Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lessons BJP is unlikely to learn from the Bihar debacle

by Ratnakar Tripathy

A day after the crushing defeat of the BJP in the Bihar assembly Elections was announced on 8th November 2015, its parliamentary group met to discuss and dissect the disaster. We do not know what transpired amongst the gathering of the grim faces, but the version put out by Arun Jaitley in a press conference on 9th November indicates there was more ceremony than substance in the palaver. I say this because Jaitley presented what may seem like a PP by an undergrad student on a psephological case study.  With great detachment he argued step by step that the reason for BJP’s defeat lay in better arithmetic and strategy adopted by the Nitish-Lalu-Congress Grand Alliance. This is like a trounced tennis player admitting the obvious that the adversary played a better game. Jaitley had little to say about the ‘content’ of the BJP message that the Bihar voter rejected. He tried to argue that the delivery of the message was to be faulted. Does this sound like a supply chain glitch found in the field of human communication? 

Such is the language of politics today – you can get away all the way with talk about strategy without discussing political values, visions, ideals or policies which get trivialized through jarring repetitions. True, in times of instant communication, the difference between the content and its manner and effectiveness of delivery may often blur. Such blurring was made easier in Bihar because of the ‘war room’ team employed by Nitish. Nitish’s Grand Alliance campaign was planned and executed to a great extent by Prashant Kishore, the same talent who took residence in Modi’s house in Ahmadabad and backed him in the 2014 parliamentary campaign. No doubt a logistical and semiological genius, Kishore nevertheless decided on the fitting slogans, images, propaganda methods and of course the micro level logistics of it all – BUT he remained the carrier of the message, not its utterer or its origin. News reports on Bihar are now naively painting him as a sort of data science sorcerer just as the BJP chief Amit Shah was last seen as the ultimate wizard of the ballot box.

So the question is did the Grand alliance win because of better data management and the ability to act appropriately in response to the data obtained? It may seem like a commonplace but the voter is certainly not as easily manipulated and once you presume he is you are in great trouble. The kind of trouble the BJP got into by assuming that you can always goad the Hindu voter irrespective of caste into an anti-Muslim huddle – all you got to do is try hard enough. Such presumptuousness only reflects the fact that the anti-Muslim sentiment may be too deeply ingrained into the BJP-RSS itself to be shed even for opportunistic reasons. A good analogy here may be the fatal curse of the dynastic urge within the Congress that has stymied it but without which it will lose its identity and fail to hold together. Just as we often ask if the Congress will ever evolve and outgrow its dynastic inclinations, one may ask will BJP outgrow its slavish allegiance to the RSS seen in the post-Advani era. When Lalu Yadav claimed in his victory speech on 8 November that Modi is just an RSS pracharak [propagandist], he did not seem wide of the mark at all.

All the above is a prologue to what I want to claim here – BJP lost Bihar for two chief reasons – because it was seen as harshly divisive and because it was perceived as the platform of the upper castes with some co-opted lower caste leaders. The urban commentators may continue to paint caste sentiments as some kind of superstition or even Marxian ‘false consciousness’ but the Bihar voter in his daily life continues to face casteism as the most tangible form of oppression. There is also a reason to believe that the RSS should be seen more as a proponent of Brahminism rather than Hinduism as such or Hindutva.

Reacting to the bewildering tsunami of BJP stalwarts from Delhi, the Bihar voter thus recoiled and decided to take a conservative approach and play safe by rushing back in a ‘wave’ to a well-known Lalu, Nitish and even the Congress. This is a voter that knows the difference between sweet courtship and insistent stalking and molestation. Constant abuse and warnings from the very PM of a country in 26 rallies alarmed the cunning Bihari peasant who saw in Modi a taker rather than a giver. Nitish on the other hand rode the wave of positivity with his slogan of ‘inclusive development’, a phrase to which he had earlier lent solid content through the days of ‘good governance[ sushasan]’ and the empowerment of the extremely backward and the women in Bihar. The Bihar voter realized and remembered it is not a good idea to take Nitish for granted and take a crazy gamble.   

True, the next few days will see Lalu and the Congress seek their pound of flesh from Nitish - ministerial posts for Lalu’s sons and the victorious Congress candidates to be shepherded by Nitish of course. Soon after Lalu settles the bargains in Patna, he will be off to create ‘trouble [jhanjhat]’ as he put it for Narendra Modi through a tour to Varanasi and West Bengal. The idea is to stir up the political air in the country and create an ant-Modi front. It seems suddenly it has been discovered by all and sundry that the towering figure of Modi has feet of clay after all. What may now follow is a stampede of the tramplers, including the members of the NDA alliance and even the BJP.  Often in politics when you fail to take a critical look in the mirror others make sure to shove the facts in your face in the roughest way possible.

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