With a campaign that appears to move and shift every day, this Lok Sabha election is defying the script. In June, when Narendra Modi was officially handed charge of the BJP’s 2014 campaign, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had walked out of his 17-year-old alliance with the NDA, saying he could not compromise on his secular principles. At that time, the clash between the two leaders, as framed by Kumar, seemed to set the template of the 2014 electoral confrontation. Yet, nine months later, the theme of the Nitish-Modi clash would appear to have shifted, for now at least, to governance. Two days after Modi brandished data at a rally in Purnea on the “Gujarat model”, Kumar hit back with statistics on growth and social inclusion in Bihar.
In June last year, Kumar’s departure was the first big blow to the Modi-led BJP, and many more were expected, along the same lines. Modi was then considered a big gamble by the BJP, and an inflaming choice — while his presence clearly energised the party’s Hindutva base and those persuaded by his model of governance, it was perceived to alienate those who pointed to the communal violence in 2002, his refusal to express regret for it or to directly address the sensitivities and concerns of minorities. The contest for Lok Sabha 2014, it was said, would play out along the single stark faultline of communalism versus secularism. But this campaign has unfolded in untidier and less predictable ways.
The lines have smeared, as parties and individuals, from Ramvilas Paswan’s LJP to the RJD’s Ram Kripal Yadav, once implacable Modi adversaries, have embraced the party he leads. More than that, the debate can no longer be cast as a grand or stark struggle between two conceptions of India, a Hindu nationalist one and a secular constitutional one. Many other ideological contests and negotiations have announced themselves. For instance, this election also centres on questions of competent governance as parties make claims on service delivery, infrastructure, crony capitalism, job creation, educational and health indicators. Modi has spoken of his view of government as a catalyst of private initiative, Rahul Gandhi has spoken of government creating a floor of social security for the poor, and the AAP has criticised collusion between government and business. Nitish Kumar’s point-by-point answer to Narendra Modi on development in Bihar on Wednesday shows how the campaign discourse has shifted and expanded beyond the all or nothing secularism question.