Nitish Kumar has decisively won the Bihar battle, defying the national trend.
Nitish Kumar has decisively won the Bihar battle, defying the national trend. Why he succeeded against the might of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs deeper technical analysis of the voting trends. But three lessons emerge.
First, Bihar, like Uttar Pradesh, is a cosmopolitan constituency. This sounds odd since these are poor “cow belt” states. The people of Bihar have traditionally been outward bound via migration. But unlike Punjabis, who are ready to mingle and put down roots in their new karam bhoomi (place of work), they remain rooted in their origins. Those who migrated from Bihar to Fiji and Mauritius in the later part of the 19th century retain close contacts with folks back home. Technology has made this easier.
Intensely aware, the people of Bihar were unlikely to be carried away by bombast from external BJP campaigners with nary a local leader in command. Bihar cannot be ruled from Gujarat, just as Gujarat cannot be ruled from Delhi. Note that Delhi-based BJP leaders, in sharp contrast to the average Bihari, behave like the absentee zamindars of yore. They are unashamed to publicly admit that the “Delhi durbar” is a one-way ticket. Once they get a foot in there, the presumption is they have risen “above” state-level politics. But neither Bihar nor Uttar Pradesh can be won by expatriate leaders.
Second, unequivocally, inclusive development wins votes. Whilst Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has proved itself to be an equal partner in the combine, the victory clearly belongs to Mr Kumar. Yet again, as in Delhi, a broad acceptability across all identity groups — caste, religion, demographic and economic — has triumphed. This is a huge endorsement of the virtues of an inclusive election agenda rather than a divisive one (like that of the BJP’s).
Third, “presidential style” politics is here to stay. The election was fought and won around specific personalities whom voters knew and could identify with. Indeed, this was problematic for Mr Modi since the question was “Who is the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate ”
The BJP made the same mistake it did in Delhi, where it fielded its chief ministerial candidate in the waning hours of the campaign. By that time it was clear they were down and out. In both cases, the BJP has copied a favourite ploy of the Congress high command, which is to keep its cards close to its chest and “nominate” a puppet chief minister after the election rather than allow the candidate to directly demonstrate his/her electoral strength. This cost the BJP heavily in an election where, in sharp comparison, there was a ready, tested, well-known local leader in Mr Kumar.
Finally, has Bihar chosen well Are they courting disaster by playing with “jungle raj” Much will depend on how Mr Modi reacts to this defeat. If he is narrow-minded, seeks to punish Bihar for its decision and plays politics to undermine the Nitish government, Bihar is likely to be in for more of the same stilted development and under-achievement. However, Mr Modi can decide to be a statesman and view the Bihar verdict as a message that he is devaluing his reserves and his image by playing locally whilst the nation wants him to play nationally. Even from the narrow perspective of the BJP and its prospects, the last thing they want is to be seen as obstructionist or petty.
Mr Kumar is already playing with one hand tied behind his back, by the RJD. Till very recently Mr Kumar and the BJP developed Bihar in collaboration. They are, in fact, conjoined brothers in development. Mr Modi must rise above his personal feelings and go all out to support Mr Kumar to run a stable government and check Mr Yadav’s excesses. The enemy is Mr Yadav, not Mr Kumar.
The RSS must shed its growing image of a hardball-playing, narrow Hindu-vote-focused, quasi-political entity. Time was when the RSS was known for its social service and commitment to truth, honesty and self-sacrifice. Copying jihadi outfits that profess the same objectives but do not blink whist violently dividing India does not befit the RSS. Oddly enough, a failed state like Pakistan looms large in the minds of the RSS as a competitor to the glorious, continent sized country they call their own.
The Bihar election is a red flag. For the sake of its own and national interest, a rational rather than an emotional approach is necessary. The people of Bihar have shown courage in braving the possibility of instability and “jungle raj” whilst opting for local leadership. This is an illustration of functional federalism. It would be unworthy of a national party like the BJP to seek to subvert this trend.
One of the “virtues” of under-development and poverty is that the stakes are low for courting political risks. Bihar has defied death earlier too, in colonial times. It has done so again. Mr Modi must work to increase the risk premium in Bihar with an eye on 2024. Wealthy voters are notoriously cautious and vote for stability. Ensuring a national presence for the BJP through 2024 means growing Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the interim. Winning the war is more important than losing a battle. A good symbol of this new, high-minded approach to federalism would be if Mr Modi were to be present at the swearing-in of the new government. Actions speak louder than words. Let’s thwart Bihar’s death wish.
The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation