It will take a lot of time, energy and even analytical ingenuity to make sense of what finally happened in Bihar. (With other colleagues, this writer will commit that sin tomorrow). In 2015, Bihar was seen (apart from Delhi) as the place where Narendra Modi’s rathyatra would halt. That did not happen — the BJP ran away with the driver of the Mahagathbandhan’s (MGB) double engine and this time around, while Modi alluded to the double engine, one engine surely seems to have failed. But double engines are only temporary arrangements and once the incline is covered, one engine is gotten rid of. So, the Bihar saga can be summed up as (a rather raw Bollywood song) “Delhi se gaye Patna, fir bhi na mile sajana”.
How does one look at the Bihar outcome even as the verdict is still pending at the time of writing this? And it is not just about the “final tally” — the outcome holds a tinge of incompleteness, which is characteristic of our current competitive politics. So, keeping Bihar somewhat on the analytical sideline, let us revisit the larger political picture that keeps re-emerging over the past six years. Whoever occupies the CM chair in Patna, five takeaways will remain.
First, somewhat to the dismay of his detractors, the popularity of Modi seems to be a stable factor in the BJP’s electoral politics. So much so that he has transformed into a brand. Like a brand, he can be used in any state, any context and against any competition. While this continues to be great news for the BJP, it must also worry the party’s core strategists. If Modi were to fail, the BJP’s electoral politics would suddenly crumble. Besides, and perhaps even more serious for the party, Modi represents practically everything — and, in the end, therefore, nothing. Since Indira Gandhi, India has not had competitive politics so overwhelmingly centred on just one person and, in retrospect, it might be instructive to realise that since the Emergency and even after her return in 1980, Indira Gandhi ceased to represent anything concrete or positive. This writer has always argued that Modi-centrality means that the failure to win state elections will begin to stick to Modi sooner or later — not just in the minds of outsiders, but within the BJP. It is another matter if Modi-centredness will also begin to clash with locally-powerful BJP stalwarts.
Second, Bihar brought out both the benefits and tensions of coalitions. For the BJP, coalitions are a temporary tactic while for non-BJP parties, they are a life-support. Exactly a year ago, the BJP lost Maharashtra as its equation with the state partner was spoilt. Today, the party will probably remember that humiliation when it is set to emerge as the largest party in Bihar. In Maharashtra, the party had become impatient to wrest power on its own. Despite voter fatigue vis-a-vis Nitish Kumar, in Bihar, the BJP chose to avoid that temptation and maintained the alliance. Now, having shown Nitish where he stands, the relationship between the BJP and JDU will be something to watch. Of course, for Nitish, who burnt his bridges with non-BJP parties in 2017, the options are limited.
For the BJP, coalitions were often the arsenal to disturb state-level social equations and then reconfigure politics. Short-sighted politicians groomed in the culture of anti-Congressism and those who had tough state-level competition contributed to that reconfiguration. Nitish Kumar, after this election, will be a living caricature of that politics — irrespective of whether he becomes CM.
But for those parties whose survival depends on coalition strategy, the significance of aligning with each other does not seem to dawn on them. In Bihar, the MGB showed a willingness to accommodate Left parties. This effort to make non-BJP politics broad-based is significant — but beyond electoral alliances and arithmetic, non-BJP parties need a sustained dialogue, collaboration and understanding. In the coming years, this art of forging long-term coalitions will be critical in shaping the politics of non-BJP parties.
Third, it is not merely about coalitions as a theoretical requirement or political virtue — the issue is winning states.
The BJP has evolved a substantial base in western, central and north Indian states. In UP, which today is perhaps the most tightly-controlled state by the party, it made its mark long ago — in the early 1990s. Bihar, at the cusp of the north and east, represents an important territorial ambition. The marginalisation of Nitish means that the BJP now has a more straightforward contender to defeat — the RJD. In that sense, stealing Nitish Kumar from the MGB in 2017 has shown that the BJP understands the importance of being in power. The hurt and humiliation in Maharashtra, or earlier in Karnataka, just as what was done in Madhya Pradesh, all manifest this necessary political hunger for power in state after state. Despite its handsome “national” victory in 2019, the party’s objective would be to win the rest of the east and enter the south. That determination and systematic urge to engage with state politics alongside the more disputed national-level rhetoric is what Bihar represents.
Fourth, a question that has vexed observers is the BJP’s efforts to retain its core Hindutva ideology and, at the same time, adapt to the state-specificity of electoral politics. So far, the BJP has not been able to entirely set aside local narratives, imageries and issues. It can fulfil its ambition only if it can superimpose over most geographic regions of the country its overarching idea of Hindu India. Assam was a tough test and the party passed it. Since then, it has followed a dual template. On the one hand, it amalgamates local history and imagery within its Hindutva narrative: This allows the RSS and the BJP to talk even of pluralism—pluralism of, and within, the Hindutva fold. On the other hand, the BJP under Modi has also evolved the skill to debate state-level issues in such a manner that the central leadership and government either remain aloof or are seen as benefactors. Centre-state disputes are often ascribed to local or state-level players and the narrative of development is used to replace the existing irritants between the Centre and state.
Finally, and again without reference to the victory or loss of the NDA in Bihar, elections in the state and the party’s performance should convince analysts who continue to be sceptical about the future dominance of the BJP. Modi was successful not only in getting his party re-elected but in improving its performance. Now, two dimensions of dominance constitute the next stages in the project. One is, as mentioned above, expanding its footprint in the remaining states. In Bihar, the BJP has come close to that. The other is to make sure that the larger Hindutva narrative becomes the central idiom. That implies changing the ground rules of political rhetoric and imagination. The existence of parties like the RJD, SP, BSP, DMK and so on is important because they have their own rhetoric to fall back on and that is why Bihar matters — just as Tamil Nadu next year or UP later will.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2020 under the title ‘In Bihar, BJP’s progress’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics
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