A fight outside the caste silos

As the Nitish-Lalu-Congress combine takes on the BJP juggernaut, one thing is clear. The Bihar elections will not be about caste or identity but about governance

Updated - April 08, 2016 12:43 pm IST

Published - June 27, 2015 01:44 am IST

NEW DELHI, 06/11/2014:  JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar with (from left) K. C. Tyagi, Prem Chand Gupta, Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Singh Yadav addressing the media after the Non-Congress Non-BJP meeting at Mulayam Singh Yadav's residence, in New Delhi on November 06, 2014. 
Photo: V. Sudershan

NEW DELHI, 06/11/2014: JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar with (from left) K. C. Tyagi, Prem Chand Gupta, Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Singh Yadav addressing the media after the Non-Congress Non-BJP meeting at Mulayam Singh Yadav's residence, in New Delhi on November 06, 2014. Photo: V. Sudershan

In many ways, the 1984 national election was a watershed in Indian electoral history. Campaigning, for the first time, was handled professionally by an advertising agency, Rediffusion, headed by Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend Arun Nanda. For the first time, intense studies were conducted on the social and cultural complexities of the electorate to create the best possible messaging. A multimedia campaign around the theme of ‘national unity’ was the result. A whole host of wearable advertising material — cufflinks, stickers, badges and labels — carried the national unity message along with the Congress emblem. 1984 was the start of what we can call Neo-politics 1.0, and contributed to the scale of Rajiv’s victory in 1984-85.

In five years, Rajiv Gandhi managed to squander his mandate of hope. It marked the end of Neo-politics 1.0 and created a two-decade long cycle of unsustainable coalitions and unstable governments built on identity politics.

A new politics With the new millennium, Neo-politics 2.0 was born, marked by a >clear mandate for stability and governance rather than vote banks. Since 2000, almost 93 per cent of all elections have produced clear mandates for one party or for a coalition, with the notable exceptions being Bihar, Jharkhand and the national elections of 2004.

Since 2014, Neo-politics 2.0 has assumed greater significance. Take, for instance, the recent Delhi elections. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had a core vote base of around 30 per cent in the city-state of Delhi, but in February, the entire anti-BJP, anti-Congress and the non-aligned vote aggregated aggressively into the AAP ballot box, because >AAP became the sole viable face of Neo-politics 2.0. In Delhi, AAP was able to almost double its vote share to 55 per cent because of this aggregation.

The BJP had achieved something even more spectacular nationally earlier that year, when the saffron party managed to take a 66 per cent quantum leap in vote share across India from its 2009 base of 18.8 per cent. BJP’s biggest gains were in northern and western India, and were probably the most dramatic in the Hindi heartland. In fact, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two original Mandal States with deep-rooted caste loyalties, showed a remarkable degree of affinity to Neo-politics 2.0.

If the 2014 elections taught an important lesson, it was this: post-caste vote aggregation was not just an urban Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore phenomenon but had found traction even in the hinterland of north India. The Hindi heartland’s caste politics giving way to Neo-politics 2.0 meant that the BJP won a remarkable 110 seats — almost 40 per cent of its total tally of 282 — in the greater Bihar (including Jharkhand) and greater Uttar Pradesh (including Uttarakhand) regions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the biggest beneficiary of this boundless vote in 2014, when his support base was described as the “united spectrum of Hindu votes”, but, as we are discovering now, the “boundless vote” is a far deeper demographic transformation of India. We have, therefore, to look at the upcoming Bihar elections through the prism of Neo-politics 2.0 in order to obtain a better perspective of the demographic patterns.

Similar but different At the outset, Bihar may look like a repeat of Delhi, with a similar battle between Mr. Modi and a popular local leader supported by both the intellectual class and the media. It may even boil down to a contest between pragmatic economics and the freebie culture. Yet, such a rendering of the Bihar canvas would be too monochromatic because it does not account for the new hues of post-caste electoral realities.

In the summer of 2014, it appeared that Mr. Modi would be the clear choice for the Bihari neo-political vote, but a year later it looks less apparent. Now, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is also a strong claimant.

Mr. Kumar appears to have learnt his lessons after last summer’s debacle and is slowly trying to make the transition towards the same governance-centric campaign that won him the mandate in 2005 and 2010. He has hired the new-age tech-campaigner CAG (Citizens for Accountable Governance), which helped build Brand Modi in 2014. Mr. Kumar hopes to be the quintessential Bihari brand that can attract young, new voters across caste lines. Election Commission data shows that there are 78 lakh new voters below the age of 20, who will play a crucial role in Bihar.

Yet, Mr. Kumar’s path has too many obstacles. An elementary mistake that many political commentators have been making repeatedly on television channels and newspapers since the announcement of an RJD-JDU-Congress alliance is adding up the 2014 votes of the three entities and arriving at a bombastic combined vote share of 46 per cent. Such quick mathematics glosses over the fact that JDU’s 16 per cent vote in 2014 was spread across 230 Assembly segments, whereas the party may not contest more than 100 seats in the State election. Similarly, RJD’s 20.5 per cent vote share was across 164 Assembly segments in 2014, while it may contest only half that number now. In essence, their combined vote share, based on 2014 numbers, may yield only around a 28 per cent (JDU+RJD) vote share, assuming that 50 per cent of their respective votes are transferable to each other.

The one positive consequence of the RJD-JDU-Congress alliance is that it ensures an almost 100 per cent confluence of the roughly one crore Muslim votes, which would otherwise have been splintered. But this is not enough for victory. Mr. Kumar needs to emerge as the single most important choice in Bihar’s neo-politics, like Mr. Kejriwal did in Delhi.

Obstacles ahead Mr. Kumar faces four hurdles. First, unlike Mr. Kejriwal who recovered from his 49-day fiasco, Mr. Kumar faces a far longer ten-year anti-incumbency factor. Disillusionment has grown sharper in the last two years of governance drift, after his break-up with the NDA and his Manjhi experiment.

Second, Bihar in 2010 was the fastest growing State in India with a 14.15 per cent GSDP (gross state domestic product). Bihar’s growth is now slower at about 9 per cent. Studies show a demonstrable correlation between high growth and the re-election of incumbent governments (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are some examples), and a slower growth rate might hamper Mr. Kumar’s prospects. Third, Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress may unite the Muslim vote but they also come with a lot of electoral stigma. Finally, the JDU’s lack of political infrastructure at the polling booth level (it depended largely on BJP-RSS workers in past elections) makes it difficult for Mr. Kumar to emerge as a winnable alternative in more than 70-80 seats.

Thus, there is a real likelihood that the Nitish-Lalu-Congress “secular alliance” could potentially combine with the anti-incumbency factor and swing towards the BJP.

Meanwhile, the BJP’s road to Patna is riddled with diversions from its own right flank. For the average BJP voter, the party’s core ideals are built on three platforms — an unapologetic pan-caste Hindu outreach, liberalised free market economics, and good governance minus corruption. In the last year or so, however, BJP has been widely seen as faltering on at least two of these counts. For instance, in Bihar, the BJP’s local unit has been blatantly organising caste melas and public rallies that go against the very ethos that Modi stood for in 2014, that of forming a pan-caste Hindu bedrock. Similarly, on the economic front, there has not been any revolutionary change in the last one year. Worse, the Lalit Modi controversy has taken away some more of the sheen from BJP.

It will be interesting to see how campaigning unfolds in Bihar over the next few weeks. But regardless of the result, one reality cannot be missed — Bihar, like many parts of India, is also home to Neo-politics 2.0.

(Dr. Praveen Patil is a psephologist and an experimental demographic pattern analyst.)

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