Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Why Bihar election is a national battle in more than one sense

by Ratnakar Tripathy

As we approach the 5-phase elections between 12 October and 5 November 2015 the Bihari voter is both flattered and bemused by the sheer scale of attention the state is receiving. Understandably so as given Bihar’s history of relation with the Centre, an abrupt upsurge of attention after long-drawn-out neglect can be rather baffling. Why Bihar elections have acquired a near global significance may seem obvious at first glance – the trouble is it isn’t. Of course it has been repeated umpteen times that the BJP needs to accumulate enough members in the Upper House of the parliament for which it must reap enough seats in the state assemblies so in the long run it will have enough numbers to push its legislative bills at the centre. But this is a slow and patient job to be carried out through several impending state elections. It hardly explains the torrid urgency and the desperateness of Narendra Modi who would have addressed sixteen rallies and up to forty public meetings all over the state by the time the state elections in Bihar come to an end.

There is a strange subliminal, almost mythical side to such intensive campaigning by none else but the country’s Prime Minster in a state election. Unless you want to explain it by pointing out Modi’s temperamental fondness for speeches and rallies or his long stint as a pracharak [propagandist] in the RSS! The fact remains that day by day the figure of Nitish as Modi’s chosen target may be getting larger in public consciousness within and outside Bihar at the national level. The more attention Nitish receives from Modi the larger his national image may become over time. This is the unavoidable risk both Modi and BJP president Shah are taking. On the other hand every dent made in Modi’s image by Lalu and Nitish can only reduce his stature. But we will revert to all this later. 

To come back to another simple and obvious explanation for the near ‘hyperbolic’ importance of Bihar elections - after the debacle in the Delhi state elections, Modi needs to redeem his honour in a hurry before being declared all hype and no substance among the wider international political and business circles.  In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, NDA bagged 31 out of 40 seats in the state. A significant decline in the outcomes of the assembly election in 2015 will prove with forensic clarity that Union Government’s popularity is heading downhill at an alarming rate. And a defeat will be calamitous for the BJP-RSS, shutting them out of this part of the country for some time to come.

This explanation could be nuanced further by adding that Bihar may prove to be a critical test case to check if the Modi rhetoric is seen as credible by the Indian voter even in the future. Modi’s high-sounding promises to Bihar are not just lavish they also carry a highly ‘personal’ tone as a saviour who must yank Bihar away from the Nitish-Lalu vice-grip. Because of this they just might surpass the limits of credibility leaving the voter more wary than convinced in the coming days. So the success of Modi’s rhetoric presumes a mind-set of high or even reckless hopefulness and trust among the voters – a state of mind difficult to sustain among the generally fickle voter. Nitish on the other hand projects himself modestly as a safe bet and little more. It is thus likely that even during the five-phase election between 12 October and 5 November, many different popularity waves may rise and drop. Right now there is not even a ripple on the ground among the voters even though the politicians and pollsters without fail seem perpetually agitated. The fact remains once done with Bihar, Modi and Shah will get busy with other states awaiting their elections. But the Bihar voter needs to be convinced, however briefly, that they will remain the cynosure, and won’t be dismissed by the duo in a hurry! 

None of the above readings contradict each other. They also sit squarely with a simple but near accurate view of Bihar elections as a confrontation between the BJP-RSS’s visions of development and that of Nitish-Lalu that goes back to the secular socialist tradition of Lohia and JP. The problem here is all these explanations do not throw adequate light on the crescendo of anxiety shown by all the concerned parties in the Bihar elections. 

The fact is matters have gone far beyond this simple two-way confrontation between the NDA and the Grand Alliance of Nitish-Lalu and the Congress. The puzzle here is – what are forces like Shiv Sena, Owaisi’s AIMIM, and Mulayam’s SP doing in Bihar? Mayawati’s BSP, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, all of whom are contesting significant number of seats in the state are around too. On top of this the once colossal Congress seems to be cowering under the ample umbrella of the ‘Grand alliance’ as it’s commonly known. To get a sense of the bizarre, you may consider the presence of the Panthers Party from J&K on the list. But the biggest puzzle here is - why has Mulayam’s SP remained outside the Grand Alliance and put up candidates for all the 243 seats in Bihar?

Why does an election to form a government in a state look like a national level contest like never before? The answer may be the election is also about wearing the mantle of the ‘main opposition’ leader at the national level.  Mulayam is here not with a hope to win many seats nor as just a spoilsport for Nitish-Lalu. He is in Bihar with the conviction that the Congress is nearing its end in the terminal sense and that there is an enormous vacuum to fill up as the Gandhi dynasty is stripped of its remaining halo. He is here to remind both Nitish and Lalu that he is the answer to BJP-RSS juggernaut, the most legitimate provider of a grand umbrella under which all the opposition parties must assemble meekly. In his perception, Nitish emerges as a usurper rather than an ally.

So the Bihar election is a multi-layered affair – it is about forming a government in Bihar, of course. Unfortunately for Modi, it is certainly about his career graph. But irrespective of who wins, it is also about taking charge of the opposition in the coming months and years irrespective of the election outcomes. And the reason Mulayam may seem as desperate as Modi-Shah or Nitish-Lalu duo, he probably assumes that the Modi graph will continue to plummet at a sharp pace, the Congress will go deeper into a coma and there is a grand national role waiting for him round the corner. Whether Mulayam’s reading is accurate will remain an open question for another month.

Postscript: any report on the Bihar elections that does not make a frank admission of the following should be seen to suffer from both – a sense of drama and a due respect for facts: the 2015 state elections in Bihar are one more round of battle between the upper castes [represented by the NDA] and the middle castes [represented by the Grand Alliance] in Bihar – the only difference this time around is they depend entirely on proxies to make their moral and numerical positions strong – the support of Dalits, and the Extremely Backward castes [EBCs], a congeries of above-100 small segments that add up to above one fourth of the population of Bihar.

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