Lumpsum mein, as they say in Bihar, this election verdict that made everyone count late into the evening hours is about one thing, or two.
One, the diminishing of Nitish Kumar. He may or may not be back as Chief Minister, but it will not be the same Nitish Kumar.
He is no more the shining sadak-bridge-cycle-for-schoolgirls hero of 2010 who restored the authority of the State. Or the Sushasan Babu of 2015, whose halo had dimmed, but who was widely acknowledged, still, to be the Leader Who Works. This, in a state where circumstances of Lalu raj had conspired to make development the forsaken end of a pessimistic binary — samajik nyay versus vikas, social justice versus development.
The Nitish Kumar of 2020 is the Chief Minister to whom the people are not giving the benefit of every doubt because of his supposed good intent. Today, he is the leader they are talking back to.
Across castes, grievances that had gathered and risen to the fore in Nitish raj made themselves heard in this election: An incomplete empowerment and a patchy vikas; thana-tehsil corruption; afsarshahi or excessive bureaucratisation. State inability and incapacity to take the next step to improve the quality of education, invite investment and create jobs.
A failed prohibition policy which has meant “home delivery” for the well-heeled, spurious and costly liquor for the poor. Mismanagement of the annual Kosi flood and insensitivity to the returning migrant amid a public health emergency.
In many places, a question was heard, sharpened by the pandemic: “What is this vikas (development), and of what use this double-engine sarkar (NDA at state and Centre), if I must leave my home and my state, to work?”
Questions were framed, even among the labharthi or beneficiaries of government subsidies and schemes, about the nature of a vikas that keeps the people beholden to the state.
In this election of never-before grumbling about a three-time Chief Minister, Tejashwi Yadav was unable to seize this sentiment and make a mandate of it — and that is the second clear takeaway from this Bihar verdict.
Travelling in Bihar in this election, despite the increasingly articulate anger against him, this seemed Nitish’s election to lose, not Tejashwi’s to win. Nitish was at the centre of this election. There was a formlessness about Tejashwi.
If a leader’s presence is felt not just in his own projection of it, but also, and more, in voters’ perceptions of him, Tejashwi was an absence even among the voters most disillusioned with Nitish. Turning to him seemed to be, mostly, a flailing against Nitish.
Despite a last-minute attempt by Team Tejashwi to package him anew — or perhaps because of the last-minuteness of it — RJD’s new chief ministerial candidate was carrying into this election neither a narrative nor a clean slate.
It was unfair and unrealistic to expect the clean slate perhaps — after all, Tejashwi is his father’s son. As Lalu Prasad’s heir, he starts with a tremendous advantage and a great constraint.
Lalu may now be in jail, but nothing can take away from his place in Bihar’s history as the leader who upended entrenched upper caste dominance by mobilising a broad coalition of backward castes. But Lalu also allowed his coalition to shrink, and for the RJD to become only the M-Y party. Lalu raj abundantly stoked caste bias and prejudice, but it also gave reasons for both the upper and the most backward castes to fear a return of the Yadav right-of-way.
A narrative, however, a filling out of the “10 lakh jobs” slogan, or the other slogan of economic justice or “aarthik nyay”, might have empowered Tejashwi. It could have helped him to make his legacy a springboard for a reinvented RJD, while laying to rest the fears and anxieties.
A more savvy ticket distribution — paying more attention to the local caste configuration and winnability, which the “M-Y” RJD used to back its claim to becoming the “A to Z” party — could not take the place of the missing narrative in a whirlwind campaign.
To fight Nitish, Tejashwi also seemed to be taking a leaf out of the Modi book — whose popularity, this election has underlined, remains undimmed in the state.
In this election, Team Tejashwi appeared to have taken on board a vital Modi lesson — to break out of the constraints of a vote bank you need not repudiate it, but only to overlay it with another appeal or set of appeals.
Modi’s core appeal is Hindutva, but it has several other layers. In Bihar, as elsewhere, if you are a Modi supporter, you can pick your Modi.
The Outsider who is seen to have disrupted and levelled the playing field. The “backward caste” “chaiwallah” who made it on his own. Mascot of hard Hindutva, who abrogated Article 370 and laid the Mandir’s first silver brick. Nationalist Hero who took the fight into Pakistan. Leader with Big Ideas who cannot be held accountable for smaller corruptions and failures.
Modi’s success is in giving the voter many Modis to choose from, and believe in. It lies, at the same time, in creating a narrative dominance that makes the truth, or fakery, of these images seem almost besides the point.
Team Tejashwi tried to extend Brand Tejashwi in this election, make it Caste-plus. It is the beginning of an acknowledgement that, in the time of Modi, leaders will need a more multi-vocal communication and appeal.
But this election has also shown that in Tejashwi’s case, leadership is still something to be earned, a work in progress. There is a lot of hard labour of politics yet to be done before he can win a mandate of his own, not just receive the vote against his opponent.
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