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The Bihar Wave: My takeaways

The Bihar Wave: My takeaways

A)     Elections are always about arithmetic, occasionally about chemistry. 2015 Bihar has been about a bit of  both: the caste arithmetic of  the “Mahagatbandhan” with the chemistry of  Nitish as a ‘decent’ ‘hard-working’ chief minister propelled a wave election.
B)      The BJP cant put all their eggs in Narendra Modi’s basket in election after election. The prime minister is easily the country neta’s number one, is a charismatic politician, but there are limits to personality-based politics, especially in state elections that are fought on local factors. In 2014, Mr Modi could walk on water; in 2015, he must realize that he isn’t invincible. Nor can he expect oratory to substitute for actual achievement: the former gets you prime time news space, the latter gets you votes. You cant go to Nawada and speak the language of  a Nevada: there is a disconnect between the Modi brand of  politics and parts of  rural India, especially when the price of  dal is Rs 200 a kilo. How about a few photo-ops with farmers, Mr Prime Minister?
C)      Amit Shah must realize that one size doesn’t fit all. Bihar 2015 wasn’t UP 2014 where Shah could rely on anger against the Congress at the Centre and the Samajwadi party in Lucknow. There is enough evidence that Shah ran a campaign that smacked of  arrogance of  power: there was little space for state leaders, be it an MP like Shatrughan Sinha or even a credible local “face” like Sushil Modi. That Mr Shah’s poster would get equal space with the prime minister, that he addressed 80 rallies, suggests that someone forgot to remind the BJP president that he is not a mass leader but a backroom strategist. And no strategy of  a General can work without soldiers who feel genuinely wanted.
D)      Cow gives you milk, it doesn’t get you votes (a line borrowed from my friend and election panelist, Surjit Bhalla). By attempting to push the anti cow slaughter campaign, the BJP lost the plot. India’s young who voted in large numbers for the BJP voted on a positive agenda for change: jobs, growth, opportunity. It didn’t vote for issues that are potentially divisive. If  the BJP doesn’t rein in the fringe, it will continue to pay a price of  losing the crucial “plus” vote: those Indians who simply want social cohesion with economic growth.  
E)      There is a genuine woman vote bank in a state like Bihar. We still don’t have the post poll numbers, but I would hazard a guess that a majority of  them voted for Nitish. Be it rural electrification, better law and order, good roads, cycles for girls: women feel “empowered” when the focus of  development is on old fashioned politics based on basic needs.
F)      Lalu Prasad maybe a comic figure for the English speaking elite, but he is also a politician with a ear to the ground. Never under-estimate what the Mandal revolution gave to the backward castes of Bihar: a voice that had been missing for decades. Lalu represents that voice even if he has misused it for his own private benefit. There is also a warning to Lalu: if he practices the ugly politics of  the 1990s, he will be pushed back to the margins. The new coming of  Lalu will work only if he re-invents himself and looks beyond caste assertion.
G)     Mohan Bhagwat should speak less, especially before an election. There is little doubt that Bhagwat’s reservation remarks changed the election narrative. Reservation should be on the basis of  income, but there is a direct link between caste and income. You cant tell those on the margins of  society that the country needs to debate reservations: debates on an issue like reservation are  meant for TV studios and parliament, not  for the heat and dust of  a campaign.
H)     The Congress party cannot be written off  but its future is dependent on a willingness to accept that it is no longer the dominant party of  the country, a realization that cemented the Bihar alliance. The BJP is the principle pole of  Indian politics now: the Congress cant just wait for the BJP or Mr Modi to self-destruct. Rahul Gandhi needs an agenda that goes beyond Modi or RSS bashing, rediscover  cadres and provide them a new direction. Else he will find that a dawn in Bihar will be followed by darkness in an Assam or a Kerala next year.
I)        Nitish Kumar is the man of  the match even if  Lalu Prasad got more seats. Lalu got Nitish the votes, but it’s the chief minister who gave the alliance the ultimate X factor: credibility. Not once during the campaign did Nitish raise his voice in anger, or speak the language of division or hate, but offered his record in power as his biggest asset. Charisma goes beyond attempting to be Arnold Schwarznegger; there is also space for those who stand and wait. Decency is an under-rated political virtue especially when confronted with arrogance. Whether Nitish can be projected as a “national” leader would be premature: the real task of  leading a tough coalition in which Lalu might project himself as a remote control begins now.  
J)       There is a Muslim vote bank in the country: Muslims voted for the alliance out of  the fear of  the BJP.  The BJP cannot disregard the Indian Muslim to the point where it wont even give a single ticket to a Muslim; the “secular” alliance for its part will have to go beyond scare-mongering. Muslims, like other Indians, want opportunity; they also feel a greater need for physical security. If  these concerns are not addressed, they will remain vulnerable to vote bank politics.
K)      Every state election is sui generis. The BJP may have had a terrible 2015 after a watershed 2014 general election. Next year, there will be more state elections: each will be fought on multiple issues, many local, some national. There is no “Bihar model” for fighting elections; yes, the anti-Modi group has a better chance when their vote is undivided, and yes, the BJP would be better off with a stronger local leadership. What can be suggested is that Bihar has opened a door for both sides to look ahead to the biggest battle of  them all: the general elections of  2019.
L)       Don’t believe pollsters: like politicians, and indeed all of  us, they too are fallible. My friend Today’s Chanakya was spot on in the 2014 general elections, since then his record has been decidedly mixed, and today was a complete disaster. Sometimes, the gut of  a journalist matters more than the  
 numbers of  a pollster. Ten days ago, when I suggested that Bihar was a “done deal”, I was abused on twitter. My final number (in an office sweepstakes) was 158 for the alliance: the final number is closer to 180. Next time, I might well have egg on my face, till then congratulate the latest Chanakya, Dr Bhalla who predicted 175. And just enjoy the great Indian election where in the end only one person matters: the humble voter.  

Post-script:  On tv atleast, the only crackers I saw being burst were at the JDU and RJD headquarters (and prematurely in the BJP), but not in Islamabad or Karachi!  
Happy Diwali to all!

© 2020 Rajdeep Sardesai. All Rights Reserved.

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