As the election campaign rolled out, and even before the bugle was sounded by the Election Commission, the upcoming Bihar assembly elections began showing their effects at the national level. Some observations:
- Against his grain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolled back his government’s policy on land acquisition and let the related ordinance lapse. It would have been suicidal to be seen as anti-farmer in an election-bound state that is predominantly agricultural. This steep climbdown is the first adverse brush with reality for a government beholden to India Incorporated for its ascent to power. It has serious policy implications at the national level.
- The Modi government had to concede some ground to ex-servicemen on the one-pension-one-rank issue when they threatened to campaign against the BJP in Bihar. This shows that, despite all exhibitions of machismo on part of Modi, he is unable to hold his ground on Bihar.
- Despite a slight fall in the wholesale price, the central government chose to increase the dearness allowance (DA) for its employees just before the Election Commission’s code of conduct came into force for the Bihar elections. This was followed by a similar Bihar government announcement for its employees. These moves might bring about an inflationary pressure on the economy. Already, there is a wrong sort of gap between wholesale and retail prices, and the retail price of essential food items are very high. Not a very happy circumstance for a government that has sworn to abide by strict anti-inflationary policies. Any further inflationary pressure will weaken the case against lowering of interest rates. This creates an economic credibility deficit for the Modi government, and demonstrates that its resolve on matters economic might weaken in the face of political considerations.
- A paucity of ground-level results to boast of prevent the Modi government from projecting a pro-development resolve by citing growth and performance statistics. Instead, he is forced to take the tack that he funds development. His package announcement of `1.25 lakh-crore for Bihar was more than doubled by Nitish, who also tore into the prime minister’s package by pointing out how existing and proposed national highway and railway projects not exclusively meant for Bihar but only passing through the state were included in it. Even people voting for the BJP for other reasons are now doubtful of the prime minister’s economic claims.
- To send a message to Bihar’s Muslims, the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat included two small Muslim communities in the OBC reservation list. This was not warranted by the Patidar-Patel reservation stir in Gujarat, but was possibly meant to reassure Bihar’s obcs and Muslims that the BJP cares for them.
- Caste and reservation politics entered an uncharted area on the eve of the Bihar elections, with the Patel agitation in Gujarat led by Hardik Patel, widely seen as a prop of the RSS. Hardik has proclaimed that Nitish and Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP sympathised with the cause of the Patels.
- With the JD(U), RJD and Congress alliance in Bihar, the politics of anti-Congressism of yore is being replaced by an embryonic politics of anti-BJPism. The Bihar results, whichever way they go, will cause adjustments in this politics accordingly, but the phenomena is likely to stay.
- Bihar has shown that Narendra Modi’s 56-inch political chest can be made to shrink: after all, the prime minister is forced to stoop from the national level to a state-level fight to make sure that the BJP wins in the state. Whether he prevails or not, the results will speak.
The stakes are high. As has been pointed out by many, a victory in Bihar might prove a gateway to the east for the BJP. Besides, it could boost prospects in forthcoming elections to other states. A defeat will bust the invincibility myth around the Modi-Amit Shah combine. More than that, Bihar has already begun to show results at the national level, irrespective of whoever wins. These will gather force post Bihar polls.
Having said all this, it must be conceded that the BJP has shown a surge in Bihar hitherto never seen before. It utilised its long coalition with Nitish to push the saffron agenda, with events like the Ganga Aarti in Patna and the Mahaviri akhara and attempts to saffronise the smaller OBC and Dalit communities, which had felt excluded from the Mandalite sea-change brought about in the 1990s. The RSS-BJP provided a rallying point to voice their aspirations and invoked imagined or perceived insults to exploit their pride and sense of deprivation. It was through such efforts that the BJP expanded its presence in Bihar.
Follow Neelabh Mishra on Twitter at @neelabh_outlook