Forcing a shift in strategy

Bihar is a symbolic setback for the BJP as it failed to triumph over an alliance of OBC chieftains and emerge as an umbrella party of castes.

November 09, 2015 01:56 am | Updated April 02, 2016 04:07 pm IST

“The result may have delivered a setback to hard Hindutva as an instrument for electoral success.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah during an election committee meeting earlier in the year.

“The result may have delivered a setback to hard Hindutva as an instrument for electoral success.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah during an election committee meeting earlier in the year.

Symbolically, the Assembly elections in Bihar were the biggest after > Lok Sabha 2014 . If the 2014 vote gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unprecedented prominence as a national party, trumping caste politics in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, a year-and-a- half on, Bihar 2015 was seen to be a test of the durability of >Brand Modi , his capacity to embody the BJP’s agenda in State after State. That question seems to have been settled, to the BJP’s clear discomfort.

In more practical terms, the Bihar verdict will force the government to recalibrate its hopes of making up numbers in the Rajya Sabha to more confidently push through key legislation like the Goods and Services Tax Bill. The fate of the Modi government’s “development” pitch — which had caught the imagination of a growing urban middle class that saw faster economic reforms and investment as central to progress — hinges on the passage of reforms.

Vikas Pathak

The BJP has already gone back on its changes to the land acquisition legislation, which was supposed to amend the UPA’s “pro-farmer” initiative of 2013 by freeing some categories from the consent clause and social impact assessment. The Bihar verdict is likely to make it difficult to revisit this.

With the Grand Alliance racing to a tally of about 180 out of 243 seats and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s tally being just about 60, Bihar will certainly not add much to the BJP’s Rajya Sabha kitty. And the government risks battling charges of “policy paralysis”, the way the UPA did through its second term, in the absence of a Rajya Sabha majority.

But more than mere numbers, the manner of the Alliance’s victory, and the personalised clash it set up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will give the Opposition an aggressive spring in their step. Having tasted blood, the Opposition is likely to be more assertive in Parliament’s winter session. The last few months have seen many controversies on the cultural front — with intellectuals and artists returning awards, citing “growing intolerance” — and these are likely to resonate in Parliament later this month.

Image dented The Bihar polls seem to have unsettled many narratives that had informed Indian politics in the last one year and opened the country to multiple possibilities and uncertainties. Mr. Modi seemed invincible until just the other day — but for the one setback in Delhi, where the BJP was wiped out — but >Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad’s convincing victory has cut into that discourse of invincibility.

“Bihar is not Delhi. It is a large, populous state that is politically crucial. If Nitish Kumar wins, his national stature will rise overnight,” a BJP leader had told me more than a week ago.

The sense in the BJP’s ranks is that another term for Mr. Kumar catapults him to a symbolic stature he had never enjoyed before, and that he may become the fulcrum for anti-BJP forces nationally. For, he had positioned himself against Mr. Modi two years back and lost badly in the Lok Sabha polls, but has emphatically regained regional prominence now by convincingly defeating the BJP.

However, there is a caveat here. Some feel that despite the Grand Alliance’s strong showing, the fact that the result has given a new lease of life to Mr. Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) may lead to a clash of personalities in Bihar in the long run. Mr. Kumar will also have to rein in unruly elements in the RJD, who may be emboldened, having gained power after a decade.

How far the duo of Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad can dent the BJP’s base depends on how the two get along and whether Mr. Kumar can deliver a sound administration in alliance with a resuscitated RJD. Moreover, regional leaders have conflicting ambitions, and a potential victory for Mamata Bannerjee in Bengal in 2016 may fuel her own national ambitions.

For the Congress — India’s grand old party — the feelings are mixed. “Do people still talk about the Congress on the streets?” a Congress leader asked me last month in Patna. People indeed did not, but the question itself showed the kind of dilemma the party is grappling with. It swept north India decades back but does not have any presence independent of its allies now.

Thus, while the BJP’s drubbing comes as a breather for the Congress, as it has helped halt the saffron party in its tracks for the moment, the fact that regional parties have been in the vanguard of this “secular” victory isn’t great news for the Congress. For, it would not want regional players to hog the limelight and be seen to be playing second fiddle.

Hindutva agenda The result may also have delivered a setback to hard Hindutva as an instrument for electoral success. The Bihar polls saw acerbic debates on beef, with the BJP also courting controversy by running an advertisement in local newspapers of a woman embracing a cow and posing questions to Mr. Kumar about >statements of his allies on beef-eating . BJP President Amit Shah also controversially said that fire-crackers would go off in Pakistan if the BJP lost the election. Add to this >some unsavoury statements on film-star Shah Rukh Khan from BJP leaders over his remarks about “growing intolerance” in India, and many saw Hindutva as a key part of the saffron party’s poll strategy.

With the plan not working, the BJP has earned its share of brickbats for its apparent bid to polarise the electorate. The party may now be forced to rethink using this strategy in Uttar Pradesh (UP), which goes to the polls by early 2017 and has had a history of communal problems. Moreover, the fact that some organisations in the larger Sangh Parivar see Hindutva as part of their long-term vision may make the government’s choices more difficult.

Caste politics seemed to have receded in UP and Bihar in 2014, with the BJP sweeping the States and reducing Mandal politics and Mayawati’s Dalit mobilisation to footnotes there. With Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar joining hands to trounce the BJP, Mandal politics has got a fresh lease of life. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) also contributed to this, with its chief Mohan Bhagwat more than once calling for a >committee to review who should get the benefit of quotas and for how long. The success of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in panchayat polls in UP last week too is a warning for the BJP.

Though many among the Extremely Backward Classes — a category created by Mr. Kumar to carve out a fresh vote bank in Bihar — seemed to be looking at their individual caste interests rather than behaving like a cohesive bloc this time, the Grand Alliance’s success has consolidated the salience of Mandal politics.

This, then, is another symbolic setback for the BJP: it has failed to triumph over an alliance of OBC chieftains and also failed to get the lion’s share of Dalit votes despite its alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi. In other words, it has failed to emerge as an umbrella party of castes down the Hindu social pyramid.

Despite the setback to Mr. Modi, there is no doubt that he is still popular on the ground in Bihar. But the BJP had no chief ministerial face to take on Mr. Kumar, who was hailed as a good Chief Minister across the State for improving Bihar’s roads and its law and order situation. This seems to have proved to be the crucial difference between the two parties.

Many BJP leaders feel that despite Mr. Modi being popular, he was “over-exposed” in Bihar. The strategy, they feel, backfired, harming Mr. Modi’s own image in the process.

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