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After the counting comes the reading

What lessons should Narendra Modi learn from his resounding defeat? How should Nitish Kumar manage his historic success? The answers will decide where politics is headed.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: November 9, 2015 12:13:01 am

The mandate, even one as unambiguous as the one Bihar’s people have given, lies in the reading. What will the prime minister who plunged into the state assembly fray in a manner no PM had done before take away from his party’s resounding defeat? How will the chief minister who has won a third successive term take forward his heady triumph? Long after the noise of the firecrackers burst to celebrate this decisive verdict — in Bihar and in India, Amit Shah please note — has died down, what will remain is what this scorecard says, to two men, in their moment of solitude.

For Narendra Modi, it would be so easy to dismiss the verdict as the sum of caste math, to see it as overdetermined by the arithmetic of the coming together of the RJD with the JD(U). Or to call it only a state verdict. The PM should read the writing on the Bihar wall. Bihar’s voters are telling him that they reject the false opposition and hypocrisy that his and his party’s campaign tried to peddle. This was no battle of modernity/ development versus obscurantism/ casteism, with the BJP representing the former against Lalu-Nitish. In reality, both sides boasted of development credentials, and in forging their respective coalitions, both also energetically played the caste game. In the end, Bihar’s voters have chosen the Nitish model, with its particular priority and emphasis, its specific meshing and mingling of caste and development.

Though the base he started with was spectacularly low, and much remains to be done, Bihar has shown visible development on all the indicators that matter during two terms of Nitish rule except, perhaps, industrial investment and jobs, even as the government has reached out to the most disprivileged castes and women. Roads and bridges have been built, electricity has reached the remotest corners, the government school has been revived and so has the healthcare centre. In a state of fierce inequalities, those at the bottom-most rung of the caste and privilege ladder — the Mahadalits, the Extremely Backward Classes and women — have felt touched by the state, be it through the creation of public goods or by targeted schemes and programmes. The Modi model — louder and glossier on infrastructure and job creation, but with less to show for it in terms of its sensitivity to the needs of the marginalised, or ground-level implementation — has lost to the Nitish model. Of course, PM Modi can choose to restate his faith in his own model and framework. But this is a moment for him to acknowledge, at the very least, that there is work left to do, and arguments yet to be won.

On another issue, the Bihar verdict has ended the argument. In 2014, the people voted so handsomely for Modi, as the carrier of hope and the promise of change, but in 2015, they don’t seem to take to Modi, the polarising leader. The PM attempted, especially towards the last stages of this campaign, to stoke religious polarisation — he spoke of Lalu-Nitish conspiring to gift backward caste quotas to Muslims and of the “Darbhanga module”, even as his party chief spoke of a BJP defeat in Bihar setting off fireworks in Pakistan. The results can be said to have shown, conclusively, that those efforts did not work to the BJP’s advantage — if they didn’t actually contribute to the magnitude of its defeat.

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For Nitish Kumar, this victory is affirmation that hard work brings votes, even when the opponent is the prime minister of India himself, backed by the ruling party’s big fat election machine. Let there be no doubt about it: Even though the support and organisational strength that Lalu Prasad brought with him into the Mahagathbandhan was crucial, it did not win Nitish this election, anymore than Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on backward caste reservations did. Lalu only made it possible for Nitish to win. With Lalu by his side, the anxiety of numbers diminished for Nitish supporters, and made it possible for his governance record to take centrestage, and shine. In turn, Lalu supporters who had lost hope of the RJD coming back to power after 15 years in the wilderness, saw in Nitish their best chance to win the election and rallied behind the Mahagathbandhan. In the end, the synergy delivered, but though Lalu thundered more, the star that shone the brightest was Nitish.

In a government formed along with Lalu, it will be Nitish’s task to keep to his trajectory and convictions, and if necessary, to guard them from Lalu. In many ways, Lalu made it possible for there to be a Nitish, and Nitish has taken forward the work begun by Lalu. In the 1990s, Lalu had upturned the equation between caste and power. In his two terms, Nitish took the project of empowerment deeper into the backward castes — from the OBCs to EBCs, from Dalits to Mahadalits (even though the line between the latter two now stands extinguished). It is also true, however, that Nitish is also the anti-Lalu. Having radically unsettled congealed upper-caste dominance, Lalu made no effort to link the politics of dignity to an agenda of governance. In fact, he disdained the need to do so.

Nitish must keep his partner by his side, but he must lead from the front. Much depends on the way the Nitish-Lalu experiment now unfolds in the state. It will influence the politics of the future in Bihar — and in the country.

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First published on: 09-11-2015 at 12:12:58 am
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