Bihar was showing signs of Nitish fatigue and then came Campaigner Modi with a compelling message that would stop Tejashwi in his tracks and save the chief minister from the brink
PR Ramesh | 12 Nov, 2020
On a Sunday in early November, in the town of Chhapra in Bihar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked a powerful imagery and instantly changed the campaign narrative. The imagery of “double-double yuvraj who desperately want your vote to empower their families and adorn their own thrones” was repeated several times in the stump speeches of one of the world’s most effective campaigners. The masses swayed to it. The slogan brought back the memories of “jungle raj ke saathi”, which set the tone for the end of “Lalu raj”, defined by kidnappings and ransom demands. “The double-double yuvraj are unconcerned about Bihar’s welfare. Don’t you remember the ‘jungle raj ki sacchai’ that your mothers told you about? Mothers used to warn their kids about lakarsunghwa, they were terrified that their children would get kidnapped…that is the truth of jungle raj,” Modi reminded them.
The same day, the message was delivered in Samastipur, Motihari and Bagaha. The effect was electrifying. Suddenly, RJD challenger and Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign plank of unemployment and youth became redundant. Eventually, those words would rescue Nitish Kumar, chief minister for 15 years, from the brink. Before Bihar, apparently suffering from a ‘Sushasan Babu’ fatigue, could do any harm to the incumbent, Modi provided the lifeline.
“On the one hand, a return of the dark ages of jungle raj, on the other, the promise and commitment of a double-engine sarkar devoted to the development of your state. It’s your choice, choose wisely,” Modi said in Chhapra. Single-handedly, Modi had played a muscular, robust cavalry to Nitish Kumar and dwarfed the ruling JD(U)’s loosening hold on the state, debilitating enough to threaten the entire National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with loss of power in Patna and compelling the chief minister to proclaim, prior to the third phase of voting, that this would be his last attempt at contesting for the post. In one stroke, Modi not only decisively turned the story spun by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Mahagathbandhan but demolished all vestigial impact of the drummed up tale of immense distress and neglect of migrant Bihari workers across India who were abandoned by the state government and left to deal by themselves with a raging pandemic.
For the NDA, the Bihar story woven by Modi found echoes in the emphatic wins in the bypolls in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh as well as in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka—all BJP-ruled states—where the opposition’s dependence on the pitch of neglect and abandonment failed to deliver. The BJP also established itself as a force to reckon with in Telangana and showed signs of recovery in Jharkhand. The results amplified the infirmities in the combined opposition, including the Congress, and its powerlessness in challenging the persisting popularity of Narendra Modi.
For the first time since its alliance with the JD(U), the BJP has now secured for itself the role of the bigger partner. Nitish Kumar may have succeeded in retaining the chief minister’s chair but the contours of the alliance have now been altered. Although the BJP’s top leadership had been emphatic that Nitish would continue as chief minister irrespective of the number of seats his party managed to secure—with just 43, the JD(U) is now down to third place, behind the RJD (75) and the BJP (74)—its organisational network in the state is now raring to spread its wings. As for Nitish, he has little option but to stick with the now politically more powerful saffron party—and on its terms.
Modi’s rescue mission of Nitish involved over a dozen rallies. As part of his strategy, Modi launched several projects on poll eve, boosting his claim that the NDA had been consistent in its efforts towards the development of Purvanchal in general and Bihar in particular. It proved to be a winning strategy and simultaneously a testament to the Prime Minister’s charisma among voters.
For the BJP, the Bihar victory allows it a dominating role in a new government in Patna. It also impacts opposition parties trying to target the Centre. After the loss in Jharkhand and the persistent opposition hostility to Central policies, the BJP had been loathe to convey any impression of weakness. Bihar has saved it the blushes.
Modi sensed early on that the going was tough for Nitish Kumar and was likely to get tougher. An internal party survey had already pointed to Nitish’s nose-diving popularity. Even that could not capture entirely the intensity of the anger against Nitish.
With bijli, sadak, paani not enough any longer, people hankered after an upgrade and Modi had to take the responsibility for wooing back voters. The angst of young voters was captured in the first phase of voting by the opposition’s slogans showcasing economic justice and ‘dawai, padhayi, kamaai aur sichai’. A beleaguered Nitish appeared to be losing the plot and intervention was imperative to recapture the imagination of the youth and, more particularly, of women voters. After the first phase, Modi worked practically as a one-man army and shifted the focus to the socio-economic and cultural agenda of his Government. Those were the decisive moments when the momentum was wrested from the opposition and the spotlight turned on the ruling combine in Patna, successfully overcoming the hurdle of Nitish’s third term.
THERE ARE reasons why focusing on the ‘jungle raj’ and years of misrule under Lalu Prasad worked in favour of the NDA, despite the fact that most of the youth have only a marginal recollection of the Lalu era and the terrors it brought to the minds of ordinary people. Notwithstanding his landmark socio-political efforts, Lalu Prasad had squandered his goodwill due to poor governance, the reliance on musclemen to entrench his rule and corruption. Thus, the “jungle raj” phrase immediately evoked the spectre of a caste-based mafia and goondaism among older voters. This quickly cracked what was being touted as the ‘Y’ factor in these elections.
There are reasons why focusing on the ‘jungle raj’ and misrule under Lalu Prasad worked for the NDA, despite the fact that most of the youth have only a marginal recollection of the era and the terrors it brought to the minds of ordinary people
Apart from the Yadav voters of his own caste, Lalu Prasad had also emerged as the prime defender of Muslim rights, an image reinforced during the Ram Mandir movement of the 1990s when LK Advani had sought to steer his Rath Yatra through Bihar but was rebuffed by Lalu. The RJD chief had also attacked dominant Hindu beliefs. The MBCs, or Most Backward Castes, which were dominated by the empowered Yadavs and upper layers of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), were compelled to show their allegiance to him. However, once these castes were reassured that the gains they had made would not be lost, they began looking for new leaders to back who better reflected their own individual caste aspirations, as distinct from the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) coalition. The JD(U) and the BJP tried to win their support. The Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits moved away subsequently to the JD(U) and, to a lesser extent, to the BJP.
The ‘jungle raj’ imagery also harped on the possibility of Tejashwi Yadav proving to be a chip off the old block once voted to power, despite the apparently politically correct rhetoric. For all the contrived roles Lalu assigned himself publicly, his governance had been marked by an absence of governance, by lawlessness and the rule of musclemen. The chief minister rarely visited his office or held cabinet meetings. The largely neglected chief ministerial office was a picture of lack of hygiene—visitors were unfortunate witnesses to unclean toilets and walls defaced by paan spittle. Disorganisation and dysfunction had reigned. If and when Lalu Prasad did hold cabinet meetings, it was primarily to indulge in banter with colleagues. If he attended to files, it became the subject of press releases announcing that the chief minister was flying out of Patna to clear files. There is an anecdote of a harried chief secretary tagging on to the chief minister’s helicopter in the desperate hope of getting him to sign important documents, only to wait for hours while Lalu entertained his acolytes with his culinary skills. In parts of the state that later became Jharkhand, Lalu was not a leader to be revered. He was a man who neglected their development and interests. As if reinforcing this sentiment, the Birsa Munda museum in Ulihatu, unapproachable during the rains, was a large hut in shambles. Over time, Lalu Prasad appeared to be caricaturing himself and taking pleasure in playing to an urban gallery of those untutored about the realities of rural Bihar but overeager for a brush with what, for them, was an esoteric but iconic symbol of radical socio-political revolution in a crucial Hindi-belt state.
The realities of life were harsh for ordinary citizens in Bihar. There was little industrial growth during Lalu’s tenure, even less employment, and kidnapping for ransom became a lucrative business. Businessmen were forced to flee the state, women were terrified to step out after sundown and the chief minister’s own relatives allegedly became extortionists. When Lalu held an occasional press conference on governance, it would be about the release of someone from his kidnappers.
Modi sensed that even in the unlikely possibility of all the state’s youth rallying behind Lalu’s son, transcending rigid boundaries of caste and community—and even if Tejashwi kept his father’s posters out of his campaign and spoke the modern language of economic justice—nothing could erase the collective memory of Lalu’s misrule from the minds of their parents. For the BJP’s top leadership, this was a case of a scratch-card win. You only had to scratch the surface for a surefire success that would hurt the poll prospects of the RJD scion. Thus, after the first phase, it was to the theme of “jungle raj ka yuvraj” and “double-double yuvraj” (Modi’s earlier attacks on Rahul Gandhi had included the epithet “shahzada” when Rahul had joined Akhilesh Yadav for the Lok Sabha polls) that Modi repeatedly returned. He forced his audience to even face up to the possibility of Lalu Prasad deciding on candidate tickets and taking campaign decisions for his inexperienced son. It appears to have worked.
A LARGER political tent also helped the NDA reap dividends. Nitish Kumar reached out to Jitan Ram Manjhi and his Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM) after the falling-out with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) following Chirag Paswan’s revolt. Nitish had installed Manjhi as chief minister after he took “moral responsibility” for the JD(U)’s rout at Narendra Modi’s hands in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, Manjhi began undercutting Nitish’s influence within the JD(U), setting off alarm bells which saw Nitish return to helming the government. In the present context, the renewed alliance with Manjhi helped the NDA get the support of the Mushahars and cushion the combine against accusations of being anti-Dalit that Chirag Paswan had made. The Nishads, a community of fishermen and boatmen that threw in their lot with the BJP and the NDA, have a significant presence in the riverine areas of the state. In north Bihar, Nishad voters have tipped the balance in favour of the NDA in at least a score of seats. They were, hitherto, part of the larger OBC movement led by caste groups higher up in the pecking order, such as the Yadavs and the Kurmis. Led by Mukesh Sahni, who earned his fortune and developed political ambitions after tasting success as a contractor for the sets erected for the Bollywood movie Devdas, the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) was part of the NDA in 2015. At the time, its poor performance was a contributing cause for the defeat of the BJP-led alliance. Like Manjhi, Sahni was part of the Mahagathbandhan but quit protesting against the RJD’s refusal to give him more seats. The BJP embraced him out of consideration for the additional votes in its kitty, as much as to send a positive message across the ranks of MBCs.
Chirag Paswan’s LJP managed to poll higher votes than the defeat margin of the NDA candidate in 38 Assembly seats. Was the decision to oppose Nitish and go it alone in more than 100 seats, most contested against the JD(U), a calculated gambit or a risky gamble? The party’s performance means that, had it remained part of the NDA in Bihar, the combine would easily have secured 38 more seats, excluding the one seat won by the LJP, propelling it to a two-thirds majority.
Many of the voters were women, who stayed home to bear the brunt of Covid-19 and loss of income. They had little to rely on but the government’s social security programmes—both state and Central
As per its stated pre-poll objective, the LJP wreaked damage on the JD(U) and Nitish Kumar. There was speculation that the LJP was a ‘vote katua’ party played by the BJP, using Paswan with the express intent of cutting Nitish and his JD(U) down to size in the equations within the NDA. It was suggested that gaining the upper hand over an increasingly demanding Nitish would allow the BJP to become the dominant party and call the shots on who should be chief minister. That speculation was repudiated by Modi and other top BJP leaders, but its roots were actually in the complete lack of chemistry between Nitish and the late Ram Vilas Paswan. Modi repeatedly emphasised that the NDA in Bihar was limited to the BJP, JD(U), HAM and VIP. Sushil Modi, too, countered Chirag Paswan’s claim to being Hanuman to Narendra Modi’s Ram by maintaining that, by opposing the NDA, the LJP scion was opposing the Prime Minister himself. “If the LJP had not thwarted the NDA, our coalition would have easily hit the 150 mark,” he asserted. BJP chief JP Nadda also attacked Paswan for seeking to split crucial NDA votes.
The BJP’s performance could not have come at a worse time for the Congress. A resounding victory for the Mahagathbandhan was expected to send out negative signals about the BJP in other key states going to polls soon, including West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It was hoped that would allow the Congress to revive itself in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls in 2024. A triumph in Bihar would have meant significant gains and more weight in key states after the stakes gained in the coalition government with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. But Bihar was different from Maharashtra, where the Congress had made a post-poll deal. A positive outcome in Bihar would have made it easier for the Congress to counter charges of terminal decline. Instead, the Congress realised its critics’ worst fears by being overconfident of wins in the 70 seats allotted to it. The alliance could only manage 110 seats in the 243-seat Assembly. Despite emerging as the single-largest party with 75 seats and the highest vote share, the RJD remained constrained by the poor performance of its key ally. The Congress won only 19 of the 70 seats, notwithstanding the vote transfer from the RJD. That immediately triggered accusations that the Congress had dragged down the RJD-led alliance’s chances. In seats where it faced the BJP, the loss was striking.
But the top Congress leadership appears unmoved by the defeat. This was demonstrated by Rahul Gandhi when he took off to Jaisalmer even as his political peers were engaged in taking stock of the outcome. As Talleyrand said about the Bourbons, “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
THE FINAL RESULTS could not have diverged more from the exit-poll projections of a near-landslide for the RJD and its allies. Most psephologists, pundits, freelance analysts and self-proclaimed secular voices rested on the overblown numbers of the exit polls and believed them more than the actual results put out by the Election Commission. The echo chambers in New Delhi, in the electronic and social media, selectively aired re-heated congratulatory numbers completely divorced from the reality. This was in keeping with the manner in which such groups had launched a war on Modi and his decision to demonetise high-value currency to tackle black money, besides moving away from heavy reliance on cash in the economy and towards a greater reliance on the digital domain. The impact on demonetisation on ordinary people was demonised by the opposition. Never mind the BJP’s decisive victory in Uttar Pradesh immediately after, disproving the theories of intense hardship that would supposedly result in its defeat. That defeat had failed to transpire despite an alliance between arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), projected by the same anti-Modi ecosystem to rake in heavy gains. In Bihar, the migrant crisis and the despair of ordinary people were expected to resoundingly impact the ruling alliance. Unemployment and the migrant crisis were showcased as issues that would be Modi’s and Nitish Kumar’s undoing. Chronicles of a total decimation in Bihar were foretold. These, however, bypassed the truth on the ground regarding policy implementation. Not surprisingly, the votaries of secularism kept insisting, during the ballot count, that the rural votes that would be counted later would favour the RJD heavily. What happened was that voters in rural Bihar—and millions of poor, marginalised and unemployed migrant workers and their families—turned up through the pandemic to vote for the NDA because of the many policy decisions taken post-Covid to mitigate their distress. Many of the voters were women, who stayed home to bear the brunt of Covid and loss of income. They had little to rely on but the government’s social security programmes—both state and Central. But it is the latter that was more widespread. Among the most decisive Central aid packages was a Rs 1.7 trillion programme tailored for the most vulnerable and lockdown-affected nationwide—about 800 million people for a period of three months. The package was designed to target construction workers, women and Covid-19 responders, including medical professionals, moving beyond the usual benchmark of BPL beneficiaries.
Little wonder that the pundits appear to be trapped in a haze of wishful thinking when it comes to the risky act of predicting the results of elections in states like Bihar. Many pollsters had underestimated the performance of the RJD-JD(U) alliance in 2015 in the thick of a Modi wave just as they oversold the performance of the same RJD and Congress against the JD(U)-BJP alliance in 2020. This time round, most polls predicted a sweeping win for the challengers but practically no pollster put the NDA ahead.
Apart from an inability to factor in the key nuances of electoral campaigns, such as the turning point created by Modi or a large segment of silent voters, including women whose opinion is still not accounted for by pollsters, it seems to be an attempt to expunge the truth on the ground even when it stares one in the face. It is, in the end, a wilful act of subverting the factual in favour of the wishful.