India will hold its breath as Bihar goes to the polls today. So what’s new? After all, in this country, every election strikes sparks — for the right reasons and wrong. Ours is still a country of a million political mobilisations, and, unlike in the West, politics has not settled into predictable or complacent patterns; it can still spring a rude surprise. At the same time, this is also still a country in which the vote’s importance is a measure not just of the voter’s power but also of her helplessness — it is her only weapon and assertion against an otherwise opaque and unresponsive system.
But India will watch this assembly election in Bihar that begins today with an especially keen eye.
Because this election will tell whether the Narendra Modi-led BJP is still on a winning streak, or not. It follows the party’s string of successes in states after riding to power at the Centre on a large mandate a year and a half ago, broken only by the Delhi setback. The Bihar outcome will indicate to Team Modi whether the Delhi fiasco was an aberration or a warning that powerful state leaders can stall its bid to grow into India’s natural party of governance, like the Congress of an earlier political era. This election, Bihar will be the staging ground not just for a stirring clash of two leaders who hold office at two levels of government — Modi vs Nitish Kumar, prime minister vs chief minister — but also for a competition between two bound political scripts. Modi brings to Bihar an appeal to the BJP-RSS’s predominantly upper-caste Hindu base overlaid by a stoking of aspiration and the promise of change and friendship with the Centre. The Nitish-led maha gathbandhan, on the other hand, represents the politics of “social justice”, which overturned the upper-caste domination of the state with Lalu Prasad and a bang in the 1990s, and its linking with a development vision under the Nitish-led project of the next decade. This sharply defined confrontation of men and ideas would be dramatic in itself. It is especially so in a state that has, in the past, been the crucible of radical political and social movements, and the arena for rampaging caste armies, where kidnapping acquired the status of industry. It remains the state, today, from which the young migrate, to lend their sweat and intellect towards the building of India in more enabling environments.
Much is at stake in this Bihar election. At the end of the process that begins today, on November 8, the state will elect a new government, and the country may get an intimation of the politics of the future.