There is a point in every campaign, whether military or political, when a small skirmish defines what the battle is about even if it does not indicate where the victory will lie ultimately. In the battle for Bihar, this came about in August when the heat was just building up for an election that had the nation and much of the South Asian neighbourhood riveted by the clash of personalities, ideologies, development models, all of which determined the outcome.
It was an impromptu performance by the singular Lalu Prasad Yadav, the man who halted the BJP’s communal juggernaut in 1990 by arresting party president L.K. Advani as he made his communally inflammatory journey through Bihar a quarter century ago, that once again captured a moment a moment that set the tone for the eventual defeat of the saffron party on Nov 8. In that August rally, Lalu simply ridiculed the new BJP supremo and Prime Minister Narendra Modi by imitating his high-pitched style at the hustings, a familiar performance since his rise to fame in Gujarat and in the 2014 parliamentary elections that garnered him a huge majority in the Lok Sabha.
The takedown occurred two days after the BJP supremo announced a massive aid package for Bihar at a huge rally in Arrah, saying Bihar was urgently in need of development. It was an announcement marked by hubris and condescension. “I had said Rs 50,000 crore … how much do you want? Rs60,000 crore, Rs70,000 crore, or 80 or 90,000 crore? I am announcing a package of Rs1.25 lakh crore to change Bihar’s destiny.” As Lalu Prasad Yadav asked the crowd: ‘Have you ever seen a prime minister like this?’
For the first time, there was a senior leader like Lalu he has been minister in the central government and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has ruled Bihar for 15 years mimicking Modi in a show that had the crowds whooping with delight. It was not just a comic interlude. As a dismissal of Modi’s largesse and demagoguery, it also marked the confidence of the opposition Mahagatbandhan or Grand Alliance to beat him at his own game. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal United (JDU) and the man projected as the leader of the alliance, sprang back with a more ambitious Rs2.7 lakh crore development plan for Bihar, knocking out the development plank from under the BJP.
Part of Lalu’s performance went viral as a one-minute video and it is important for several reasons. Never before has a prime minister of India been derided so publicly and exposed so clearly as an arrogant outsider (bahari as it was termed in Hindi) whose inability to understand the Bihari lost him an election on which he had staked his prime ministerial prestige. But then, as Lalu asked the crowd: “Have you ever seen a prime minister like this?”
For Bihar, it appears to have been a case of too much Modi. Too many visits, too many speeches and too much of a muchness. That is a question that should be worrying Modi whose crass outbursts have been hard to ignore as he tried to whip up communal feelings during his increasingly desperate campaign. That he has been spurned so decisively should give him pause for thought with the BJP reduced to just 53 seats in the 243-seat state legislature after contesting 158 seats, whereas in the 2010 elections it bagged 91 of the 102 seats it contested.
The party is convinced that the caste arithmetic of Bihar has been their undoing and not any other factor such as the overtly communal acts of the party like the lynching of people suspected of eating or trading in beef that is exercising the country. Caste undoubtedly is a major factor in Bihar where the backward castes or OBC as they are termed account for 48pc of the population. Among these the Yadavs are politically and numerically strong, while the Dalits, lowest in the caste heap, account for 16pc and Muslims nearly 17pc.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA alliance, spearheaded by the BJP, swept Bihar taking 31 of the 40 parliamentary seats, crushing the RJD-Congress which bagged seven and Nitish Kumar’s JDU just two seats. But the combined vote share of the JDU, RJD and the Congress came to an unbeatable 46pc against the 39pc of the NDA. This is what prompted Congress party president Sonia Gandhi to forge the Grand Alliance of the erstwhile rivals with her party as the third partner. It was a tricky task since Nitish and Lalu, although old-time political allies drawn from the same socialist stock were hostile to each other. While Nitish had partnered with the BJP to usher in development for the country’s most impoverished state after 15 years of misrule by Lalu’s RJD, he parted ways with the saffron party after it anointed Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014.
There was, however, common ground. One of the outstanding qualities the two share is a staunchly secular philosophy which has kept Bihar fairly free of the scourge of communal riots unlike in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh where savage Hindu-Muslim riots have been orchestrated by communal parties on the eve of elections. In Bihar, the Muslim vote has gone almost en bloc to the secular Grand Alliance, the community rejecting the attempts of upstart Muslim parties to polarise them on religious lines.
But the Grand Alliance would not have been effective without Nitish’s record on development and clean governance. Roads have been built and power supply is beginning to pierce the darkest interior of India while basic law and order has been restored. And his generous package of social welfare schemes has made him a hugely popular chief minister with the underprivileged, specially women and students.
In fact, the Grand Alliance managed to turn the tables on the BJP by making the Bihar polls a referendum on Modi’s economic record at the centre, which has been extremely lacklustre. In contrast, Nitish has come out looking good. For Modi, Bihar is a watershed. Politically, he and the BJP are shaken. The opposition, on the other hand, is stirred and ready to play a more adversarial role.