With the results favouring the Grand Alliance, it needs to be said that the people of Bihar have once again reposed their faith in Nitish Kumar for forming the next Mahagathbandhan government. This will be Nitish Kumar’s third term as Chief Minister of the state.
After several months of relentless campaigning, often acrimonious comments from both sides, Nitish Kumar has proven once again that he commands people’s respect and faith. But this victory is more than just a personal victory for Nitish Kumar, it is a victory of secularism over ‘Hindutva’, one that reinforces the concept of a pluralist and inclusive India that our founding fathers envisaged. And Bihar has driven that message home.
So, how did Nitish Kumar emerge as the hero when he and his alliance faced an unrelenting political onslaught from the BJP-led NDA campaign? There are several factors that worked in favour of Nitish Kumar and one has to go back a little in time to get the right perspective.
Nitish Kumar stands up for secularism
This was a time when he was strongly entrenched as the Chief Minister of Bihar with support of the BJP, way back in 2013. He was popular and Bihar was outperforming the economic metrics when compared to other states, at a time when India was just emerging from a global slowdown.
Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi were poster boys of the BJP for their strong and dynamic leadership, though in contrasting styles, in their respective states. But when BJP decided to put up Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar had to take a stand; he was either with the BJP that was seen to be keen in pushing the ‘Hindutva’ agenda or had to go independent and be seen as a champion for tolerance and secularism. He chose the latter and soon had to part with his long standing ally, the BJP.
Cut to 2015 , the battle lines were drawn between Hindutva’s proponent, the BJP, and JD(U), that championed the cause of the minorities. Soon caste arithmetic took over and alliances began to be drawn based on caste equations and popularity. JD(U) roped in Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Indian National Congress in a Mahagathbandhan, while the BJP drew former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Mahadalit leader. To further consolidate the backward caste support base, BJP brought Ram Vilas Paswan’s fledging LJP along with Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, into the NDA camp.
This was new ground for BJP as it was experimenting with bringing forward castes to join hands with the backwards, in an attempt to form a government with former rivals that have traditionally opposed each other. It was a gamble taken by Amit Shah who believed that this was the best way to break ground in Bihar. The final results prove that Amit Shah’s gamble backfired, with backwards voting in large numbers for Mahagathbandhan. In other words, they placed their faith in Nitish Kumar’s agenda for secularism and development.
Polarization versus development
Right from the start, BJP has been running a negative campaign with an overt attempt to polarize the voters in Bihar. It started with the Dadri incident that blew out of proportion, to BJP’s disadvantage, and was followed by controversial statements by various elements within the BJP and other associated Hindu organizations.
The Faridabad killing of two Dalit children further damaged BJP’s cause in Bihar. On one hand, it tried to position itself as an inclusive party that was serious about championing the cause of the marginalized, while on the other, statement after statement by fringe elements only helped contradict the party’s image in Bihar. All the above along with Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on the need to review reservations did real damage to NDA’s cause. The final result is testimony to the fact.
Negative campaigning helped Mahagathbandhan
Right from BJP’s first Parivartan rally, too much focus and attention has been given to Lalu Prasad rather than focusing on the party’s development agenda, which was supposed to be its strength and core message. But strangely, the Prime Minister himself, in speech after speech, kept speaking extensively on Lalu Prasad’s Jungle Raj and by default brought Lalu Prasad back to the centre stage of political attention.
Narendra Modi and his political strategist Amit Shah failed to read people’s mood wherein Nitish Kumar had earned people’s respect, cutting across party lines, and if he decided to go with Lalu Prasad, they were still willing to back his agenda rather than go with an untested BJP. The extensive attention and negative talk by the Prime Minister ridiculing both Lalu Prasad and Nitish in all his speeches, only made Nitish look more statesmanlike and it went in his favour.
While the general mood was more receptive to BJP in the early months of campaigning, it began to shift decisively in favour of Mahagathbandhan, once the blatant attempts to polarize began emanating from the NDA camp.
With various controversies raging in print, electronic and social media, the Prime Minister’s prolonged silence went against him and was a major contributing factor in the mood shifting in favour of Mahagathbandhan.
Absence of a CM candidate went against the BJP
Amit Shah took a gamble when he decided not to name a CM candidate ahead of the polls and this went against the party. People of Bihar have traditionally voted along caste lines, which means they needed a face that they could relate to. There was none from the NDA camp and Narendra Modi representing the opposition face just did not cut ice with the people.
On the other hand, Mahagathbandhan presented their best ace in Nitish Kumar, someone who was tried, tested and proven as a Chief Minister, and one who had earned their respect. If BJP had to beat Nitish Kumar on his own turf, Narendra Modi was certainly not the man for it. It had to be a local and BJP put up none. It was a battle lost even before it began, and Nitish Kumar only rubbed the point in with his ‘Bahari versus Bihari’ theme.
BJP will need to reflect on its approach and campaign in Bihar. Polarization, ‘Hindutva’ and casteism are no more attractive draws for an aspiring youth in India and the same is true for Bihar. Going forward, the BJP must refocus on its development agenda and try and retain the goodwill it had earned in the 2014 General elections.
Nitish Kumar has got a third term but cannot sit on his laurels for too long. There are still too many issues in Bihar that needs urgent attention and he will do well to set up an inclusive agenda, carrying his alliance partners with him. Hopefully, Bihar will set itself on a new path of development hereon.