The elections in Bihar were held at a transitory point where the electorate had ample opportunity to think and evaluate the ‘Gujarat Model’ of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine, based on their track record of the past 18 months. Sunday’s defeat of the BJP opens up interesting dimensions that need careful analysis in order to understand the complexities of electoral politics and the vagaries of democracy in India.
First, the results clearly reflect the fact that the BJP strategy of combining high-intensity growth with low-intensity communalism has reached a dead-end. While growth-talk is not delivering jobs and translating into welfare, the communally vitiated atmosphere on ground is increasingly being seen as manufactured for electoral benefits. The rhetoric of development and manufactured communal polarisation seems to have run its course. It was evident during the campaign that the electorate was not enamored by the announcement of the Rs 1.25 lakh crore package, which was seen more as creating a larger-than-life demonstrative/mediatised effect rather than being an authentic strategy to address the underdevelopment of Bihar. Similarly, incidents such as those in Dadri failed to polarise the electorate along religious lines, partly reflecting the fact that Bihar hasn’t witnessed a communal riot since the Bhagalpur riots in 1984, and that the agenda of social justice was inclusiveness of, at least, the physical security of Muslims, if not their social or economic upliftment. By the last phases of the campaign Shah’s reference to ‘celebrations in Pakistan’ seemed completely out of sync with the mood of the electorate. This, in a sense, was a repeat of what happened with the Delhi polls earlier this year, where the BJP attempted a similar strategy of using the rhetoric of development in combination with sparking riots and organising attacks against the Church. It did not work then, it did not work now. Similarly, the business of governance cannot be reduced to a mere business transaction, which is evident again in the way Modi has been handling Kashmir in the course of his visit on Saturday. He offered a Rs 80,000 crore package without uttering a word on the routine human rights violations and trampling of basic dignity against which Kashmiris have been dissenting for a long time. This brings into relief the significant issue that economic upliftment has to be combined with cultural space and a democratic atmosphere of dialogue and dissent. The ‘Gujarat Model’, perhaps, undermines other kinds of democratic aspirations to mere business-like transactions.
The second significant issue that the BJP’s defeat brings forth is the question of leadership and representation. The advantage the BJP has is that, while other parties have reached a saturation point in the way they can accommodate leaders of different social groups and castes, it is still a relatively young party in many states and has the advantage of expanding and providing representation to leaders from different social backgrounds. In a federal set-up this ideally should have been a huge advantage but the way the BJP managed it by projecting Modi and a virtual non-entity like Amit Shah as leaders hasn’t touched base with the bulk of the electorate. It has instead been seen more as undermining the local and state-level leadership — reflected in the Bihari-bahari debate. The potency of national leaders has substantial effect on the ground when backed by strong regional leadership. This was partly the reason for the decline of the Congress in many states. The BJP seems to be replicating its top-heavy organisational model. It became clear that the Modi-Shah brand of politics was attempting to undermine and take credit where the BJP met with success and distance and blame local leaders, where it bit the dust. This was evident in the way the BJP changed strategy mid-polls by changing hoardings with the Modi-Shah duo. This was the failed strategy it adopted in Delhi, where in anticipation of an adverse result they began to project Kiran Bedi as leader.
At the root, one could argue that the BJP’s leadership is suffering from a lack of imagination and ideas. In the last year, there have been no striking schemes or policy shifts from the current dispensation. It has dabbled in changing the names of roads, of schemes, including re-naming the Planning Commission as Niti Aayog, but what it perhaps failed to realise is that it needs an alternative vision, a new set of ideas to reinvigorate the aspirations of the electorate. What the BJP has done so far is replicate the model that returned Modi to power three successive times in Gujarat. However, India is not Gujarat. It is too regionally diversified to fit into any given model of politics. Each state and region has a rich history. It is imperative to make sense of these local sensibilities but whether that is possible for a party that believes in creating a homogenous-majoritarian polity laid out and led-by the RSS is the moot point that will await intriguing answers in times to come.
(The writer is assistant professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He toured Bihar during the polls as part of a study supported by Hyderabad-based People’s Pulse. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)