Over the next week or so, you are sure to be bombarded with a barrage of op-eds and articles trying to explain the Bihar election. Most of these will be excercises in projecting the author’s own biases on the Bihar electorate.
You will no doubt be told that Bihar voted against ‘regressive politics’ – by voting along caste lines. Or that Modi was punished for not acting against the corrupt – which is why a party of led by a convicted criminal is the single largest party. Or that the BJP should have fought on the so-called ‘development plank’ (they did in the first two phases, and sank without a trace. The seats BJP won are mostly from the later phases, where polarization had set in).
Or that BJP should not have made beef an issue (they did not; beef became an issue due to a murder committed by people who had no relation to the BJP in a state not ruled by the BJP).
You will probably also be told that villagers in Bihar were influenced by ‘intellectuals’ from Lutyen’s Delhi returning their awards.
The Modi government can either pay attention to such banal sophistry by its enemies and dig itself into a deeper hole, or try to understand what is happening and course-correct.
The first and foremost thing to understand about Indian elections is – they are all about the mobilization of social coalitions. The Mahagathbandhan’s victory was a victory of sheer arithmetic. The BJP had a broad social coalition ranged against it. Against that, what did it offer? Modi. And that was it’s first and most cardinal mistake- a repeat of the same mistake it made in Delhi. the Prime Minister cannot and will not win you state elections.
BJP’s sweep of the Hindi heartland in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was powered by the assembling of a rainbow coalition of Hindus- the United Spectrum of Hindu Votes. This coalition united for the explicit purpose of making Narendra Modi the Prime Minister Of India.
A logical corollary of this is that the United Spectrum Of Hindu Vote cannot be encashed for state elections – unless there is an equally powerful cause to rally for. Against Kejriwal, and then Lalu and Nitish, BJP offered Modi. But what is this supposed to mean? What does it entail in reality? These men were fighting the election to rule their respective states.
Modi, however, would not be CM of Bihar or Delhi even if BJP won these states. Yet BJP’s entire campaign in these states focused on pitting Modi against these local opponents, rather than on what BJP had to offer these states if elected.
Yes, the BJP did fight and win three elections like this- Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. They went into these elections without a CM face, and won them on the back of the Prime Minister’s popularity. However, these elections were fought in the immediate aftermath of the Lok Sabha polls, and the BJP benefited from the spillover effects of that. More importantly, the Congress-ruled state governments in these states were facing anti-incumbency.
Back-to-back defeats in Delhi and Bihar have shown that this will not work anymore. In Delhi, AAP offered the voters ‘Paanch Saal Kejriwal’. In Bihar, the Mahagathbandhan offered the voters Nitish Kumar’s track record, as well as the promise of tangible largesse and preferential treatment to various electorally important caste groups, such as Yadavs, etc. In addition to this, the AAP and the Mahagathbandhan both had the near-total consolidation of the minority vote behind them, for reasons which not need to be explained.
Against this, the BJP offered Modi. But Modi was not going to be CM of Bihar or Delhi even if the BJP won, and in the case of Bihar, voters did not even know who the CM would be. AAP and the Mahagathbandhan on the other hand, based their campaigns entirely on local issues.
Voting for preferential treatment to one’s caste is an entirely rational decision. It is better to acknowledge this as an electoral factor and adapt to it rather than cursing voters for acting in their perceived self-interest. What did BJP have to offer to voters to counter that? And do not answer ‘development’. That is a vague, undefined word that means all things to all people, and Nitish promised ‘development’ too. Nor is telling people to vote for Modi enough.
What happened in Bihar offers lessons for UP as well. If you want to assemble the United Spectrum of Hindu vote again, you have to offer that social coalition something to rally around – and an acceptable face to rally behind. The recent panchayat poll results make the writing on the wall in UP clear: the SP government is on it’s way out. And unless the BJP grooms and promotes a local leader in UP, strengthens it’s organization on the ground and pulls up its socks, Mayawati will ride anti-incumbency to the CM’s chair in Lucknow again, BJP’s 71/80 in the Lok Sabha election notwithstanding. If the BJP tries to fight UP on the basis of Modi’s charisma, it will receive another thrashing. Because it is the UP BJP unit who will govern UP if the BJP wins, and not Modi. And thus it is the UP BJP unit which voters will vote for or against in 2017- a ramshackle entity without a leader or a proper organization. If the BJP does not anoint a leader in UP and begin making preparations now, a repeat of Delhi and Bihar beckons.
This is intended to be Part 1 of a 3-part series on the direction the BJP should take, time willing. I intend Part 2 to be on economic policy and Part 3 to be on cultural issues.