Astute manipulation of the caste matrix and a savvy campaign led the Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad to an epochal victory. The BJP underestimated the power of its opponent and fell victim to its own contradictions
PR Ramesh and Ullekh NP | 12 Nov, 2015
Arun Kamati is a Patna-based class-four employee who can barely read and write, yet he has the ability to say profound things in a simple way. The day before the results of the Bihar assembly elections were declared, he had no doubts whatsoever that the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) was going to sweep the polls. The elections saw a bitter and rancorous campaign by key players such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) stalwart Lalu Prasad Yadav and BJP president Amit Shah. Neither was he surprised to see that the state election had become a high- stakes national political combat, marked by name-calling, bullying and rhetoric bordering on the abusive. The Jhanjharpur, Madhubani-born Kamati merely smiled the next day when, by noon, the Kumar-led alliance won by a huge margin and emerged as the most prominent rival to the ruling coalition at the Centre.
In the process, the “Modi momentum”, which had peaked in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election a year ago, had ebbed amid inflaming of sectarian tensions by the Hindu loony fringe—and also by some members of the government—that many feared would set the country back from forging ahead as an economic powerhouse. Modi and his lieutenant, BJP president Amit Shah, soon came under sharp attack from within their own party. In a stinging statement, a group of BJP veterans that included the ageing paterfamilias LK Advani said the party was being “forced to kow-tow to a handful”. They also alleged, in an apparent attack on the duo, for destroying the party’s “consensual character” and for leaving it “emasculated” in the past one year.
Now, Kamati’s logic was simple, he explains: his daughter, who goes to a high school, had called the day before the polls in his hometown requesting his suggestion on whom to vote for. When he asked her to go by her conscience, she immediately said that whoever gave her a bicycle and sanitary napkins deserve to be rewarded. Kamati belongs to the Keot community, which falls under a large umbrella called extremely backward classes, a constellation of more than 120 castes whose votes were considered the most crucial in winning the election to the Bihar assembly this year. Both the MGB, or the Grand Alliance, and the BJP-led NDA had locked horns to pull in votes from this segment seen as “floating voters”. Kamati, whose father was a peon in the Bihar state government, says that people like him had to be politically aware because voting the right party or alliance is no joke for him. “Hum logon key liye yeh zindagi- maut ka sawal hai,” he declares with a Bollywood-like flourish. “Labour classes have to choose between the one who offers security and those who don’t.”
Nobody wants to vote for a coalition that would put the benefits of the reservation system in peril, he avers. In a state where the likes of Prasad and Kumar have successfully challenged the entrenched and regressive political power of the upper castes who enjoyed enormous clout disproportionate to their numerical strength until three decades ago, backward castes other than Yadavs (Lalu’s caste) and Kurmis (to which Kumar belongs) and Dalits, other than the militant Paswans, nurse a grudge that they were excluded from the social engineering exercise that began in the late 1980s. “EBCs, the under-privileged among the OBCs and Mahadalits, the groupings within the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that feel left out of the political empowerment that Yadavs and Kurmis enjoyed, were expected to sway towards the BJP which had promised political power. But that didn’t happen because the BJP offered a good chunk of seats to the upper castes, much more that what it should have. It was a tactical blunder,” says a local BJP leader who insists that micro-management of elections using money alone “didn’t wash” in Bihar, where several myths stood busted after the recently concluded high-octane, yet unwholesome election campaign. The BJP, which came under attack for favouring the upper castes in ticket distribution, had to squeak and scamper as it went troubleshooting following RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement against reservation. “That was a major setback in the time of a poll campaign, especially because non- Yadav, non-Kurmi OBCs and non-Paswan Dalits (Mahadalits), who are the crucial voters, feel that they are grossly underrepresented in the political process and had not benefited by the quota system which had so far favoured the creamy layer among the backwards and the Dalits,” complains a senior BJP leader. “In a way Bhagwat was right because reservations have benefited only the well-off among these sections, but then it was a wrong political message.”
The election results confirm that the Muslim-Yadav (M-Y) combination has endured all odds. Both communities have voted massively for MGB, with Prasad’s RJD securing 80 of the 102 seats it contested while the BJP won only 53 out of 159 seats. Like the RJD, the JD(U) also maintained a stellar strike rate, winning 71 of 101 seats in the 243-member state assembly.
Abhay Kumar, among the thousands who had crowded outside Nitish Kumar’s 7 Circular Road residence in Patna, was spot-on, “The ground reality was different from what the BJP had tried to convey. The NDA didn’t have the numbers in Bihar ever and it was fighting a formidable combination that had the backing of all castes, religions and genders. They underestimated the opponents.” He says that as a local businessman who interacted closely with people across the state, he had no idea what gave the NDA the kind of confidence it had about a victory. “Also, these outsiders came and started casting aspersions on the DNA of our leaders (referring to Modi’s statement that there was some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA which forces him to change his political allegiance). Biharis were also looked down upon contemptuously by outsiders. That didn’t go down well with the voters here,” states this 35-year-old as crowds erupted in joy and hit the Circular Road jiving and brandishing posters of Nitish and Lalu, who lives in the 10 Circular Road home of Rabri Devi, his wife and former chief minister.
Pervez Akhtar, who is from the outskirts of Patna and studies law at Patna Law College, is excited that the people of the state rejected a coalition that, according to him, wanted to import the “divisive politics” of Gujarat, Modi’s home state. He explains, “Bhagwat’s reservation comment was a major issue in the polls here and so was the prime minister’s faux pas in stating that there was no electricity in Bihar, hinting that Nitish Kumar had done nothing to improve the state. Nitishji has done a lot in Patna, and has ensured greater improvement in other parts of the state.” Whoever prepared the Prime Minister’s speech in Bihar will also have to shoulder the responsibility of the grave error of blaming Kumar for not ensuring power supply to homes. One of Kumar’s major achievements was to improve the condition of the state’s roads and the power scenario in the state. “One can’t talk in absolute terms. You have to see things in a relative way. What Nitish has done is commendable indeed when you compare it with the conditions earlier,” admits a local BJP leader. He says, “BJP president Amit Shah may have won elections elsewhere thanks to his peculiar style of functioning. But that didn’t wash in the state.”
Says Shyam Yadav, a techie from Chhapra: “Amit Shah, according to my friends in the BJP, steered the election campaign with the help of his loyalists from outside. That was why he failed to see the tsunami that was coming.”
Winner Takes it All
Besides Modi—to whom the loss was as personal as it was political considering that Kumar and he had shared strained ties even while they were in alliance—Amit Shah has earned the wrath of several local BJP leaders as well for mishandling the campaign from the start, for over-exposing Modi who now stands repudiated and for denigrating local leaders by not projecting one of them. “Of course, since the BJP has lost the election, all and sundry will come out with comments coming out of hindsight hypocrisy,” says a Shah loyalist.
Whatever this BJP leader may say, Shah will be forced to change his ways. For the Bihar poll campaign, he had relied on a handful of non-Biharis, people not well-versed with the dynamics of Bihar politics. “They were outsiders with very poor practical knowledge of the state and they tried to ape the master by not listening to suggestions. Everything was a one-way affair,” says a Patna-based BJP worker, stating that had they listened to the views of “home-grown” leaders, they wouldn’t have given wrong inputs about the power situation to the Prime Minister. Shah’s lieutenants in Bihar included Anil Jain, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Arun Singh. Bihar state leaders also contend that there was no local face for the poll campaign, which was another reason for alienating the voters.
“They did not realise that they were fighting a man who enjoyed great credibility across all sections in this state,” one of them said, referring to Kumar. “Below-the-belt comments on regional leaders, controversies over cow slaughter and nasty statements by leaders like Giriraj Singh, General VK Singh and others were seen as anti-people and anti-poor,” says another BJP leader. He said the opponents were handed an opportunity by BJP’s own leaders to portray it as a rich man’s party, which was insensitive to the poor man’s issues, and to turn the state election into a rich versus poor debate. “Finally they won hands down. We squandered away all our pluses,” he notes.
Following the resounding drubbing, senior party leader and finance minister Arun Jaitley admitted that “irresponsible statements” made during elections “changed the narrative”. Jaitley said incidents such as the Dadri lynching (in which a 50-year- old man was wrongly accused of cow slaughter and brutally beaten to death with bricks) and the killing of rationalist M M Kalburgi in Karnataka were “aberrations” and “not the pattern” in India, and called for distinguishing between those committing such crimes and those just being “loose talkers”.
Jaitley had added that “during the period when the elections were being contested, some irresponsible statements did change the narrative. That is not expected from responsible (persons). I had repeatedly intervened in order to make sure that the narrative comes back.” Meanwhile, the BJP is also upset that the party suffered huge losses in assembly seats that come under the Lok Sabha constituencies of six NDA ministers. The worst performance was in the constituency of Ram Vilas Paswan, Hajipur, where the NDA lost all crucial seats. Similar is the case with Purbi Champaran (represented by agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh), Saran (Rajiv Pratap Rudy), Nawada (Giriraj Singh), Patliputra (Ram Kripal Yadav) and Karakat (from where Upendra Kushwaha was elected in the 2014 poll).
Besides Hindu hot heads like Sadhvi Prachi, Sakshi Maharaj and BJP lawmaker Yogi Adityanath who have made incendiary statements following the Dadri incident in which 50-year-old Mohammed Ikhlaq was lynched, in an interview to The Indian Express, Union minister Giriraj Singh said that there was “a difference between a man’s relationship with his wife and that with his sister. Similarly, there is a distinction between meat of goat and cow. Indians consider their relationship with mother and sister as sacred… in the same way we should approach gau mata with the same reverence.” Later, VK Singh’s preposterous comment that the government cannot be held responsible if a stone is thrown at a dog—following the murder of two Dalit children in Faridabad—attracted a blizzard of criticism. “In Bihar, it had a very bad effect among Dalit voters,” Bhola Singh, BJP MP from Begusarai, told Open. Singh, meanwhile, has met Prime Minister Modi to complain about statements of several leaders, including that of Vijayvargiya who had attacked Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan over his remarks on intolerance. Vijayvargiya had tweeted, ‘Shah Rukh lives in India, but his soul is in Pakistan. His films make crores here but he thinks India to be intolerant’
Despite Jaitley’s statement about irresponsible comments, Vijayvargiya continued to make loose statements, attracting flak. Like VK Singh, he also came out with a dog analogy in an interview to ANI referring to disgruntled Patna Sahib MP of the BJP, Shatrughan Sinha. Vijayvargiya said, “Jab gaadi chalti hai, kutta niche chalta hai, kutta samajhta hai gaadi mere bharose chal rahi hai (A dog walking alongside the vehicle thinks it is moving because of him).” Sinha has lately been rabidly critical of the BJP. The actor-turned-politician also met Kumar to congratulate him on his victory. Clearly, during the five-phase Bihar polls, the BJP wasted a lot of time on firefighting. “These irresponsible leaders have to be taken to task,” Bhola Singh says. Akhtar, the law student from Patna, says that the Prime Minister, too, adopted a different tone while campaigning in Bihar. “People were worried about inflation. Food prices are so high that what the people of the state wanted was a man we could trust. Nitish Kumar is a very decent man, not people who land here with hollow promises … anyway, the big message from Bihar is that paratroopers have failed,” he says with a smile.
All this prompted a handful of BJP veterans to hit out at the Modi-Shah leadership without naming them directly. This attack wasn’t unexpected, discloses a senior BJP leader. Modi and Shah had consolidated their power within the party thanks to a series of poll triumphs following the Lok Sabha election—in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand. The loss in Delhi state polls in February this year was seen as an aberration, but the defeat in Bihar gave leaders who felt sidelined within the BJP the opportunity to come out of the woodwork and criticise the current leadership. In fact, following the Maharashtra win, Amit Shah had warned veterans against not toeing the party line and instead warming up to its recalcitrant ally, the Shiv Sena, which had demanded the chief minister’s position in the state. Finally, the Sena had to yield, but the provincial party continued to attack Modi and Shah time and again for what it alleged were “Big Brother” tactics.
After the Bihar verdict, the Sena congratulated MGB leaders and hit out at the way the BJP was being run.
Of course, the BJP leadership is in no mood to take things lying down. It has given enough and more hints that it will react swiftly to any signs of revolt in a response to the statement by Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Shanta Kumar and Murli Manohar Joshi. In a statement, former BJP chiefs Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and M Venkaiah Naidu, all Union ministers, said, “We have read the statement issued by some senior members of the Party. Obviously, all party members are concerned with the results of the assembly elections in Bihar. The Party has won the Lok Sabha election last year under the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi. Thereafter, the Party had success in assembly elections of Jharkhand, Haryana, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir. Recently, we have won the local elections in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andamans, Kerala and Assam. The results of Delhi and Bihar have been adverse against us. The party will discuss this matter on various other forums including with senior leaders and attempt to overcome the shortcomings that led to the adverse verdict in Bihar.”
It added, stressing on collective responsibility, ”The Party has been very fortunate to have been led by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Shri LK Advani for decades. They had set a healthy precedent of the Party collectively taking up responsibility for victories and defeats.”
Interestingly, BJP leaders like Advani and Sushma Swaraj have shared warm ties with Nitish Kumar even after he snapped ties with the NDA. The JD(U) leader had often shied away from sharing the dais with Modi. He began to deeply resent Modi after the latter walked up to Kumar at an NDA rally in Ludhiana in May 2009, held his hand and raised it before the flashing cameras. Kumar saw such a public display of solidarity with Modi as an attempt to hurt his Muslim vote base. He also suspected Modi’s action—forcing him into a photo-op of camaraderie which would keep appearing in dailies and posters— to be a deliberate attempt to “malign him” and alienate his minority supporters, according to a former associate of Kumar. Then on, Kumar decided to keep a distance from Modi and refused to attend NDA functions in which the then Gujarat chief minister was present.
But Kumar kept strong ties with Modi’s rivals within the BJP, especially the Advani camp which gave him an impression that Modi would never be made the prime ministerial candidate. Until his re-election as chief minister of Gujarat for the third time in the December of 2012, Modi was seen as “not yet ready” by many senior BJP leaders to become the PM candidate for the BJP. Though there were murmurs of opposition from a handful of BJP leaders—including Sushma Swaraj and others—in pitching Modi for prime minister, the RSS veered around to the idea that Modi as PM candidate made enough sense to revive the nearly comatose party, which at that time had been out of power at the Centre for more than eight years and been buffeted by strong winds of crises at various strongholds such as Karnataka. It had done very badly in Uttar Pradesh and the entire north in the 2009 elections as well as in several state elections. NDA, the coalition that the party heads, also saw huge cracks.
Finally, in the June 2013 Goa conclave of the party, Modi was named the chief campaigner in the 2014 election. Advani skipped the meet citing ill-health, sparking off public mirth on social media (‘What did Advani sing to Modi? You give me fever’). Within months, the Gujarat chief minister, who had used ‘the Gujarat model of development’ as a poll plank in his much-touted Sadbhavana Yatra, was named the prime ministerial candidate of the party.
Like Advani and Sushma, the other senior leader who sulked at Modi being made the PM candidate was Murli Manohar Joshi, who has now raised his voice of revolt in the party. Before the 2014 polls, Joshi, then a sitting MP from Varanasi, was stubborn in shifting base to enable Modi contest from the seat, a move several BJP strategists thought would create a Modi wave across Poorvanchal, a region that was pivotal enough for the party to boost its tally in the Hindi belt and come to power in the Centre.
On the evening of 13 March 2014, Amit Shah drove down to Joshi’s Raisina Road residence to say that he was left with just one choice: contest from the Kanpur Lok Sabha seat or not contest at all. Like Advani who wanted to be made PM candidate but had to retreat from the ring, Joshi—who had shifted base to Varanasi after he lost from the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat in 2004—too relented, with reluctance. Joshi had reportedly lost his preeminence in the party following certain acts of administrative discretion – he was accused of misusing power by entrusting a loyalist to operate at his behest from a Lutyens’ Delhi apartment near Mandi House. Joshi, for his part, has maintained that he was innocent.
Advani’s resentment stems from the party vetoing his demands— either to be made Lok Sabha speaker or chief of Indian Council of Cultural Relations. Yashwant Sinha, who had successfully lobbied for his son Jayant to be made a Union minister, had also wrestled for the post of president of the newly created BRICS Bank. His demand was turned down. Arun Shourie, who has now become a vocal critic of Modi and Shah, was a frequent visitor to Gandhinagar when Modi was Gujarat chief minister. Shourie, a former Union minister, began to speak ill of Modi after his hopes of landing the Union finance minister’s job were dashed.
“They (the elder BJP leaders) are mistaken. Brand Modi may have seen great erosion, but acts of indiscipline to weaken the party and project that the BJP is a divided house will not be tolerated. They are a spent force. And they pose no threat to the leadership any which way you look at it,” states a senior BJP leader referring to the statement issued by Advani and three other former BJP grandees on the eve of Diwali, a day before Modi was to leave for the UK on a three-day official visit.
The Man of the Moment
On the morning of 28 October, Nitish Kumar sat cheerful inside a Tata Safari on his way from Patna to Bakhtiyarpur, his hometown, to cast his vote. Following a preliminary exchange of pleasantries, he began to talk about MGB’s strategy with the confidence of a man destined to win. “Our aim is to stop the split of anti-BJP votes,” he started off.
To a question over “loss of face” thanks to his association with Prasad, whom he had fought tooth and nail as a political opponent when the latter was chief minister and later when the RJD leader had anointed his wife as chief minister, Kumar laughed and pointed out that such an assessment is an immature political viewpoint. “It is oversimplification to state that. We have thought a lot about the alliance before it was sealed,” the chief minister stated, occasionally waving to the crowds when the vehicle slowed down.
Kumar doesn’t think that ‘Jungle Raj’—used to describe Prasad’s long years of rule of Bihar that saw the flight of industrialists from the state and massive rise in crime and mafia syndicates— will happen ever again. Well-wishers of Kumar had feared that he would stand to lose after aligning with Prasad, who, in Bihar, epitomised an era of misrule, poor governance and corruption. When Kumar became chief minister in 2005, he recalled on many occasions that what he had found inside the Bihar chief minister’s office was a Remington typewriter— neither Lalu nor Rabri Devi visited the office. Kumar had changed the face of not only the CM’s office, which is now plush, equipped with computers and state-of-the-art equipment, but also the landscape of the entire state, building roads in the countryside and offering power supply. Much more needs to be done, but then the improvement had to be measured from the state of Bihar when he took over the reins, he reasons. Analysts too agree that comparing Bihar’s social and economic indicators with national figures is meaningless considering the levels of poverty and economic backwardness the state had seen before him.
Kumar and Prasad had been friends—and both products of the social justice movement of the 1970s. Both entered politics as student leaders and as disciples of Jayaprakash Narayan and other socialist leaders who wielded tremendous influence on Indian politics.
They parted ways in 1994 and the former, with George Fernandes, created the Samata Party, which in 2003 merged with the Sharad Yadav-led JD(U) and became a partner in the NDA, emerging as Lalu’s key rival. During that period Lalu was the target of Nitish’s vitriolic outbursts and biting sarcasm, until he snapped ties with the BJP and fought the 2014 election on his own and faced a resounding setback. His grouse was over Modi being named the campaign spearhead of its then ally BJP. Compared with 20 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats that it had won in the previous general election, JD(U) won just two parliamentary seats last year while the BJP added 10 more seats to its kitty, winning in 22 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar. For his part, Lalu was left red-faced as his wife Rabri lost to Rajiv Pratap Rudy in the Saran seat and daughter Misa from Patliputra to BJP’s Ram Kripal Yadav, both by a margin of more than 40,000 votes. What added insult to injury was that Ram Kripal Yadav was once a Lalu loyalist.
Open had reported earlier that it was on that fateful day of humiliating defeat that Nitish rang up Lalu after years. Both consoled each other, setting the tone for what became an alliance of unlikely bedfellows – one who is known for his corruption and the other who fought elections to replace the immoral government of the other. It was on the same day—May 16—that Modi became the first leader after Rajiv Gandhi to lead his party to a single-party majority. They were preparing the ground for an alternative to stop the Modi-led electoral force. Over the next few months, they worked towards the goal and roped in other breakaway entities from the erstwhile Janata Dal, which headed the United Front government of 1996.
Kumar recalls why the arrangement had survived this long despite hiccups: we all knew unity was the most important aspect.
Though Prasad wanted the former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi to be part of the coalition and Nitish had rejected it outright, there were no problems in candidate selection for the assembly polls. “We had the right social mix,” he told Open.
Nitish had stepped down in favour of Manjhi following the rout in the 2014 election. However, Manjhi, who was earlier a die-hard Nitish loyalist, began to assert himself after he became chief minister. Soon, Nitish began to plot to dethrone him from the post—which he accomplished in February this year. Manjhi, a Mahadalit, had launched an attack on Nitish calling him anti- Dalit—an accusation that the state’s voters would reject.
In fact, Nitish and Lalu let go of their political rivalry as early as last July when they joined hands to fight bypolls to 10 seats in the state. Together, they won six seats. The BJP, which had held six of these 10 seats in the April-May elections, won only four. Since the by-election triumph, the new alliance had sensed that the realignment would be the best ruse to stop the BJP’s onslaught, steered by a ‘Modi wave’. Which explains why Prasad was ready to swallow his pride and yield to the pressure to have Nitish as CM candidate in the polls. Individually, they couldn’t hope to be anywhere near reclaiming lost glory.
“Our alliance didn’t happen all of a sudden,” says Kumar
Kumar said that Prasad has worked very hard for the success of this alliance and had been a tireless campaigner. He hastens to add that joining hands with Prasad was not his individual decision. “In my party, the majority backed this alliance. It was the party’s decision,” he said as he darted towards the polling booth in Bakhtiyarpur to cast his vote, with a jaunty smile. A seasoned politician, perhaps he knew it only too well that he had got the math and chemistry perfectly right to engineer a counter-tide to the Lok Sabha triumph of Modi.
“The victory belongs to the people of Bihar,” a triumphant Nitish Kumar would later tell Open on November 8.
The Great Survivor
A day before Nitish Kumar travelled to Bakhtiyarpur to vote, Prasad had taken a break from campaigning after rumours broke out that his sons might lose in the election. Inside his 10 Circular Road home, the air wasn’t upbeat, in contrast to Kumar’s jovial demeanour. Prasad wasn’t however ready to take questions. He argued that the BJP was trying to corner him over the “beef issue” because they had no other issues to talk about. Following his statement that in ancient times Hindus, too, used to eat beef, the BJP launched a diatribe accusing him of humiliating his clan that worshipped the cow. Prasad reeled out numbers on exports of beef from India. He was also upset that he and his family were the butt of caustic comments by the BJP camp.
In hindsight though, Prasad was no liability. Kumar was prescient about his role in the alliance—that he would fetch votes. Which he did.
In a departure from his usual ways, he had also accepted Kumar as the spearhead and CM candidate to plunge into the campaign within three months of a heart surgery. A JD(U) leader confides that Prasad was a relentless campaigner who complemented Kumar in more ways than one: Prasad, in his inimitable style, could launch into tirades against the Prime Minister and poke fun at Shah. “Such direct and personal attack from Kumar would be seen as in bad taste by the public. But Prasad had a sort of ‘licence’ to go below the belt at times,” this leader adds.
More importantly, the return of Prasad to the political limelight following a conviction in the notorious fodder scam and after being nudged aside by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is one of the highlights of this election. The Congress, interestingly, stood to hit pay dirt thanks to its association with MGB. “Yes, we were at the right place and at the right time. Had it not been for Prasad and Kumar, Congress would have been nothing in this state,” admits a senior Congress leader. Rahul Gandhi had publicly censured the previous Manmohan Singh government over an ordinance meant to overrule the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs. He called the ordinance “nonsense”, detaching himself from the wrongs committed by the UPA government, controlled by his own mother. The irony was evident, rendering his youth-targeted moral posturing somewhat comic. “Laluji had seen that as a personal humiliation. And now Rahul has no choice but to thank the same person he detested,” says a Delhi-based RJD leader.
Sure, the memories of ‘Lalu’s Jungle Raj’ are not distant, but then it seems that the people of the state overlooked even such things because they trusted Kumar, claims a Patna-based Congress leader. Mohammed Shanawaz, an architect from Bhagalpur, is of the view that outsiders “treating Biharis as junglees” was not a strategy that helped the BJP. “People had to worry about many things like price rise and development besides caste. Also, overexposed and over-sold, the idea of Modi looked weak in the state,” he argues, citing the law of diminishing returns. To be fair, poor local leadership of the BJP could have also contributed a great deal to its humiliating defeat in a highly publicised election, which also saw a no-show by Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). Political writer Syed Ubaidur Rahman has rightly pointed out that he has failed miserably at hard-selling his brand of hate politics from “the confines of Hyderabad in Telangana” to elsewhere in the country.
How The Game Was Won
In a state where less than 11 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, the BJP failed to connect well with rural voters, as their vote share from rural areas shows. The grand alliance’s campaign proved to be highly effective in making deep inroads into the hinterland, even to those locations not connected by roads. “Somehow the BJP’s campaign didn’t appeal to majority of the rural voters who were hooked to the idea of Nitish Kumar as chief minister,” says Vijay Kashyap from Patna who says he has travelled across the state and was convinced of the upper hand that Nitish Kumar enjoyed in the war of perception. Of the 53 seats the BJP won, 27 were from urban centres. “What is absolutely clear in the elections is that the micro- managed campaign was outdone completely by the MGB’s strategy of reaching out to the deepest areas of the state,” architect Kashyap says.
Prashant Kishor, once Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blue- eyed boy who had played a pivotal role in steering the election ‘war room’ for the 2012 Gujarat assembly poll and the 2014 general elections from a government office in Gandhinagar, had been operating out of the Circular Road home of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Patna. Rishi Raj Singh, an IIT Kanpur alumnus who was earlier part of Kishor’s Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) in Gujarat, says he made the first presentation on how they would assist in steering the poll campaign before Nitish Kumar as early as February 25 this year. “We started our work in March itself,” Singh told Open. In Gujarat, the CAG had handled major campaigns such as Chai pe Charcha and had executed the 3-D hologram rallies. But for the Bihar campaign, this time, the newly created group Indian People’s Action Committee (IPAC) was involved in everything from giving feedback about candidates and undercurrents from all the assembly seats. “We went much deeper in this campaign,” says Singh, who notes that the whole exercise was on a tight budget as opposed to the Lok Sabha campaign which was flush with funds. Because of financial constraints, Kishor’s team had to make the best use of what was available. “We wouldn’t be in a segment where we could trail the opponents, and we decided that wherever we would be, we would go full throttle,” says Singh, explaining the logic of shunning ads in print newspapers and on TV where the NDA had launched a media blitz. IPAC members, who pursued only those projects in which the return on investment (RoI) was high, say the most effective campaign in the countryside was using ‘branded bicycles’. The team had 5,000 such cycles at their disposal carrying letters signed by Nitish Kumar—detailing his big achievements and his major promises to the rural population. For instance, at Bihpur in Bhagalpur, IPAC volunteers used bicycles across the river to reach villages where people were made to call at a toll free number to listen to Nitish Kumar’s recorded messages. People were excited, says Singh. All this helped IPAC reach places where no politician went because there were no roads. This strategy team also made sure that Nitish Kumar answered all questions raised by the Prime Minister in his rallies. They also flooded Modi’s Twitter handle with questions so that he would focus on issues they wanted him to talk about. The bottom line was to stop the building of a Modi momentum, and it worked.
Singh gives Kishor full credit for ensuring smooth ties between the three constituents of MGB. All messages to constituencies were routed through the leaders of each party and therefore there were no hiccups and hassles in the execution of plans, Singh recalls. Kishor, a former UN official, was the brain behind the Bihar 2025 campaign, launched on 9 June, to connect with four crore people across 40,000 villages of the state, including 10,000 government and civil society members, to elicit their views on various segments, including health, electricity, education, employment and other sectors of development. The ambitious programme was aimed at combating anti-incumbency in the run-up to the state elections and to interact with people across communities and from various income levels. It was IPAC that conceived the Swabhiman Rally, which was a huge hit. Similarly, they organised the Har Ghar Dastak outreach campaign and sent DNA samples to the Prime Minister’s Office after his comment on Kumar’s DNA. IPAC, which in February started off as a four-member team, soon had a core team of 100 people with hundreds of volunteers across constituencies.
As Modi faltered and digressed from his development focus in Bihar, IPAC—made up of several people who had given Modi a technological halo in 2014—campaigned effectively to brandish Nitish Kumar’s achievements in whose stint the state’s economy grew at a faster clip and saw rapid improvement on various social indicators. Though Bihar is much below national average on many fronts, under Nitish’s watch, per capita income in the state nearly doubled from Rs 7,914 in 2004-5 to Rs 14,904 by the 2013 fiscal. Nitish had assumed office in 2005. During the period he was at the helm, the state’s economy grew 2.1 times. Literacy rate between 2004 and 2012 went up by 16.8 per cent. Life expectancy at birth also showed a marked increase. “Nitish increased road length in the state by 50 per cent, constructing 1,151 new bridges. It was he, as opposed to Lalu, who ensured that many parts of the state had 24 hours power supply,” notes Professor Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, a Patna-based political analyst who has followed the growth of various political leaders for decades.
Perhaps that was why IPAC didn’t endorse Lalu and Nitish going for joint rallies, recommending that they campaign independently without hurting one man’s image and the other man’s vote bank.
It paid off.
Common Sense Prevails
This election in Bihar, the third-most populous state, debunked yet another myth: that aspiring citizens and the young voter typically get attracted to Modi, who was catapulted to national glory last year in a general election that had assumed a presidential tone where he was hard-sold as the moderniser India needed after scams-tainted misrule and policy paralysis, especially during UPA II. Not only did the aspiring classes choose Kumar, they also rejected the politics of hate spread by a section of the saffron brigade. Voters also snubbed Manjhi who had criticised Kumar of being anti-Mahadalit. The results confirmed not only the political irrelevance of Owaisi in Bihar, but also reiterated Kumar’s appeal among a wide section of people, including the Mahadalits, a category that the state chief minister had zealously tried to woo since assuming power. “The credibility enjoyed by Nitish couldn’t be diluted by Modi or through any campaign targeting the former,” says a senior Patna-based official emphasising that “even the propaganda unleashed by the BJP arguing that Kumar would take away quota benefits of EBCs to include a section of Muslims also did not have any impact”. The MGB campaign that the BJP is a pro-poor party and that it was against reservation immensely clicked, suggests this official, adding that the new chief minister faces daunting odds.
True, once the euphoria of a spectacular victory winds down, Kumar will have to get down to brass tacks—and that would include distribution and creation of portfolios to accommodate its two partners. “I can tell you nobody is more prepared than Nitish to confront these challenges. He always sees the worst- case scenario,” insists an insider who has known the JD(U) chief minister for long.
But however seasoned you are, problems may get out of hand in politics, says a Congress politician. True, Kumar has to deal with an assertive partner, the RJD, which has more seats than his party has. While Prasad had unconditionally accepted the numero uno position of Kumar—knowing very well that his political fortunes hinge on a meaningful association with him—it may not be too long before he comes up with demands that might leave the chief minister piqued, says a JD(U) activist in Patna. Like the demand that Manjhi be included in MGB. Kumar may still be able to strike down Prasad’s suggestions that he finds frivolous, but a series of encounters within the coalition doesn’t bode well for the government in power considering the gravity of the triumph and people’s expectations from the chief minister. “Prasad is a much changed man from what he was a decade earlier. I am sure that we would be a reasonable partner. So far there has been no noise. Let’s not be overly pessimistic. That is a preoccupation with the media,” says a senior RJD leader angrily.
Notably, the Bihar elections are expected to have a deep national impact. States such as Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are going to the polls next year. Analysts point out that the dent that Modi’s image has suffered can’t be immediately overcome from a next win because—barring Assam—the BJP doesn’t hope to emerge as an electoral force to reckon with in any of the other states where elections are due next year. “We are hoping to make some good impact in Kerala and West Bengal,” says a BJP leader. The lack of a winning spree for more than a year is expected to drain the morale of the organisation that has tasted stellar victories over the past two years, analysts argue. They also point out that the regional parties have suddenly acquired a new sheen of relevance post the Bihar election. “Regional parties are expected to gain in popularity and strength,” says Professor Sumantra Bose of London School of Economics. If that happens, the thrashing in Bihar will influence the crucial 2017 elections in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have dominated in the past two decades, feel Opposition politicians. Though the BSP drew a blank in the last Lok Sabha election, in the recently held panchayat polls across the state, former chief minister Mayawati-led BSP made significant gains, winning the panchayat seat that includes Modi’s adopted village Jayapur in Varanasi, and in Tamauli, the adopted village of SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav in Azamgarh. In many other parts of the state where BSP lost ground to BJP in the last general election, it managed to win this time around. The SP also managed to hold on to its strongholds and the BJP, which had won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats last year, was the worst loser. Though the trends in an assembly election could be much different from that of local body polls, the electoral reverse could demoralise the BJP cadre and enervate the party in the run-up to the 2017 polls.
Hope and Despair
BJP leaders Open spoke to take heart from the fact that each “election could be different”. In Bihar the “threat” of Modi made strange bedfellows of two hostile parties, the RJD and JD(U). “But that may not be entirely feasible in other states. The coming together of all non-BJP parties in Bihar cannot be applied as a national rule. It was an exception,” says a senior Delhi- based BJP leader.
As regards the criticism from within, he is confident of the party weathering the crisis in “no time”. He says he is not surprised about such attacks on a party as big as the BJP. “We will overcome that soon,” he says, referring to public attacks on the current leadership. The BJP will definitely crack the whip to send across a message to all leaders. In an interview to ANI, BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao had said that leaders like former home secretary RK Singh and actor Shatrughan Sinha had betrayed the party. “The party would be acting against these kinds of people and it should be done, regionally and nationally. On the one hand, the party workers were busy with the electoral preparations and on the other hand, these people hampered the image of their own party,” he said.
As the people of Bihar voted for the man who improved their living conditions and gave incentives to the daughters of people like Kamati, what lies severely battered is Modi’s persona of a relentless moderniser that he himself assiduously built.