Mainstream, VOL LIII No 45 New Delhi October 31, 2015
RSS forces a Tactical Shift in the BJP’s Style of Election Campaigning in Bihar
Wednesday 4 November 2015
by Arun Srivastava
In a sudden tactical shift the BJP, instead of attacking Nitish and his claim of developing Bihar, has been seeking a clarification from him whether he would be able to keep his promises of reaching development to the door-step of the poor people, rural and urban alike, with RJD chief Laloo Yadav there on board to prioritise the mode of development and decide the agenda.
The change of tactics owes its origin primarily to the ambivalence haunting the people on the issue of voting for Nitish and the grand alliance. Even the opinion polls that are predicting a clear win for the NDA, point to the bare fact that he (Nitish) is the most popular Chief Minister and the people are reposing immense faith in him. This perception is enough to influence the free and floating votes which in fact decide the nature of the victory. For the BJP this scenario certainly does not augur well.
The party was forced to make a tactical shift after the polling in the earlier two phases. The turnout of the women voters indeed has panicked the BJP leadership. Though for public consumption they have been reiterating their conviction that the party would get a two-thirds majority, the reality is quite different. The party strategists have realised that their attack on Nitish has simply refurbished his image of “sushasanbabu” (provider of good governance). What added to his image is the impression that a person, who is not performing his job as the Prime Minister, was simply devoting his energy and time to ensure the defeat of Nitish. Moreover, Narendra Modi descending in the wrestling arena pushing aside the State leaders was not well received by the voters. What really backfired was Modi’s nasty jibes and barbs against Nitish and Laloo.
BJP President Amit Shah deploying all the Union Ministers in Bihar for electioneering has not been taken well by the people. In fact this has raised the political stature of Nitish beyond imagination in the eyes of the people. They say: “The way Modi and Amit have been marshalling their ammunitions against Nitish simply rein-forces the view that he is indeed a leader who can challenge Modi. Else, there is no reason that so many leaders and so much of money would have to be spent in Bihar.” They maintain: “There is something to reckon with in Nitish.” Undeniably Modi and Shah’s move to show Nitish in a bad frame has presented him in magnum-size. Probably Nitish would not have attained a bigger size if Modi had exercised restrain. Before the formal announcement of the elections the mood in the urban areas was against Nitish because of the misdemeanour of Laloo’s regime. It was the rule of terror and the nightmare of oppression by goons close to Laloo and his brother-in-laws that had forced a large number of people, especially from the upper castes, to migrate to Jharkhand which was created in 2000.
The urban middle class always suffers from some kind of syndrome. This class is yet to overcome the RJD-phobia. Obviously their abomination to the resurgence of the Laloo rule can be understood. But at the same time their appreciation for Nitish’s governance is to be viewed in the proper perspective. The people of Bihar, particularly from the urban areas, are in a state of worst confusion. They hold that Nitish would have trounced Modi if he had faced the latter on his own. But they are mistaken. Realpolitik is not guided by emotions and sentiments. In fact the BJP has been trying to exploit this ambivalence of the people. The BJP has redrawn its tactics after the first two phases of poll for 81 seats. It has now focused on raising “micro-issues” in its advertisements in news-papers and billboards targeting Nitish instead of Laloo Yadav. Ironically this came after the late realisation that attacking Laloo was proving to be counter-productive. It was adding to his strength instead of weakening. None can deny that the BJP and Modi resurrected Laloo and brought him back to the centre-stage. If the BJP would not have played the caste card and tried to win over the EBCs and Dalits during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, then Nitish might not have preferred to float the grand alliance. It was finally formed only after the Muzaffarpur Assembly rally of Modi where he heaped casteist jibes and barbs on Laloo and Nitish. Modi had called Nitish’s DNA poor, he lambasted Laloo as champion of jungle raj. Even during the Assembly elections BJP banked on caste-social engineering rather than depending on Modi’s performance and achievements. In fact The BJP and Modi tried their best to split the grand alliance and strain the relations between Nitish and Laloo. But their strategy did not work. The severe the attack, they came closer to each other.
The BJP leadership would not agree but the fact remains that the ebullient Modi’s think-tank did not realise the volatility of caste politics. True enough, their dependence on the macho image of Modi simply backfired. Instead of helping Modi’s mission, it simply resurrected the Mandal spirit. The experts hold that the BJP’s effort to win over the Yadavs failed, “rather consolidated the Yadav vote-bank in favour of Laloo in the first two phases”. The more the BJP attacked the alliance, the more resolute the Nitish-Laloo compact became. The more Nitish, and Laloo in particular, have been attacked, the more their supporters and caste-base rallied round them. It cannot be denied that Modi and the BJP helped consolidate the Yadavs behind Laloo far greater than during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP’s think-tank and saffron ideologues could not comprehend the ground realities. They ought to have realised that simply putting jibes and barbs in Modi’s mouth for Laloo and Nitish was not going to yield results. The matrix of this election is very different. It was not the UPA challenging Modi; instead he was challenging Nitish, a strong incumbent. It is a paradox that the performance credentials of the Prime Minister have been facing the incumbency test.
If the BJP wins the election, Modi supporters will claim this to be the proof of the people’s approval of Modi’s performance as the Prime Minister. But in case the BJP loses it will be construed as the dipping popularity of Modi. If Nitish loses, the BJP’s supporters will say he was a good administrator but lost as he challenged Modi and Bihari voters rejected his opportunism of joining hands with his bête noire, Laloo Yadav. But in case Nitish wins, the people will say that he has won because he’s been a good administrator. It will be cited as proof of the people voting for good governance.
After its change in tactics the BJP leadership is quite ebullient of winning a two-thirds majority. This speculation is based on the surveys carried out by TV channels. But how far these surveys are correct even the BJP leadership is not sure. The reason is that while they give two-thirds majority, they claim that a majority of the voters would like Nitish in the chair of the Chief Minister. Does not the survey sound contradictory?
Even during 2014, though the BJP won 32 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, a survey by the CSDS had found at the time that 64 per cent respondents were satisfied with Nitish’s performance as the Chief Minister. It is important to note that this view was being expressed after Nitish had broken his alliance with the BJP, and while voters were voting for the BJP. Nevertheless there are wide and major differences between the two elections. People voted the BJP for the Lok Sabha and this time they would be electing Nitish for the Assembly. Except for the upper-caste voters, people in Bihar have good things to say about Nitish Kumar; but there are some good reasons why this may not convert into votes. First, they may not like the Laloo alliance besides the BJP is doing a good job with caste arithmetic. Nevertheless, should Nitish lose, it will not change the truth that there is no huge anti-Nitish sentiment amongst the voters in Bihar. There will be those who will say that the electorate punished Nitish Kumar for allying with Laloo.
People will wonder if Nitish would have done better on his own. However, it is more likely that whatever seats the grand alliance gets, Nitish might have got even less without Laloo. Nitish has a very small caste base of his own, and besides, the non-BJP votes would have been divided between Laloo and Nitish. Muslim voters too would have been divided.
“Development” is a word that one encounters frequently in poll-bound Bihar. Development has varying connotations. It differs according to the needs of the class and caste. People of different castes use it to explain their political preferences. However, this shouldn’t make one feel that this election is all about pani, bijali and sadak. Different castes cite “development” to explain divergent political choices. And they link it not just to physical infrastructure but mainly to caste-based social welfare.
The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org