[Photo: Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar. Photographer: Shivam Setu. http//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nitish_Kumar_1.JPG. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/legalcode]
Just days prior to his visit to London, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a resounding defeat in the provincial elections held in the important northern state of Bihar.
This came as a major blow not only to the BJP which pulled out all stops to win the Bihar State Assembly, but also to the personal image of Modi, who after winning the General election in May 2014, was seen as invincible.
The BJP had ridden to power in India’s General election on what was described as a ‘Modi wave’ or ‘Modi mania’ winning 282 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) – the first time a single party had managed to get an overall majority in India in the last 20 years. While the Congress Party under Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, had regularly won with even larger majorities, coalition politics of the last two decades had meant that governments in India were formed based on coalitions winning and not single parties. Modi and his close associate from Gujarat, Amit Shah, were seen as the architects of last year’s victory.
As a reward Modi was made Prime Minister and Shah, the national President of the BJP – and since then they have been ruling the party and the country with an iron fist.
Seeing their success at the Centre, the Modi-Shah duo believed that they could replicate the victory in Bihar’s provincial election using the same formula – an overt ‘development’ plank promising a revved up economy and jobs which would be mouthed by Modi as he travelled the length and breadth of the State holding meetings as their main electioneer, and a covert attempt to polarise voters on religious lines by pitting Hindus against Muslims. While this formula had brought them rich dividends in 2014, it did not cut much ice in Bihar for a variety of reasons.
Unlike in the General election where BJP was faced with a fractured opposition hence allowing it to form a majority government despite only receiving 31 per cent of the votes (India follows the British model with a first past the post system), in Bihar the three main opposition parties put up a united front called the Grand Alliance against the BJP. This Alliance consisted of the two regional parties of the JD(U) headed by the incumbent Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, and the RJD headed by a former Chief Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the national Congress Party. The Alliance managed to win 178 seats out of the total 243 in the Bihar Assembly receiving nearly 42 per cent of the share of vote.
The ‘Modi-magic’ certainly worked to the extent that his numerous election meetings were well-attended but they did not translate into votes. People came to listen to his oratory, but the same old promises of development and jobs had lost their sheen. The voters, even in Bihar, who had sent Modi to New Delhi as Prime Minister had realised that these promises were empty. In the last 18 months there was no evidence on the ground of a revved up economy or jobs, in fact to the contrary, inflation is still high with the prices of pulses and vegetables shooting beyond the pockets of the poor. Whereas in the last 10 years of Nitish Kumar’s rule as Chief Minister, Bihar had seen peace and a lot of development hence allowing the voter to put their trust in him for an unprecedented third term.
Half-way through the campaign, seeing that the ‘development’ promises were not working, the Modi-Shah combine turned to the tactic that had worked for them repeatedly in Gujarat State elections and the 2014 General election – religious polarisation – pitting Hindus against Muslims. Unlike Gujarat, Bihar has a large Muslim population currently placed at 16 per cent. Since 1989, Bihar has been ruled either by the RJD or JD(U), both socialist parties sitting left of centre and whose core voters are the lower castes among Hindus, Dalits (earlier called Untouchables) and Muslims. Both these social justice parties have maintained religious harmony in Bihar inspite of severe provocation from sectarian forces. So when Modi told low caste Hindus that the Alliance would take their rights and give them to “that community” ie Muslims, or when Shah invoked Pakistan as a metaphor for Indian Muslims, the tactic backfired.
With an intolerance debate raging all over the country as its backdrop, what should have been a provincial election became a referendum on the Modi Government’s performance in the last 18 months. The Bihar voter taught Modi that they did not approve of his divisive tactics and unless he begins to fulfil some of his tall promises of development, the BJP would lose all future state elections scheduled for 2016 and 2017. India’s honeymoon with Modi is finally over.