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After a prolonged and sometimes caustically bitter battle, the grand alliance of JD(U)-RJD-Congress finished with roughly two-thirds majority in the assembly, winning 178 out of the 243 seats (73.25%). The BJP-led NDA could only win 58 seats. A few things come to mind.
First of all it needs to be understood that for the public, more often than not, an Assembly/Panchayati Election is a different ballgame to the General Elections. The results of the elections for the Lok Sabha don’t have as much bearing on the state elections as pundits and hype machines make them out to be. The local issues and problems factor much more in the minds of the average voter than what is going on with respect to the country’s foreign policy or GDP growth. The first indication of this came in the by-elections in Uttar Pradesh last year where in spite of winning an unprecedented 73 out of 80 seats in the General elections, the BJP lost 7 of the 10 seats it held to the Samajwadi Party. The Delhi Assembly elections and now Bihar elections have only strengthened that view. True, the BJP won in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, among others, but those were as much due to the anti-incumbency factors as the strong local leadership, and government in the case of MP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Nitish Kumar’s Track Record :
For all the cry of Jungle Raaj (misgovernance and anarchy), Bihar under Nitish Kumar has steadily made progress. Take any survey or any Government report in the past 10 years since Mr. Kumar came to power, they will all tell you that Bihar is moving forward in the right direction. That too at a frenetic pace. Bihar’s GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) growth rate has been among the best in the country. In June 2009, Patna was ranked the second-best city to start a business (after Delhi) by the World Bank. Patna in 2008 had higher per capita income than either Bengaluru or Hyderabad, cities that are IT hubs.
More than the numbers, elections are won by public perception. This was Nitish Kumar’s ace in the hole. People around the state, regardless of caste or region, accept that the socioeconomic conditions have improved. This has manifested itself in the construction boom and the huge inflow of corporate investment that the state has seen in the past two Nitish Kumar-led governments. The condition of the roads is another indicator. While once people from neighbouring UP and Bengal used to mock Bihar’s roads, the condition now is that roads, and especially highways in Bihar, are in much better shape than those in UP or Bengal. The bit about the roads in UP is a firsthand experience for me. The portions of the National Highway 29 in my home district in UP, Ghazipur, are in shambles while the same highway truly turns into a “highway” just as you cross the border into Bihar. So that’s not hyperbole on my part. The bit about Bengal can be read here.
The rampant goondaraj has been checked with the arrest of many goons and thugs since the JD(U)-BJP combine came to power in 2005. People have a feeling of safety and comfort which they didn’t have before ’05. That brings us to the next point that is…
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Lalu Prasad Rebooted :
After being pulverised in the last Assembly and General elections, then being debarred from contesting elections because of his conviction in a corruption case, Lalu Prasad Yadav has resurrected his political fortunes like a Phoenix. His actual and proxy rule of the state in the 1990s and early 2000s with poor growth, rampant corruption and lawlessness bordering on anarchy was what led to observers and political opponents saying there was Jungle Raaj in Bihar. Howsoever much he might deny those allegations and whatever his claims of “exposing” the NDA government at the centre now through nationwide tours might be, he has to take a lot of the blame for Bihar being the BIMARU state that it is. A decade and half of rule, and no economic achievements of note is surely a big thumbs-down against any government, as it was for his party. Regardless,he remains one of the most popular politicians and his acceptance of one-time friend-turned-foe Nitish as the face of the Grand Alliance (or Mahagathbandhan) was proof that he was ready to swallow his own ego for the sake of political gains and also that he understood that his days of being the face of Bihar are over. People of Bihar aspire for more after the positive developments under Nitish. Lalu and Congress had to understand this, which they did. One can only hope that the goons and anti-social elements won’t have a free pass now that RJD is back in power. Let’s give the combine time to prove themselves before jumping the gun and making swift judgements that this result is a return to Jungle Raaj. After all, it’s the mandate given by the public, in a fully democratic and fair election. So let’s not question their intelligence. We have given Mr. Modi a chance to prove himself. Let’s extend that same hand to Messrs Nitish and Lalu too.
On another note, this coming together of the three parties is an example of the fact that there are no permanent enemies in politics and that politics makes for strange bedfellows.
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen failed to open its account in any of the seats it contested, even in the region of Seemanchal. This, coupled with BJP’s loss, demonstrates that Muslims also want jobs and basic amenities and herding them together as a vote bank on the basis of fiery, hate- and fear-based rhetoric won’t work anymore. When BJP scored big in Uttar Pradesh and other states with high Muslim populations last year, people across caste and communal lines voted for it. Reason? People saw hope in Mr. Modi and wanted growth and achhe din (good days) after the disaster that was UPA-II. For the average person, beef and Pakistan are secondary to getting food on the plate. Hope political parties realise this.
BJP’s strategical blunders :
By raking Jungle Raaj and entering into bitter, and at times personal attacks on Lalu and Nitish, the BJP, led from the front by Prime Minister Mr. Modi and BJP’s national president Mr. Amit Shah, played into the hands of the Grand Alliance. Add to that, statements by motormouths of the party after the Dadri and Faridabad incidents, as also the statement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on reservation gave further ammunition to their opponents. These statements led to unnecessary wasting of time and misdirection of energies which would have been better spent arguing about the development plank. The continued strategy by the party to fight under the leadership of the Prime minister also failed. Mr. Modi addressed 30 rallies in the course of the elections, something very unusual for a PM. The BJP’s strategy works like a charm where the party already has a ruling government in place or where the government, of another party, is facing anti-incumbency, cases in point being Madhya Pradesh and Haryana respectively. But when the fight at the ground level is tougher, like the one in Bihar, engaging local leaders and giving them their share of the spotlight is necessary too. That helps in swinging the crucial fence-sitters as well as mobilizing support at grassroots level. Fighting state elections under the name of the PM was a masterstroke last year but it has become jaded and unattractive now. The PM can’t win you elections if the state electorate don’t connect with your pitch.
The price rise in commodities like pulses also made a negative impression about the central government. Skyrocketing prices of pulses hit the middle and lower middle classes hard. Their backlash might not have made a sound, but the effect is there for all to see. The NDA government was already finding it tough to live up to the massive expectations of the general public regarding Achhe Din (good days) that Mr. Modi had promised when he came to power last year. The disillusionment among the general populace following the honeymoon period that the government had, coupled with price rise and a still-ailing economy, doesn’t endorse its methods and policies very much.
Implications on National Politics :
The NDA leaders deny that the result of these elections is a vote against the centre. They are right. A state election, however keenly fought, can’t be taken as a referendum on the centre. However, a couple of points need to be cleared :
1. When BJP wins an election in a state, the party leaders don’t waste a moment in crediting the PM for the victory. Likewise, they must blame the PM if the party loses, which they obviously don’t do. Both courses of action are illogical in my view. A large chunk of the credit/blame has to be borne by the state units of the parties.
2. The Modi government must try to speed up reforms and clear proposals to ensure the economy gets back on the fast track. For this, they would need support and constructive criticism from the opposition in the Parliament. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Still, the government must find a way to reach through to the opposition and the opposition too, should not use this victory as a license to obstructing the parliamentary proceedings. The NDA has to ensure that its minority in the Rajya Sabha doesn’t come in the way of growth and reforms. This is an equal responsibility of the opposition too. The NDA has promised big to the Janata, and it now needs to fulfill its promises.
Let us all hope that these elections can usher in an era of constructive politics in the country, one where opposition to the government isn’t just for the sake of opposition and where states ruled by parties that don’t have government at the centre, don’t feel unduly left out.