by Ratnakar Tripathy
When Narendra Modi first started his Bihar election campaign in early October, the BJP certainly appeared to be the winner. The Laloo-Nitish – Congress combine seemed like a badly stitched up job, a valiant maybe but an unconvincing show to the Bihar voter. But by the end of the fourth phase on the 2nd November, my journalist friends were sure that the Grand Alliance is winning in Bihar by a small but substantial margin. How Modi-Shah duo brought about this reversal is a story to be told after 8th November when the Bihar Assembly elections results come out and there is no place for ambiguity and whatiffery. But it is certainly possible to chart the course of the varying BJP strategies up to the last phases of the election.
The initial message of Modi was of course himself with the added potion of ‘development’. But this rhetoric was backed by a promises of endless manna from the heavens of the Centre. The crowds in Bihar were happy to receive the attention of the boss man of the nation. With no serious anti-incumbency sentiments against Nitish, Laloo was the chosen target. The voter was even willing to swallow the talk of Jungle Raaj in the initial days. Laloo is an easy target for ridicule but little did Modi bargain for a Laloo equally good at giving it back. In fact Laloo proved much better, much funnier and much more to the mark in his attacks that reduced Modi’s 2014 stature to an ordinary mortal who lands up in Bihar in a helicopter every other day and spouts nasty words against local leaders for reasons unexplained. This amounted to a trivialization of a charisma turning it into a plain piece of daily furniture.
While Modi-Shah duo turned all the NDA leaders into faceless pygmies instead of enhancing their status, the upper-lower caste divide deepened after the ‘anti-reservation’ talk by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. The news spread like wildfire in the Bihar countryside. It must be said for the quasi-literate Bihari rustic that he compensates very well for his isolation by using the social media to the full. By the end of the second phase it became clear that the Bihar election is about Mandal versus Kamandal – lower versus the upper castes. Even as the commentators cribbed about the inevitable and the annoying presence of the caste factor in Bihar politics, it became clear that the oppressed sections have no other language but that of caste to fight their ideological and organizational battles. By the end of the third phase, Shah-Modi duo were desperate for reasons most understandable.
It is however with the fourth phase that the BJP decided to scrape at the bottom of its armoury. By the fifth phase elections on the 5th November, Bihar had seen the whole range of rhetoric, ideological arsenal, conspiracies and rumours employed by the BJP. I will discuss only two examples here – one taken from a conversation with a journalist friend and another being the latest scandal over a BJP poster about the alleged support for beef-eating among the Grand Alliance members.
My journalist friend told me of more than one IAS officer posted in the districts who confided in him – they had to work very hard to put a brake on communal riots as the Durga Puja and Muharram dates coincided this year. The local mischief makers tried to use an old formula for riot-making. They insisted on taking out their Durga Puja processions on the Muharram day but the IAS officers involved refused to budge. The Nitish government in Patna had given them clear instructions and even Nitish personally warned his audience at numerous rallies about the ‘kanphukwa’ [whisperer] likely to throw cow carcass in a temple and pork in a mosque during the election period. The riots that were hoped for never happened.
But just as the fifth and the last phase of the elections on 5th November drew close, the BJP issued an advertisement-poster alleging that the Grand Alliance members endorse the consumption of beef. As a result the Election Commission had to announce that all the ads by the political parties require prior approval before being printed/displayed. The timing for this ad was calculated as the last phase elections cover the north-east Bihar with a large Muslim population. The intent perhaps was to polarize the populace and garner votes from the stampeding Hindus. Of course nothing of the sort is likely to happen and instead BJP finds itself arrive at a finishing line it may not have wanted to reach under the full glare of the public gaze.
Who will win the Bihar election remains to be seen but the BJP has entered a tunnel very difficult to get out of. Of course the tunnel seemed like a wide spacious highway to begin but this may be the end of all the manoeuvring space that BJP enjoyed in the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani.
The Bihar drama seems like a clincher for the whole of India today but is really a small part of the grander question – after Bihar, what now? And much will depend on what path the BJP decides to follow out of conviction or convenience for the next three and a half years at the centre.