The electoral victory of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar is a potentially regenerative moment for Indian democracy. The sacred ritual of an intensely contested election that enlists enormous civic energy is a riposte to all those who doubt the depth of Indian democracy. The election may have had worrying moments of divisive rhetoric. But in the end, voters made a calm and calculated choice, unswayed by attempts to polarise them. This is not a democracy that can be easily fooled.
One can unpack the election at many levels: The mathematical advantage the Mahagathbandhan had; the several micro stories in different regions of Bihar. But there is no question that this election was a vote against hubris and arrogance, two besetting sins in a democracy. Amit Shah’s poisonous and contemptuous statement that a vote for Nitish Kumar would be a cause for celebration in Pakistan was the most powerful manifestation of a sense that the BJP was not only insinuating hate but also expressing contempt for the voter. The voter has spoken back in turn. It is also an indication that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sense of entitlement that his persona is enough to claim the voter’s allegiance has been broken. Admittedly, this was a state election. But it is an indication that even on development results on the ground, the Modi government’s record is not decisively compelling.
But this election is also a tribute to an extraordinary political culture that Bihar has created. It is a state still in the grip of horrific deprivation, and conflictual local structures of power. But credit has to go to Nitish and Lalu Prasad that, for close to three decades, they have assiduously cultivated a political culture with three features. First, it has been free of massive communal violence. The striking contrast with Uttar Pradesh bears this out. Second, they have never wavered from confidence in their own identity and their capacity to elicit the trust of their core constituents. They have the essential characteristic of successful politicians, a touch of authenticity that connects with their voters. And through the ups and downs of politics, they have never ceased to think politically. Admittedly, their survival was at stake, but contrary to expectations, they politically worked well together in the election, marrying Nitish’s governance persona with Lalu’s social base and organisation.
But in some senses, this was Nitish’s election. It was an affirmative vote for him. Almost everyone who has been to Bihar will recount story after story of voters remembering what Nitish did for them specifically, whether a bicycle, a pension or free medicines. Nitish became an embodiment of the idea that the state can make a difference. Lalu and Nitish did well to work together with great political judgement.
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They will now need to carry over the same sense of political judgement into government.
No single state election can be a benchmark for national politics. But there is no doubt that this election puts the BJP at a crossroads. The BJP is already in the process of frittering away a historic mandate. This election will only embolden the Opposition. The election is also a wake-up call for Modi. He seems to have now become a prisoner of his own mythology, where the gap between his own sense of destiny and his achievement is growing by the day. The BJP will hopefully learn the lesson that communal politics does not yield returns in the long run. But it is not going to be easy. In this instance, the PM himself was at the centre of insinuating divisive messages. You cannot take action against party members when you cease to be an exemplar of the values you wish to promote.
The second potentially regenerative thing for the BJP is that this election could embolden voices within the party to speak against Amit Shah. The sense that he is not infallible and should not be given such presumptive authority would be a good thing. He forgot the simplest lesson: That the BJP’s success depends on floating voters and opposition division. The more you ideologically polarise, the more incentive you give the opposition to unite. The BJP will also have to revisit its strategy of not empowering local leaders, and not naming chief ministerial candidates.
But this election is also a pivotal moment for Bihar. Nitish’s achievements in his first term were based on two things: An intelligent ramping up of public expenditure, which has brought him enormous goodwill, especially among women voters; and, while caste cannot be entirely wished away, the fact that Nitish’s government had a broad social base took the edge off a polarised caste politics. This created a unique opportunity to shift the agenda to development. There is reason to think that the trend is towards voters whose party allegiances can shift. How else do you explain the fact that the BJP, which won 172 assembly segments in the Lok Sabha elections, lost? Admittedly, it was a national election. But the underlying point is that voting preferences now depend more on context and are not socially overdetermined. This suggests Bihar can transcend caste polarisation enough to focus on development.
But the challenge is, what model? The demographic and geographic odds have been stacked against Bihar for decades. Public expenditure will remain important. But it cannot be the whole story. In some ways, Modi has attempted to take the development debate beyond public expenditure to a discourse on jobs. This was also reflected in his Bihar speeches. But from a political point of view, this promise is too diffuse and distant. The fact of the matter is that Indian politics is still largely government by patterns of state expenditure. It is a mistake to think that an aspirational politics requires abandoning the state. Quite the contrary: The state has to be an enabler of mobility, through education, health and the right kind social security. Only ideologues ignore this basic truth. Every chief minister who has won successive terms has done so on the basis of doing a number of government schemes well. But Nitish will have to try and go beyond this, and overcome the historic suspicion Lalu has had of development.
It is the peculiar dignity of Indian democracy that it so often provides a new dawn. Kishan Pattnayak once called Bihar the graveyard of all revolutions. Now it is a source of hope. It is up to Nitish to consolidate what is already a stunning legacy in the annals of Bihar politics.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’