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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 48 New Delhi, November 21, 2015

Why Narendra Modi Lost the Historic Battle of Bihar

Saturday 21 November 2015

by Arun Srivastava

The BJP-led NDA, which was riding high on the Narendra Modi wave, eventually lost to the mahagathbandhan in the Bihar elections. After being severely mauled in the Delhi elections with the BJP winning just three seats in the 70-member Assembly, the loss in Bihar has completely eroded the political credibility of Modi. Till a week back Modi was visualised as invincible. But now he is not even treated as one among equals.

For creation of this situation no one but Modi and his mentor, Mohan Bhagwat, are to be blamed. If Modi believed that his macho image, intolerant behaviour, abrasive and nonsensical speeches and his jibes at his opponents would enamour the electorate and motivate them to vote for him, Bhagwat desperately tried to communalise the elections. Both miserably failed to make out the mood and psyche of the people. The focus of the campaign, that started on development, took a nasty turn with Modi and Amit Shah shifting to issues of beef, occultism, and reservation. The BJP indulged in negative campaigning and name-calling. Shah even went to the extent of saying that firecrackers will be burst in Pakistan if the BJP loses in Bihar.

The Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance has decisively defeated the BJP. It is not that the defeat of the BJP has come as a surprise. Yes, what has been surprising is the wiping out of the Prime Minister’s party. While the Grand Alliance could secure 180 seats, the NDA has to be content with 60. From the beginning of the election process the BJP leaders had been giving the impression that the party was set to rule Bihar. To accomplish the mission Modi addressed not less than 32 public meetings in the true spirit of a block-level leader. Modi even addressed mahalla and block-level meetings to ensure the victory of his party. He intended to reach out to the electorate to ensure that Nitish Kumar is politically finished forever. His hatred for Nitish was quite pronounced. The people of Bihar in fact were quite astonished at his approach and behaviour. They would often seek to know why he nursed so much of hatred against Nitish.

Amit Shah, who claims to be the modern-day Chanakya, used all available modes to reach out to the people and convince them to vote for the BJP. But, in spite of all these efforts the BJP could not check the juggernaut of Nitish and Laloo. The most decisive factor for the Grand Alliance was Nitish Kumar’s popularity among the Bihar voters. Nevertheless, describing the Bihar Assembly results as a vote against the divisive politics of communal hate and religious intolerance practised by the BJP would indeed be a too simplistic evaluation of the mandate. The mandate was also not a vote simply for social welfare and economic development. If only these two factors had impacted the final outcome of the elections, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine, the mahagathbandhan, might not have got 180 out of 243 seats. It would be also wrong to believe that the people of Bihar were so naïve as not to understand the implications of the elections and decipher it.

A closer look at the nature of intensity of the verdict makes it explicitly clear that it was a mandate against the class hegemony of the upper caste and landed gentry of the State which primarily constituted the support-base of Narendra Modi and his party. For the outside world it would have been tough to identify this class and its character, but the people of Bihar, the backwards, EBCs and Dalits and Mahadalits knew them. Earlier they were the backbone of the Congress; now they have shifted their allegiance to the BJP.

An insight into the votes obtained by the BJP and Grand Alliance explicitly reflects the class divide. The Mahadalits and EBCs, who had turned suspect in the eyes of the political parties after the removal of Jitan Ram Manjhi from the office of the Chief Minister, had thrown their weight behind the Grand Alliance. Only in the urban and quasi-urban areas the BJP, and specially Modi, could make their presence felt.

Let us look at one specific development; the CPI (ML)-Liberation winning three seats and that too in the “polarised” Bihar elections. Amid the face-off between the BJP-led NDA and the JD (U)-RJD-Congress’ ‘grand alliance’, the CPI (ML) succeeded in snatching these seats. Before the elections the CPI, CPI (ML), CPI-M, Forward Bloc, RSP, SUCI had formed the Left Front. The CPI (ML) candidate from Dharauli in West Bihar won by 13,000 votes, while in Balrampur the CPI (ML) has won by a margin of 22,000. Sudama Prasad wrested the Tarari seat from the wife of the JD (U) don, Sunil Pandey.

These victories point to the upsurge and assertion of the rights of the rural poor and proletariat. The party lost 22 seats by narrow margins. Obviously it implied that the poor people preferred the Liberation to the JD(U) or RJD. It was nearly after fifteen years that the CPI(ML) won. Down the line it also reflects the emergence of the new political trend and line in Bihar. These victories are also significant that these have come in the intense fight between the Mandal and Kamandal forces. The people of Bihar preferred to be identified with the political forces and leaders which represented their aspirations. Basically this was the reason that Bihar attracted the ominous identity of being the most caste-ridden State.

While discussing the political scene and its implications in Bihar, one ought not to forget that the BJP was never a force in Bihar. Once the upper castes switched over their allegiance to the BJP in the wake of the Mandal Commission agitation in 1990, the saffron outfit could make some foothold in the State. It is not that the RSS was not active in the State before and was not having its regular shakhas. But it never caught the imagination of the general people.

In 2014 Narendra Modi had waged a war against the Congress. He had promised to weed out corruption and provide a new India. Naturally the people of Bihar supported and voted for him. The antagonistic class relations between the upper-caste people and backwards did not come in the way of Modi. But in this election the façade of being pro-people was badly exposed. The poor came to realise that Modi was leading the forces inimical to their interest.

In the 2015 Assembly elections Modi descended on the scene holding the brief of the landed gentry and upper-class people. He was seen abusing and insulting the leaders who were perceived as the messiah of the backwards and Dalits. What hurt the BJP the most was projecting Laloo Yadav as the symbol.of bad governance, jungle raj. Yes, indeed Laloo’s rule has been a nightmare for the urban middle class people of Bihar, but it is also a fact that he had unleashed the forces of social change and empowered the backward castes. Incidentally, it is primarily the upper castes of Bihar who nicknamed him as the perpetrator of the jungle raj. 

Targeting Laloo simply backfired. While it raised his stature which was on consistent decline in recent times, it in fact brought him to the centre-stage of politics. Modi and his lieutenant, Amit Shah, not only rehabilitated him but also boosted his political credentials and credibility nationally.

If the Bihar elections virtually turned out to be a fight between the rural people and upper castes, ironically the youth of urban Bihar, probably leaving aside Patna, did not respond to Modi’s call. Most of the seats which the BJP won were from the urban areas. The entire rural Bihar has rallied behind Nitish. Even the loud-mouth claim of some Union Ministers and Jitan Ram Manjhi that Mahadalits would vote for the BJP proved to be a false claim. If the Dalits and Mahadalits had not voted for the mahagathbandhan, then in that case it might not have got 180 seats.

Though in the post-election scenario the motives and intentions of the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, in saying that there is an imperative need to review the reservations to the backwards, is being suspected as a strategic move to cut Modi to size as he had started projecting himself as bigger than the Sangh, this statement of Bhagwat, nevertheless, is being viewed by the backward castes and Dalits as a machination of the feudal lords and landed gentry to obstruct their path for economic and social empowerment.

They forcefully argue that if Modi had been really concerned of their empowerment and the inclusive growth of the poor and proletariat, he should have strongly objected to this stand of Bhagwat. But he preferred to remain silent as this suited the core support group of the BJP. It was only after Laloo and Nitish condemned this utterance that Modi reiterated his commitment to reservation.

The turning-point in the politics of Bihar was the holding of the swabhiman yatra. It made it explicit that the rural poor, Dalits and backwards had come to realise the manoeuvrings and machinations of the BJP and particularly Modi. At the rally they openly expressed themselves in favour of unity of the rural poor irrespective of their caste and it was only after this rally that serious moves were made to bring Laloo into the grand alliance conceived by Nitish.

What was most unfortunate was that the so-called Chanakya of the BJP, Amit Shah, could not grasp the mood and determination of the poor people. Modi as usual depended on his arrogance. His using abusive languages and jibes simply aggravated and worsened the political chemistry for the BJP. An insight into the BJP’s defeat in Bihar in 2015 would underline that Modi in fact had laid the foundation of the BJP’s defeat in 2014 itself. The way he identified with the feudal elements and resorted to trampling the voice of dissent, Nitish had realised its damaging implications. He pieced together the Grand Alliance with his long-time political foes.

The verdict of 2015 also makes it explicit that Laloo continues to be the shrewdest political leader in the country. He had come to under-stand that keeping away from Nitish would be suicidal. He must join him against Modi. Without giving credence to his political ego or false prestige, Laloo pardoned Nitish for the ill-treatment meted out to him by Nitish and went to great lengths to accommodate him politically. Laloo had made it clear that Nitish would be the Chief Minister irrespective of the number of seats the RJD won. The efforts the two leaders put in to make the alliance work seem to have paid off in the end.

The Hindutva agenda never had takers in Bihar. Strange enough, even the upper-caste elements, who constitute the core support-base of the saffron party, were not too serious about it. In a State where the agrarian question is the prime issue, such Hindutva agenda or bogey has little effect. In the months since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party pushed the Hindutva agenda very hard even while paying lip-service to growth and development but could not make much breakthrough. True enough, it was perceived by the rural poor that the Hindutva agenda was designed to divert public attention from livelihood concerns. Instead of catching the tail of the cow, the people of Bihar would have expected Modi to come up with some ideas on bettering the achievements of Nitish.

Modi’s failure to come out with a definite road-map of development and growth simply alienated the people. An impression gained ground: look, here is a person who is foul-mouth and lacks the basic perception of inclusive development. Modi’s failure in controlling inflation and his non-fulfilment of promises were the greatest disadvantage to the BJP. The rising prices of pulses, of vegetables, and of edible oils, lack of movement on black money further eroded the BJP’s prospect. Modi’s speeches were disliked and invited contempt, especially from the women. They nursed the feeling that he was hurting the sensibilities of the subaltern people.

The impression created by a section of the media that Modi has a charisma and Amit Shah was the most intelligent strategist was badly exposed. It is now being said that Maharashtra was offered to Modi on platter by the NCP leader, Sharad Pawar, and in Jharkhand it was the unrealistic aspiration of the local Congress-men that helped Modi win the election. If the Congress had accepted the offer of the JMM on seat-sharing, Modi could not have ensured the victory of the BJP.

Then, there has always been a trust deficit between the Muslims and BJP. This election result falsified the BJP claim that Muslims have voluntarily accepted their party. V.K. Singh simply vitiated the scenario by equating the Dalits with dogs. His comments sent a message that all the BJP leaders and Ministers were loose cannons and none has control over them. The matter was made worse by the nonsensical utterances of the Union Minister Giriraj Singh. The proverbial last straw was the comment of Shah that the defeat of Modi would witness diwali in Pakistan. This was an affront to the Bihari sentiment and pride.

Undeniably, Nitish’s “glittering face” and Laloo Yadav’s “strong base” helped the Grand Alliance to get a convincing victory. When it comes to preserving the class interest, the politics of development and growth is bound to get less priority. This election has been witness to this phenomenon. The BJP miserably failed to triumph over an alliance of OBCs and also failed to get the lion’s share of Dalit votes despite its alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi.

But it was not just the electoral arithmetic that worked against the BJP. In the months since the Lok Sabha elections, the party pushed the Hindutva agenda very hard even while paying lip-service to growth and development. The Hindutva agenda seemed as if it was designed to divert public attention from livelihood concerns.

The setback in Bihar should lead to some serious introspection by the BJP’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Modi and his Cabinet colleagues. The party always seems to be under the compulsion to cater to its core constituency of hard-line Hindutva elements, although it cannot possibly expand its base without presenting itself as the agent of economic growth and social progress. There is no way the BJP can ride both horses at the same time. Indeed, the Hindutva agenda is in direct conflict with the economic agenda. Sooner or later, the core will have to yield to the pressures from the crust. Else, not only will the Grand Alliance’s success be replicated by other players in other States —but, more crucially, India will suffer severe damage to its social and democratic fabric.

The more the Prime Minister attacked the two leaders, the more the subaltern commu-nities consolidated around them with a vengeance. The social consolidation of the subaltern classes defeated all attempts of communal division. Not only did the majority resist communal polarisation, the Muslim minority too frustrated Asaduddin Owaisi’s attempt. His All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen could not win even Kochadaman in Kishanganj where 74 per cent of the electorate are Muslims. The bizarre statement by the BJP over beef did not go down well with the voters. After a 50-year-old Muslim man was killed over alleged rumours of consuming beef in Dadri, it became a poll issue. Just a day before the fifth phase of polls, the BJP even came out with an advertisement on the statements made on beef and cow.

With Modi aggressively campaigning in the State, the elections seemed to witness a contest between a Chief Minister and a Prime Minister and the BJP paid a heavy price for it. The outcome of the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections has scripted a new grammar of politics in India. Incidentally, no State election had seen such a sustained effort by the party ruling the Centre to usurp the provincial electoral space.

What has been most surprising is the refusal of the BJP leadership to accept the ground reality. They still continue to hold that Modi and the BJP committed no mistake. They are so scared of the dominating approach of Modi that they are not willing to call a spade a spade. The BJP leaders, who in the initial stage had described the elections as a referendum on the performance of Modi, are now trying to hide behind the façade of “wrong assessment”. Downplaying their debacle in Bihar, the BJP leaders described Modi as the tallest leader in the country. Home Minister Rajnath Singh tried to convey this in the following words:

“The Prime Minister can’t be blamed for the defeat in Bihar. There cannot be arrogance in our party. We can’t think of becoming arrogant. The Prime Minister was trying his best to communicate with the people and there is nothing wrong in it.” Nevertheless, the party admitted that it lost because the size of the “social arithmetic” cobbled by the Grand Alliance was bigger than that of the NDA.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com