The most significant deduction drawn from the recently concluded Bihar election is that it is not won by the JDU-RJD-Congress combine (Grand Alliance or GA), but it is lost by an overconfident and arrogant BJP.
The Bihar elections turned out to be – to selectively quote Shakespeare – “a tale full of sound and fury”, although the result signified a great deal. The election was touted in the media as a Battle of the Giants; media headlines screamed “photo finish” and “down to the wire”; news anchors almost wet themselves in their excitement; exit polls variously predicted a victory of Modi’s gang (NDA) or of Nitish Kumar’s coalition (GA). One thing they all agreed on was that it would be a close contest. They all wound up with egg on their collective faces.
In the end, it turned out to be a David versus Goliath tussle. Mighty Modi was laid low by a Kumar (of questionable DNA). He left the field licking his wounds and, no doubt, pondering on where to lay the blame – anywhere, but on himself, to be sure. For the first time in recent memory, Amit Shah looked less smug; although he managed to drum up a smile as he presented a bouquet to the Big Boss. In fact, bouquets were the order of the day as Modi arrived for the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting the day after the results. One would have got the impression that the Ministers were felicitating a conquering hero instead of…well, you know. But of course, in the BJP parivar, only victories are credited to the Great Leader. Defeats occur because his lieutenants let him down. In any case, any despondency Modi might have felt will soon be obliterated in a few days, when 60,000 adoring Non-Resident Indians welcome him with shouts of “Modi! Modi!” at Wembley Stadium in London. Adulation is the stuff of life to him. (The article was written before Modi’s London visit.)
What went wrong for the BJP?
Primarily the immutable conviction among the Modi bhakts that as long as big man was around to address mass rallies and work the Modi magic, the party could not lose. (Delhi was an aberration, for after all, you could not expect those Capital snobs to empathize with a “humble chaiwallah”). What they and the Big Chief perhaps did not appreciate is that even the most impressive magic trick loses its charm if it is repeated ad nauseam. The rabble rousing oratory, elaborate hand gestures and sarcastic jabs at political opponents, that Modi had perfected into an art form became predictable and sad with repeated overuse. Moreover, after 18 months of grand promises, reality had begun to sink into the minds of the great unwashed Indian public. The “sabka saath, sabka vikas” mantra begins to sound a bit hollow when tur dal costs Rs.200 a kilo.
The Caste Card – Boon or Bane
Intentionally or by a fortuitous coincidence, the Nitish-Laloo duo hit Modi in his most vulnerable spot – his ego. Modi’s early rallies were on the right track. He talked about development and jobs and imminent prosperity – and the crowds responded enthusiastically. But then Laloo took personal digs at him and he could not stomach that. He shed his statesman-like Prime Minister avatar and reverted to the street fighter he started out as. During the latter half of the election cycle, Modi was sounding more and more like a grassroots politician – complete with name calling and thinly disguised innuendos. He wore his membership of the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) as a badge of honour and attempted to cash in on it at every opportunity. In my opinion, the Prime Minister of an important country – particularly one who is trying to project himself as an international statesman to the world community – should not be lowering the dignity of his high office by exploiting his caste for perceived electoral gains. Even Amit Shah stated at an election rally that “BJP will pick up OBC, EBC issues better because PM is from that class.” Amitbhai, in fact, went one step further, by invoking dire consequences of a BJP defeat that, according to him, would cause celebratory fireworks to be burst in Pakistan. Significantly, “sabka saath, sabka vikas” mantra seemed to have been put into cold storage. On the one hand, PM Modi is attempting to portray India as a modern, progressive nation and inviting the international community to invest in the country. And then, he and his top deputy are shamelessly playing the caste card for the sake of votes. If Modi wants to project himself as a development oriented leader, he needs to discard the “humble chai-wallah” tag that helped to get him elected, but is no longer relevant. He is no longer a party leader, but the Prime Minister of the country and accordingly, he should hold himself above petty politics.
So there you have it. A Prime Minister who came to power on a platform of development and a promise – to paraphrase Donald Trump – “to make India great again”, squandered his political capital on an ill-conceived political strategy. He descended to the old school style of politics where the purpose is to defame and ridicule your opponents. Thus he called Laloo Prasad a shaitan presiding over a jungle raj, took exception to Nitish Kumar’s DNA, brandished pieces of paper during his rallies to sneer at how venal and untrustworthy the leaders of the GA were; and, in the process, he lost the plot. He virtually handed over the election to Nitish and Laloo on a platter. To be fair, Modi should not take the entire blame for the poll debacle. His moronic ministers and inflammatory henchmen played their part by harping on beef bans and playing the Hindutva card to the hilt – thereby strengthening the perception that the BJP was heavily influenced by the extreme right wing Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS). To their credit, the Bihar electorate refused to be “cowed” down by the venomous rhetoric. It would be premature to state that the master strategist has lost his chutzpah, but it would serve him well to do some serious introspection.
What’s next for the BJP and its guiding light?
The near total rout of the BJP in the Bihar election has serious implications for PM Modi personally. For the past two years, Modi has been able to exert absolute control over his ministers and BJP leaders because he impressed upon them that whatever they may think about him and his policies, they absolutely need him to win elections. Now that the people of Bihar have busted that myth, Modi may face uncomfortable questions from his own party members. Some may even become emboldened to criticise him openly. In fact, BJP icons like L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have publicly voiced their displeasure. Amit Shah, in particular, is likely to come under heavy fire. Many senior BJP leaders consider him to be an upstart who was made party president, mainly because of his close association with Modi during his years as the Gujarat CM. Now that his much vaunted organizational skills have yielded negative results, the knives will be out for him.
Incidentally, Modi is the most powerful PM India has had since Indira Gandhi. If he wanted to, he could have shut up his loud mouthed Ministers and Hindutva hotheads in no time. Hitherto, he chose not to do so, perhaps for perceived electoral gains in Bihar. That gambit has failed miserably. Perhaps Modi will now put those fanatics in their place after realising that they are dragging him and the BJP down.
In news just in, it seems Modi has got the message loud and clear. The PM has announced an increase in Foreign Direct Investment across several sectors. He has acceded to multi-national companies’ long standing wishes, such as FDI in single brand retail. Hopefully, Modi has finally realised that Hindutva politics does not have much resonance among a majority of the population. Much as Modi’s natural inclination may be to oblige his mentor, the RSS, he may realise that the government must distance itself from any talk about a Hindu Rashtra. If this is indeed the case, we may still see the India Modi promised during the Lok Sabha elections.
Mr. Firoze Hirjikaka is a retired civil engineer and a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org