Modi can turn Bihar setback into opportunity

On Sunday, results were declared for a state election in India that was the most politically significant, intensely watched and one of the most bitterly contested since the general election in May 2014. Bihar has a population of 100 million to 110 million. Lying in the Hindi heartland, it is one of the poorest, most illiterate, violent, lawless and caste-riven states in the whole country. In theory, no other state is as ripe for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s core message of corruption-free development, efficient administration and good governance.

In last year’s election, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won Bihar’s seats in the central parliament by a massive margin. The BJP entered the five-week-long state election campaign in an upbeat mood, confident of repeating a landslide victory to take the reins of government. Its primary opponent was Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, head of the Janata Dal (United) Party who has ruled the state for almost 10 years, except for a brief interregnum after the 2014 general election when he accepted primary responsibility for his party’s failure and handed power to a protege who then turned against him.

Nitish, as he is popularly known and described, entered into a political marriage of convenience with Lalu Prasad Yadav, also widely referred to by his first name. Lalu had ruled Bihar for 15 years before being replaced by Nitish, and until this year the two had been bitter rivals. Indeed, Nitish came into power vowing to end Lalu’s “jungle raj” (law of the jungle) and restore some semblance of normalcy to a state in which development had gone backward, law and order had completely collapsed, infrastructure had disintegrated, public services had disappeared and the only growth industry was kidnapping for ransom. The Congress Party also joined the anti-BJP grand alliance.

The Nitish-Lalu alliance has won a two-thirds majority with 80 and 71 seats each in the 243-member legislative assembly, with Congress bagging 27. The BJP has been reduced to 53 seats (a 40 percent fall, in contrast to Lalu’s fourfold increase from the 2010 state election) with another five for its electoral allies. Its vote share fell 5.5 percent from the 2014 election. The result will dishearten the BJP government in New Delhi, embolden the opposition and make Modi’s task of governing much more challenging without the numbers to control the upper house of India’s parliament.

Paradoxically, the result may be bad news for Bihar — and doubly unfortunate for me as an expatriate Bihari — but good for the country if it causes Modi to become introspective and institute a policy reset. Development could once more take a back seat to political arithmetic of caste-based policies with Lalu playing kingmaker for the next five years, widening the gap between Bihar and the rest of India.

The outcome is a sharp jolt to the hubris that had settled around the senior BJP leadership after their stunning victory last year. If Modi and the party leadership are shaken out of their belief in their own political genius, the verdict is early enough in the five-year electoral cycle to institute a course correction to frittering away their rare decisive mandate. They probably have a maximum of another six to eight months to do this and still have time for the beneficial results to be felt by ordinary Indians before the next general election.

The setback to Modi is explained by campaign mistakes in Bihar, failures of omission in New Delhi and failures of commission by party affiliates across India.

Against the worldwide trend of parliamentary politics becoming more centralized around the leaders of governments and elections becoming correspondingly more presidential, the BJP fought the election without a declared leader as its designated chief minister. By contrast, the alliance made it clear Nitish would be chief minister regardless of the balance of seats between them. Nitish is a moderate and reassuring figure who does not frighten any significant political constituency. Thus voters were being asked to choose between a known, respected and generally liked incumbent and an abstract opposition leader. The empty suit lost.

The lack of an alternative leader also left the BJP no option but to bank on Modi’s vote-garnering skills, vesting his popularity, prestige and authority in the campaign and elevating a state election into disproportionate national import. It became a referendum on Modi’s record as prime minister as much as Nitish’s record as chief minister. Modi flew to Bihar 26 times to address public rallies in the five-week election. This left him exposed to the charge, exploited relentlessly and effectively, of being a “bahari” (outsider) running against two Biharis. The impact of this was heightened by the campaign being micromanaged tightly by party chief Amit Shah, who also hails from Gujarat. But the political dynamics of Gujarat do not translate well in all other states any more than Modi can govern India like a state.

On sins of omission, a year and a half is long enough for people to ask what has Modi actually done beyond making fine speeches? How have ordinary people’s lives been improved since he took power? His ministers have settled comfortably into the VIP culture that so grates on citizens, key policy planks remain unaddressed and many campaign promises from 2014 have yet to be implemented. The alliance compiled a video, sung more in sorrow than in anger to a catchy tune, that asks: “Where has he vanished, he who said good days would come with his election, promised to repatriate billions in illicit money stashed in foreign havens? He is seen often in foreign lands, dining sumptuously at state banquets while we struggle for basic food, clothing and shelter,” etc.

On the third point, as noted previously, there has been growing anxiety across a broadening spectrum of opinion at the rising climate of intolerance, intimidation and killings by the Hindu right. A religious fringe has felt emboldened during Modi’s watch to try to occupy the political mainstream. India is a country of minorities and it is political suicide to start frightening and terrorizing them. Expressions of concern by anguished writers and artists were met with vitriol, insults and abuse, which then alienated a rapidly broadening circle of ordinary Indians who occupy the happy middle and have rejected the politics of polarization, hatred and sectarian divisiveness.

Modi must rediscover why he was voted into power and by whom, forcefully rein in the fanatics whose mouths are often off and running before their brains are engaged, and put the focus back on the agenda of development, growth, jobs, poverty and inequality reduction, and show evidence that his government understands it exists to serve the people and not lord it over them. Cut back sharply on the fight (state elections) and flight (foreign trips) mode of governance, eliminate bureaucratic bottlenecks, build infrastructure, reduce cost inputs for the private sector and govern for all Indians. Conversely, if you treat voters with contempt, too dumb to separate promises from performance, they will return the compliment.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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