It was an interesting moment to watch the two friends-turned-rivals-turned-coalition-partners, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, beaming and hugging each other after their landslide win yesterday. If this image were to be interpreted, what did that signify?
Data from the Lokniti-CSDS survey for The Indian Express shows that what defined this moment went beyond electoral mathematics and mere alliance chemistry and was, in fact, embedded in hard politics.
For some time now, Bihar’s politics has been interpreted in binary prisms of caste vs. development. However, social justice is about development and development encompasses social justice concerns. Lokniti analyses of earlier elections in Bihar have demonstrated how this binary may be erroneous and superficial. To that, a new binary was added this time, Modi vs. Nitish. So, to repeat a more popular interpretation, one would be saying that development and Nitish Kumar’s leadership combined to produce this victory.
Of course, we do not undermine the Nitish factor. As our analysis shows, there was a complex set of factors working behind the vote transfers of major communities and social blocs. True, Nitish Kumar emerged as a popular choice and symbolized many things to voters. But it would be an exaggeration to say that his image alone constituted the “politics” of the Grand Alliance (GA). It would also be equally erroneous to say that Narendra Modi was not popular in Bihar. In fact, the outcome has been in spite of Modi’s popularity and that could happen only because Nitish and his GA met Modi halfway through on Modi’s own turf — governance and development.
Modi did everything initially to project BJP as a party of promise and hope. That line did not work much. Both in subjective terms — voter perceptions — and in terms of a more formal economic and performance-related data, the 10 years of Nitish government were years of performance fuelling more expectations. To the question whether their household economic condition has improved or deteriorated during last five years, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said it had improved while less than one in every ten said it had deteriorated (with another one-fourth saying that it remained the same). This positive assessment is further underscored by the fact that against one in every ten respondents who said that there was “no development at all” in last five years, one in every four felt that there was a “lot of development.”
And then there is the perception also that Bihar is doing well. In 2014, much was said about aspirations. Generating aspirations and an expectation that those aspirations would be fulfilled is an important part of the politics of development. How does Nitish fare on this aspect? Asked to place Bihar on a ladder of 1 to 10 where 10 represents least developed states and 1 represents most developed states, a large number of Bihar’s voters saw Bihar moving clearly towards the category of developed states — a large number of respondents saw Bihar either on fifth step or above that.
So, when Modi was talking of Bihar as one of the backward states, popular perception was clearly at variance with that assessment. If there are any doubts about the new aspirational character of the Bihar of 2015, also consider this: between mid-day meal and computer education, close to three-fourths of the respondents wanted the government to spend more on the latter. This aspiration to integrate with the so-called development momentum was something that BJP’s campaign denied to the voters of Bihar.
This aspirational preference was spread robustly across age groups and was irrespective of the respondent’s education. Upper castes were more enthusiastic with this proposition but OBCs and Dalits, too, supported this idea in considerably large numbers. So, the last ten years of Nitish-rule was not seen as time wasted; it was time gone for investment in development. And though it is beyond the scope of the present analysis, on many macro-economic parameters, Bihar has actually done well in last 10 years on network of roads, generation of power and, more crucially, in respect of annual growth rate in agriculture, poverty reduction and social sector expenditure.
Yet, this election’s analysis can’t be reduced to a fairy tale that development alone mattered. The limited point is that Modi’s claim that he alone could bring development to Bihar did not have a ring of authenticity. And his criticism that Bihar was a non-performing state did not go down well with voters. But as it so happens in any democratic contestation, social characteristics do matter — not only as identities but as markers of backwardness.
Therefore, parties, too, express solidarity with one or other social sections. That is where the “caste” factor comes into play. So contrary to cynical readings that the allaince’s campaign was “all about caste,” we need to take into account how the two coalitions built their social identities.
Underneath the public debate on development, the election saw a huge polarization of upper segments (see table) and an equally impressive consolidation of the new aspiring classes of Bihar — the OBCs — behind the Grand Alliance.
The image of Lalu Prasad and Nitish embracing each other would go down not only as theatrics, if they themselves read that image correctly. It symbolized the reassertion of the OBCs. In the 1990s, their assertion was for dignity and rights. Twenty five years down the line, the OBCs would be looking forward to their political assertion hoping that development does pick up and, more importantly, the fruits of that development actually reach them.
Such political moves are never linear. So, we need to note that the consolidation of the OBCs still bypasses the EBCs of Bihar. One in every two of the EBCs voted for Grand Alliance but others chose to turn away — towards the BJP or other options. More crucially, though Bihar is a predominantly rural state, Nitish-Lalu’s politics seems to have hit the wall when it comes to the urban voter and this indeed was its severe limitation.
As more development takes place and more rural Biharis enter the urban arena, they would expect more from the new situation they find themselves in. So, the Gathbandhan’s victory is clearly sitting on a dual contradiction: while it represents the aspiring upwardly mobile OBCs, everyone will keenly watch how the new government deals with EBCs and Dalits. Two, while the Gathbandhan tasted this victory with the help of rural voters, the government’s ability to ensure better urban development would bring it under pressure from its own rural constituency.
But the larger point cannot be missed: not mere chance, nor smart strategy, but hard politics brought this victory — precisely therefore, it can be described as a hard-earned victory.
(Suhas Palshikar teaches Political Science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune and is the Co-Director of the Lokniti programme; Sanjay Kumar is Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies; Sandeep Shastri is the Pro Vice Chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru and the National Co-ordinator of the Lokniti network)