The NDA’s slender majority in the Bihar Assembly poll, notwithstanding, there is plenty for the BJP to cheer about. The obvious causes for euphoria are the saffron party’s emergence as the senior partner in the coalition with 74 seats (19.46 per cent vote share) against the 43 seats (15.39 per cent vote share) of the Janata Dal-United and that even though the BJP may for now grant Nitish Kumar his fifth term as chief minister, the power console will firmly be in its hands.
The BJP’s impressive tally at the hustings reaffirms the continuing popularity of its mascot, Narendra Modi, just as it signifies the diminishing appeal of Kumar, the prospects of a brighter political future for Tejashwi Yadav (if he continues recasting Lalu Yadav’s RJD as a party that also stands for economic justice besides its avowed ideology of social justice) and the deepening morass in the Congress party. If the immediate takeaways from the Bihar verdict give the BJP ample cause to celebrate, a dogged pursuit of its current political path – irrespective of a predictable corollary that portends deepening communal and caste divisions – may well help the BJP build itself as the largest electoral entity in the state in the not-so-distant future.
Political astrology is indubitably a tricky hobby that relies heavily on conjecture. However, there are always some safe assumptions on the table that, with some helpful juxtaposition of past electoral wisdom, provide a glide path for political prophecies. It is through the orbuculum of Bihar 2020 that the BJP may place some safe bets and proceed with its expansionist agenda in the state in the foreseeable future – albeit with an equally strong chance of it all going wrong; but that’s a risk any political outfit worth the ballot must be willing to take.
The Bihar results have shown that the BJP’s Hindutva arc is not just intact in the state but is growing steadily. From largely a Bania party of the 1980s, the BJP had successfully sunk its roots into the state’s Upper Caste vote bank of Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars over the past three decades. Over the past six years under Modi’s stewardship, it has gradually amalgamated communities from the extreme backward castes and Dalits/Mahadalits into its fold. This was an experiment that the BJP had also carried out successfully in UP when it sought to hyphenate non-Jatav Dalits from the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati (a Jatav) and non-Yadav OBCs from the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav. In Bihar, as the results now show, the consolidation of forward and backward caste Hindus in favour of the BJP has given the party its much-desired pole position in the state’s electoral politics.
Kumar, who had successfully created a distinct political vote bank for the JD (U) by winning over extreme backward castes and Mahadalits while also making himself acceptable to a large section of Muslims despite the BJP, now stares at a substantial chunk of his Hindu voters shifting loyalties to the BJP. The Muslims are making their way back to the RJD – or even Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM.
For Tejashwi and the RJD, this steadily changing political landscape also raises a fresh challenge even though his present showing in the election has been commendable. That Tejashwi has benefitted largely from his father’s tutelage is evident. Lalu, like Mulayam in UP, had stitched a formidable MY (Muslim-Yadav) coalition for the RJD and used the idiom of samajik nyay (social justice) to his advantage for decades. The Yadav consolidation remains strong for Tejashwi in Bihar, even if it has fragmented for Akhilesh in UP, and the Muslims seem willing to give him another chance after the recent disenchantment with Kumar.
However, Tejashwi’s future will also depend on whether he can broaden the base of his party to win over support of other castes and communities that are drifting into the increasingly amorphous Hindutva vote bank of the BJP. Tejashwi’s quest for economic justice – jobs for the youth, dignity for migrants, education, etc. – sought to do this and, perhaps, helped the RJD emerge as the single largest party in the polls but the consolidation fell short of propelling him to power. Of course, pulling Tejashwi down was also the baggage of an organizationally and politically comatose Congress party. The RJD leader will, moving forward, need to take a hard look at whether being a beast of burden for the Congress really is worth his time.
For nearly four decades, the politics of Bihar has been determined by the ideals Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP); though the former was not a Bihari politician. The foundation of a rabidly socialistic polity that the two helped lay and the wave of anti-Congressism that JP was instrumental in building had paved the way for a generation of political leaders who went on to define Bihar politics – among them were Lalu, Nitish, Ram Vilas Paswan, Yashwant Sinha, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sushil Modi and many others. Irrespective of the affiliations these leaders had in later years with the Congress or the BJP, the stamp of Lohia-JP politics was always evident in their public outreach. Despite the difference in their politics and parties, Lalu, Kumar and even Sushil Modi stuck to their own templates of samajik nyay; variously appropriating Lohia and JP whenever needed.
The BJP now seeks to break-free of this template to give a new one – one that has Modi as the icon and a narrower theme of justice for Hindus, as opposed to the comprehensive and somewhat formless construct of social justice, as its core narrative. It is in this quest that the Bihar result is a definite step ahead for the BJP. The diminishing of a 69-year-old Kumar and the absence of any acceptable heir who can reinvent the JD (U) five years from now (assuming that the soon-to-be formed government will last a full term) may drive traditional JD (U) voters towards the BJP. A significant chunk of JD (U) voters have, anyway, not been averse to the BJP as is evident from the past successes of the alliance while their growing lack of compatibility with the RJD has been proven time and again. Similarly, other smaller parties in the state which have been in business with the BJP – Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM-S, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, Mukesh Sahani’s VIP or even Chirag Paswan’s LJP – revolve around a single leader with limited appeal in a single community. These leaders have all seen their votes fragment in favour of the BJP’s Hindutva conglomerate.
That Kumar’s predictable walk into the sunset of his political life – even though he may for now return as the CM – has begun, was a narrative that gained currency through the hectic Bihar campaign. It was not surprising that the BJP, despite enjoying the fruits of power in Bihar for two decades largely because of Kumar, made no strident effort to defend the chief minister. The taint of anti-incumbency and all that possibly went wrong in the last government was placed firmly at Kumar’s doorstep while the BJP continued to broaden its footprint nonchalantly. Even RJD’s allegations of poor or no financial assistance to Bihar from the Centre was craftily twisted by BJP foot soldiers in Bihar to suggest that though Modi gave thousands of crores of monetary aid to Bihar, the state government under Kumar failed to pass on the benefits to the people.
In fact, when trends predicted a JD (U) rout early on counting day, BJP’s Amit Malviya made it clear during a TV debate that the verdict was “against Nitish Kumar and the people still want the BJP… Kumar should have given up the chair long ago”. It may not be too difficult to image that the BJP now seeks to devour what’s left of its old ally and with Kumar now at its mercy to stay politically relevant, he’ll find it very hard to put up any fight.
The BJP can now hope to consolidate its position as the main rival of the only other serious contender for power in the state – the RJD. That it has never held the CM’s chair in the state helps the BJP to ask the people for a chance at the top post – while asserting that Modi in Delhi will always protect Bihar’s interests. The BJP’s rivals may argue that such projections may work only till Modi remains in command of the BJP and in Delhi – and that the public will eventually see the BJP’s promises for the hollow claims they are. This is, certainly, a fair argument and it is obvious that Modi won’t stay in command always.
The hitch, though, is that the base instincts of large chunks of the electorate that Hindutva politics feeds on to give the BJP its electoral victories could outlast Modi’s stint in power.
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