More than 6 months ago, I had flirted here with the idea that come 2019, when India goes to vote in the world’s largest exercise of its kind, its electorate will have a real choice. That is, a choice between incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and another candidate whose persona, viewpoints and record will stand out as clearly different. I admit, writing about the Delhi election then, I might have been following my heart over head. Today, watching news from India about the Bihar state election results, I repeat my prediction with greater confidence.
By per capita income, Bihar is India’s poorest state and Delhi its richest. In both places, PM Modi campaigned extensively in his trademark rabble rousing style – and lost badly. That’s significant because India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode on a “Modi wave” to secure absolute majority in the 2014 national elections and three subsequent state elections. If Delhi pierced Modi’s cloak of invincibility by electing the upstart Aam Aadmi Party over BJP, then Bihar soundly rejected his leadership by re-electing Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar by a wide margin.
BJP’s state leadership was conspicuously low key in the Rs 300 crore slugfest campaign for the state that’s home to a hundred million Indians. In a gross miscalculation, Modi and his loyal lieutenant BJP President Amit Shah turned the state election into a referendum on PM’s national leadership. The stakes were high. BJP needed Bihar to secure majority in the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of India’s Parliament to push through key economic policy changes. Meanwhile India’s opposition parties needed a new narrative – an alternative to BJP and its traditional rival, the floundering and uninspiring Congress Party that once ruled the roost. It’s looking like Bihar’s voters gave them just that. And to the rest of India, a gift worth celebrating during the ongoing holiday season.
To win Bihar, Nitish Kumar got a lot of help from his erstwhile rival Laloo Prasad Yadav. Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU- “National Party United”), Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD- "National People's Party") and the Congress Party fought the election together, literally calling themselves the Grand Alliance. Kumar’s credibility, Prasad’s folksy appeal, and Congress’s decision to not be a spoilsport may well become a template for future coalitions to take on the BJP. Indeed, regional leaders like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee were openly rooting for the Grand Alliance.
The decline of the Congress Party in India has been paralleled by the rise of powerful state-level leaders throughout the country. Modi, himself stormed on the national stage after scripting three successful victories as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat. Precisely for that reason he should know that local issues dominate state elections in India. Bihar, under Nitish Kumar, has been making steady gains: from faster job creation and poverty reduction to improved law and order and lower infant mortality rates. It takes a certain kind of narcissism to overlook state leaders and pit oneself directly against a well-regarded, popular chief minister.
But that’s not the only thing that defined Modi’s electoral strategy in Bihar. Bihar voted in the days leading up to India’s festive holiday, Diwali. Fire crackers will burst in Pakistan if BJP loses Bihar, insisted BJP President Amit Shah in a speech. While campaigning, Modi himself went where no Indian national leader has gone before: he turned the cow, held sacred by Hindus but not India’s Muslims and Christians, into a divisive election issue. India’s recent shame, the Dadri mob lynching, occurred barely six weeks ago. While maintaining a silence or skirting around the issue at national level, in Bihar Modi insinuated that Yadav eats beef. This was in direct response to Yadav’s observation that poor Hindus ate beef. Yadav later went on to distance himself from this, but not before Modi and BJP had latched on to it. Many dubbed it as a faux pas, but the shrewd politician that Yadav is, I suspect he set a trap of sorts that Modi walked into. BJP’s negative, divisive campaigning began to sound increasingly shrill and desperate compared to Nitish Kumar’s low-key, dignified style.
The line between religion and politics is crossed frequently in India, by all political parties. Still, the tone at the top matters a great deal. And as Prime Minister, Modi is setting a precedent like never before. His cultural warriors in BJP and its “ideological mentor” the well-organized and muscular, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are brazenly promoting a Hindu majoritarian agenda. They want to rewrite Indian history, redefine Indian culture – and challenge the very idea of a pluralistic democracy that’s enshrined in India’s constitution. But culture wars have a way of sucking in people of all stripes. In India, literary icons, eminent scientists, award winning film-makers and even the normally reticent Bollywood superstars and business tycoons are taking stronger political positions than ever before. To know what I mean check out #AwardWapsi on Twitter.
Pollsters and political pundits are usually wrong about India. Just this morning, India’s leading news organization NDTV had egg on its face when it called the Bihar election in favor of BJP. Still, I will go on record here. The reverberations from Bihar won’t cross over into Pakistan, but I am betting they will shake up India’s political order in new and exciting ways.
Deepali Srivastava is Content Director at Kite Global Advisors and a writing instructor to young people of all ages, from fifth graders in Brooklyn to undergraduates at Hofstra University. She is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared on MSNBC.com and Business Standard (an Indian business daily). She has a Masters in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University.Twitter @deepalisriv