the Honeymoon Effect.
In about 93 state elections before the Delhi Assembly polls were held in December 2014, which were conducted in the first two years of an incumbent in power at the centre, the ruling party or its ally had won 53 of those since the seminal year of 1977 in Indian politics. Mr Modi's BJP had just won victories in Haryana, in Maharashtra, in Jharkhand and even in Jammu & Kashmir (by managing to enter into government in alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party). A peculiar set of local circumstances, the consolidation of support from the urban poor and an energetic campaign by the Aam Aadmi Party resulted in the first loss for the BJP in Delhi. Many considered this loss as an aberration.
Even after the Delhi loss, the BJP was placed rather comfortably in Bihar. The arithmetic had not yet materialised into inter-party chemistry between the JD(U), the RJD and the nationally debilitated Congress. Mulayam Yadav's dropping away from the alliance, while not mattering much in terms of political support certainly mattered symbolically. What resulted in a gel being cemented between the Grand Alliance was the BJP's unravelling of its true self and Mr Modi's silent endorsement of this process. In the past few months in the run-up to the Bihar elections, Mr Modi's party embarked upon a naked embrace of majoritarianism - in its and its state governments' vocal support for beef bans, subliminal messages reeking of cultural intolerance and so on. This was not particularly surprising to those who have followed Mr Modi's career or his party's history. The adoption of “development” as a mantra by the BJP had always been for expedience and while this has garnered support from the upper-middle classes, an aspirational youth and the business classes, there has been little in terms of difference of emphasis or in performance on the development front from the BJP since it came to power in May 2014.
It is pertinent to look at a larger picture of India's politics and political-economy here. At the national level, the UPA's challenge in its second term was to retain its success in combining growth and welfare in its economic policies. Amidst a flailing global economy, the UPA could neither live upto the expectations of an aspirational electorate, nor implement its welfare schemes as effectively as it could. Burdened with problems such as rising inflation and growing corruption, the UPA essentially paved the way for Mr Modi's BJP, which pitched a message of reform and growth and soon occupied the central pole in Indian politics, snatching that position away from the Congress. A large section of the electorate was willing to overlook Mr Modi's baggage from the past either out of hope that this would not be revived or out of a selective memory or as many voters in UP did, fall into the trap of communal polarisation.
But India hadn't changed that significantly despite 2014. Communal harmony and peace is a virtue that is desired not just by the minorities. A pan-Hindu consolidation with the paramountcy of the upper-caste interest is still going to be received negatively by not just the backward classes but also from Dalits. This is exactly what happened after the remarks of RSS Sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat about reviewing the system of reservation were played out. Despite the loss of Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi from the grand alliance and the presence of dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan in the NDA camp, the Grand Alliance won nearly 64 of the 81 seats (BJP+ won 17) with the Dalits constituting more than 18 per cent of the electorate. This was in contrast to the 61 seats won by the NDA in 2014.
The loss for the NDA must be a setback for the communal agenda of the BJP. Bihar suggests that the BJP can't merely paper over this subliminal push for a reversal of India's secular ethos, and communitarian welfare model through a Hindutva model of consolidation by posturing as a party setting out to achieve “development”. Development itself is a contested notion of modernisation. It is not merely enough to deliver economic growth without achieving social and cultural progress - values not just inculcated from the Western influence of Enlightenment but seeped in India's transition into modernity over the years. That the BJP's retrograde policies have received a firm rejection even in the earlier phase of its party's majority rule is evident in the successive losses both in Delhi and in Bihar.
That said, the victory for the RJD and the JD(U) is not a mandate for the return of the 1990s, when Mr Yadav and his party utilised mandates for social change to merely mean a patronage system that paid scant attention to governance and rule of law. The new contestation within the ruling coalition will not be played out in mere caste terms, but in emphasis - between Nitish Kumar's “developmentalism” and Lalu Yadav's backward class led patronage. It remains to be seen whether the champions of Mandal politics will manage to evolve a new identity in government after this victory. Only time will tell.
This article has been corrected for an editing error.