The results of the Bihar Assembly elections 2015 have stunned the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party feels that at the heart of its poor performance is its failure to bring about a “vote transfer” away from its rivals, economists are convinced India’s growth story is intact while political analysts are sure BJP will live to fight another day. How does an apolitical observer see these elections?
First, is the curse of the large mandate BJP received in the 2014 Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections. Some of the opposition parties post the parliamentary elections are teetering on the verge of insignificance (Communist Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party), while some other such as the Congress, DMK are staring down the barrel of a gun. These opposition parties, struggling for political survival, have remained in an extended state of campaigning aggressiveness. The options for the opposition are clear: derail BJP’s promised reforms agenda and raise the bogey of communal disharmony. Consequently, the BJP-led national government has received far less manoeuvre room and cooperation in the parliament than what it would have planned for after its landslide victory.
Secondly, the opposition parties in their ‘squeeze’ on the BJP have had an unexpected ally, a perpetual foot-in-the-mouth BJP fringe. The motor mouths in the BJP have done more damage by the frequency of their utterances rather than by the content. The constant stream of uncalled for remarks have besides other things denuded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a leader, especially when seen against the sluggish pace of reforms. The prime minister is now being seen as one who is not able to exercise control over his minsters (government) and MPs (party). This not only puts his leadership under a cloud but also enfeebles the personal guarantees he proffers in his attempts to bridge BJP’s leadership deficit in the state units.
Third, is the limited pool of second and third rung BJP leaders in the states, especially those states which have never seen a BJP government in the past. This situation has been aggravated by some of these leaders being drawn into the Union government and BJP’s limited confidence in the remainder, despite some good performances by unknown state leaders elevated to leadership roles in states such as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. This paradox saw BJP in a spot in Bihar where it claimed credit for most of the good governance during its earlier coalition government with Nitish Kumar in the state, but could not find courage to nominate Nitish’s then deputy Chief Minister and BJP’s senior leader in Bihar, Sushil K. Modi, as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the 2015 elections.
Fourthly, BJP learnt wrong lessons from its drubbing in the Delhi assembly elections in February. Instead of revisiting its election strategy, BJP appears to have thought that it needed to do more of what it was doing in Delhi and landed up making more of the same errors in Bihar.
Fifth is communication with the masses. Oversized billboards and social media seem to overshadow the good old grassroots level word-of-mouth method. Also gone are the two basic principles of effective communication: simple and credible messaging without contradictions. Not receiving much attention during the hustle-bustle of the Bihar elections was the fact that BJP lost panchayat (village level) elections in Modi’s own parliamentary constituency of Varanasi in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. This happened despite major development projects undertaken by the central government in Varanasi because BJP’s rivals managed to appropriate the credit for these projects in the public minds. In Bihar, BJP’s rivals managed to portray the central government’s action to replace centrally-funded schemes by state-owned ones as anti-development and as the reason for their own governance deficit.
Sixthly, BJP of late has come to be seen as a party which does not know its onions and beans (dal) on governance. One wonders what they were thinking (or eating) in their war-rooms that they could not foresee the impact of shortage and price rise of essential commodities on the elections in Bihar. Indications of shortage of onions had been there as early as April this year and timely mitigating action was slow in coming. Worse, the imported onions are reportedly now rotting in Mumbai, and pulses ‘seized’ from hoarders are yet to make an impact on its retail price.
Seventhly, BJP has to understand that somewhere in the hierarchy of needs of the common citizen is the need for safety and security. Need to be safe can drive him to opt for status quo. Economy, development and jobs are important but communal harmony and security can trump it. It is not just the message from Bihar but other parts of the world as well, where people in quest of security and peace have elected autocratic rulers and voted for less liberal political parties. Which, neither Nitish nor his party were in Bihar.
Finally, the talk of Bihari pride or DNA as an influencing factor in the election is nothing but an analyst’s election ”jumla” – introduction of an unquantifiable influence which has purportedly upset a measured trend. I would believe in the factor when I stop getting images from Bihar of children cheating in school exams or people travelling ticketless in public transport. I will believe in this factor when Bihari NRIs spearhead investment in the state, when Bihari bureaucrats queue up for a posting to the state or when the upcoming railway locomotive factories in Bihar outperform other railway manufacturing units across the country.
BJP is today like an out of form batsman trying too hard to score runs and the advice to it is the same as what cricket coaches would give such a batsman – get back to basics. One, BJP and Modi should take a long view: stick to their original planning parameter of 5 plus 5 years of BJP governance. Accordingly this will allow them to prioritise some of the more contentious issues on their agenda, such as the uniform civil code, to the latter half of their government’s tenure. Two, stick to the development agenda, it will yield results especially when and where it matters. Lastly be fearless and enforce the rule of law. So focused has the party been on winning elections that it is losing sight of the basics of good politics and governance.