Nitish Kumar’s thumping victory in the Bihar elections could be the best thing that has happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It may force him to clarify who the real Narendra Modi is — the development and governance-oriented statesman determined to take India forward who was on display
in the run-up to his 2014 Lok Sabha landslide win, or the divisive and bigoted street-fighter of yore who surfaced in the last phases of the Bihar campaign and is unashamed to wield the inflammatory politics of caste and religion in order to win? On the answer to that question rests whether Modi can be more than a one-term PM.
There will no doubt be feverish talk about how caste equations, beef and religious polarisation came into play as the electoral campaign unfolded to determine the result of the Bihar polls. But cooler analysis will underline that this election confirms that, rather than the primordial tugs of caste and faith, what increasingly drives Indian voters is vikas — tangible progress in their lives.
WATCH VIDEO: Bihar Election Results: Editors’ Take
Under 10 years of Nitish, Bihar has made substantial progress. Pucca roads and homes in villages are now widespread, along with electrification. Thanks in part to free bicycles for schoolgoing girls, more children are in school. Poverty reduction is evident, especially in the rural areas. Law and order has improved, even in the areas notorious in the past for dacoity and kidnapping. To a large extent, Nitish has delivered roti, kapda, makan, sadak, pani, bijli and shiksha to the people of Bihar.
The data backs this up. Bihar’s economic performance on many socioeconomic indicators after 2005, when Nitish took over, is not only better than in the dismal previous decade under Lalu Prasad, but also better than that of comparable states like Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Bihar’s economy grew at an average of over 10 per cent per year during this period, versus the national average of just over 7 per cent. Bihar has also witnessed the second-highest reduction in poverty among these states. A three-fold increase in and more targeted public spending on health and education has paid off. Bihar has managed to bring down infant mortality rates to just over the all-India level and is now in a better position on this dimension than all comparable states, except West Bengal. In education, Bihar recorded the highest improvement amongst comparable states in the percentage of students who manage to reach Class V (after having enrolled in Class I). A combination of political will, better governance, empowerment on the ground and institutional reforms, such as issuing coupons to beneficiaries, which make embezzlement difficult, has also meant better-functioning welfare schemes and reduced leakages from the public distribution system.
Of course, much remains to be done. Bihar remains among the poorest states in terms of per capita income and is a laggard in terms of employment and job creation. A little under a third of the population is still officially classified as poor. The state’s rank in social development is close to the bottom. Census 2011 data points to Bihar as the most illiterate state; nearly one in two women is illiterate, compared to the national average
of one in three. Drinking water is available in less than 5 per cent of households. Fewer than one in four households have a latrine, compared to the all-India average of nearly one in two. But the transformation in Bihar under Nitish is impressive and has made life better and safer for most people. This is what Bihari voters have rewarded in going with the RJD-JD(U)-Congress grand alliance.
The BJP-led NDA recognised the challenge posed by the success of the Nitish government and sought to own the next stage of the development narrative by focusing on rising aspirations, particularly of the young. Modi launched his Bihar campaign before enthusiastic election rally crowds by promising industrialisation, jobs and vocational skills for the young and opportunities for small entrepreneurs.
Unfortunately, what promised to be a contest between two models of development — Nitish’s statist, public works and welfare-oriented, and ultimately backward-looking approach, versus Modi’s more radical, private investment and job creation-led “Gujarat model” — deteriorated into a tussle based on caste and religion. In the last few days of the campaign, Bihar was bombarded with advertisements on the cow. Modi
and other NDA leaders issued thinly veiled warnings about their opponents favouring Muslims and being soft on terrorism, and even played the Pakistan card. They responded to Lalu’s portrayal of the election as a battle between “backwards” and “forwards” and the BJP as anti-OBC by emphasising their own lower-caste credentials and attacking the domination of the grand alliance by Yadavs and Kurmis. Meanwhile, Nitish himself talked less and less about development and more about identity issues like Bihari pride, the caste background of BJP’s potential CM candidate and reservations.
Of course, as the NDA allowed itself to get sidetracked by beef and caste, Nitish’s development credentials remained almost unchallenged. Had the NDA been able to stay on message in terms of vikas, the Bihar election might have gone in its favour. This is not to say that caste and religion did not weigh on voters’ minds. But election after election, this past decade has shown that there is a significant and increasing “floating vote” that cares more about its material aspirations and will vote for whoever can help deliver them, and is large enough to swing the result. The NDA appears to have paid the price of losing focus on this group.
Modi, of all people, should have realised this. He won handily a year and a half ago by persuading millions of Indians that only he could knock the economy into shape and deliver growth and prosperity. The majority of those who backed Modi had no truck with Hindutva or the bigotry and intolerance that is being propagated by the BJP, RSS and the Sangh Parivar. Nor do they, despite hackneyed and lazy electoral theorising, unquestioningly “vote their caste”.
Unfortunately, it appears that Modi needed a reminder of why he was voted into power. The Bihar election may just do that. The sooner he can get back to a relentless
focus on governance and development — and away from the divisive politics of caste and faith — the more likely that he can fulfil his ambition of making a decisive mark on Indian political history. But this will mean that he has to find the guts to rein in the chauvinistic fringe within his support base. For someone elected with such a massive mandate and his strongman image, Modi has shown little appetite or ability to control the polarising rants of his own MPs, let alone of the Sangh. He could have distanced himself from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a rethink on reservations, or denounced the Dadri lynching. Instead, he chose not just to remain silent but actually resorted to divisive religious and caste rhetoric in Bihar.
Perhaps the Faustian bargain he struck with the RSS and the Parivar to help him win the Lok Sabha polls in return for indulging them in their social and cultural programme is holding him back? Or perhaps he actually believes in their agenda, and his occasional displays of inclusiveness are just a front? It is now time for the real Narendra Modi to stand up — London, where he is headed this week, the world at large and, most importantly, Indians at home are watching.
The writer, a former partner with McKinsey & Company, is a private equity investor based in London. Views are personal.
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