Elections are about winning or losing. There are few drawn matches in this game. But, over and above the actual outcome, elections are also part of a much larger game, known to students of constitutionalism as the “game on the rules of the game”. When seen through this particular lens, what lessons do we get from the recently concluded assembly elections in Bihar?
The first and foremost message we get is one of a resounding win for electoral democracy in India. The judicious decision of the Election Commission to hold the elections despite the pandemic and elaborate precautions with regard to polling and staggered counting in order to facilitate social distancing have drawn appropriate resonance from the electorate, which reciprocated with a high turnout of over 55 per cent, barely one per cent below the previous assembly elections of 2015. The smooth and seamless course of the election, the spirited but orderly campaign, the suspense of the last scene, which kept the audience riveted till the curtains came down, turned this election into an eloquent testimony of the resilience of India’s electoral democracy. The contrast with the presidential elections of the United States must give a feel of schadenfreude to the Indian voter, whose democratic credentials have always been treated with a touch of condescension by Western experts of democracy transition and consolidation.
The second point to note is the success of the electoral process in putting forces that matter on the ground — such as the radical Left, socialists, and the religious right — into the electoral fray, and, subsequently, into the legislature. The electrifying convergence of the opposition grand coalition and its strategic, coordinated manoeuvre showed the deep penetration of electoral culture. Equally significant was the induction of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) into the legislature of Bihar which opens up room for future expansion into the east and the north of India. Liberal democrats need not panic at the expansion of a party whose leader is often derided for his communal views. After all, politics is not only about roti, kapda aur makan; it is also about kursi, izzat and collective identity, not ignoring, also, the loaves and fishes of power. A national platform that can represent Muslim interests and compete for power within the framework of parliamentary politics, would be an effective countervailing force to Hindutva. This process of realignment is at work today, from “Kashmir to Kanyakumari”. In addition, the fact that these “anti-system” parties have become part of parliamentary process should silence the dire predictions of “democracy backsliding” in India.
There are two dissonant issues that also emerged from this election which need careful dissection. The display of open, unabashed, political promiscuity such as some see in Nitish Kumar’s serial change of partners, the coexistence of dynastic politics, and thinly disguised tactical coalitions based on caste arithmetic that underpin electoral politics in the state are anathema for true-blue liberal democrats.
The gap between normative categories of liberal democracy and cognition of the opportunities that the electoral process generates needs to be factored into the theory of democracy transition and its consolidation. At the ground level, campaign cash is an incentive for participation in the electoral process. It is seen as an opportunity for entitlement, empowerment and enfranchisement — the three core ideas of democracy. One needs to understand that the fine flowers of liberalism blossom from within the bosom of dark calculations of interest. To frame it the other way around would be to think of democracy in the mode of a top-down, civilising mission.
The second point that emerges from a close reading of the campaign poses a conundrum. The promise of “10 lakh jobs” which gave the Mahagathbandhan its firepower, was made with no indication of where these jobs were going to come from. Of course, one could always create jobs by getting people to dig holes and then fill them in and create a semblance of employment. But they add very little to overall productivity, generate a culture of dependency and create a false sense of security.
How does one combine the electoral pressure to create jobs and the hard logic of sustainable economic growth? This is going to be the acid test for the “twin-engine”, Modi in Delhi and Nitish in Patna. The post-election Union government scheme PIL — Production Linked Incentive Scheme — deserves careful consideration because it attempts to balance domestic productivity and employment creation through manufacture and infrastructure building, with global value chains. But, for states like Bihar and Odisha — ranked, respectively, 29 and 26 on the ease of doing business — this poses an even bigger hurdle. Ironically, both in job creation through the setting up of manufacturing units or cashing in on the infrastructure building bonanza, backward states face the same difficulty with regard to the whole of India, as India does with regard to China and, now, the RCEP. In open competition, the more advanced players get the upper hand. However, closing competition by fending competition off stymies creativity and generates inefficiency. As such, backward states like Bihar face a hard choice. They will need to look beyond harvesting the low-hanging fruit through schemes like the MGNREGA and have to come up with radically new ideas such as systematic organisation of manpower export. They will need to wean their people away from welfare dependency and lead them on the path of hard, structural change. Bihar’s, just like the rest of India’s, moment of “blood, sweat and tears” is now.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 1, 2020 under the title ‘The triumph and trial in Bihar’.
The writer is emeritus professor of political science, Heidelberg University, Germany. He is the author, with Harihar Bhattacharyya, of Politics and Governance in Indian States: Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura