Why The BJP Can't Pretend Bihar Isn't A Turning Point

16/11/2015 9:44 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
MADHUBANI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 1: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally for Bihar Assembly elections on November 1, 2015 in Madhubani, India. Bihar will hold five-phase elections between October 12 and November 5 to elect the 243-member assembly. Counting of votes will take place on November 8. BJP led NDA and Grand Secular Alliance comprising of RJD, JD (U) and Congress are two main coalitions vying to form the next government in the state. (Photo by Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Home minister Rajnath Singh, himself a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has this to say on the BJP’s resounding defeat in in Bihar: "Victory and defeat are part of the democratic process. We had won elections in the past, we had lost elections in the past. We will not do justice to future if we decide future only on the basis of one elections."

The top leadership of the BJP is playing down the Bihar defeat. The opponents came together, they say. We lost to their caste arithmetic. It’s just one election. We still got a good vote-share.

None of this adds up. Try as the BJP might, it can’t deny that Bihar was a turning point for it, not least because the BJP itself made it a prestige election.

Soon after the BJP won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a clear majority, the party said it wanted to usher in a Congress-free India and be the country’s natural party of governance. In that project, the Delhi assembly election results in February this year were seen as aberration.

After becoming BJP president, Amit Shah had in his speech at the BJP’s national council meet emphasized the importance of winning every state election. He had said that the party needed to help form a “BJP-led government from J&K to Kerala and from Gujarat to Nagaland.”

Try as the BJP might, it can’t deny that Bihar was a turning point for it, not least because the BJP itself made it a prestige election.

He had said, “We must form our governments whenever elections are held in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Arunanchal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Also, we will have to make special efforts to win elections and form our governments in states like Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamilnadu where we have polled significant percentage of votes. To realize this objective, we should make BJP’s effective presence felt in each and every village Panchayat, Zilla Parishad, municipal Corporations and other elected bodies.”

In July this year, just before launching his campaign in Bihar, Shah had said that the BJP needed to rule India for a lot more than just five years to make it a “Viswa Guru” or world superpower. Shah had reportedly said, "It can only happen if a party has an uninterrupted reign, from panchayat to Parliament, like Congress enjoyed from 1950-67. Therefore, the BJP must ensure its victory in elections at all levels — from panchayat to Parliament — for the next 25 years in order to accomplish the objective."

Bihar was clearly up there in the scheme of things. Launching the campaign in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on 16 July, Shah had said, “I want to tell the people of Bihar to not think that the impact of the Bihar verdict would be limited to Bihar. The Bihar verdict will decide whether power in India is going into the hands of selfish politicians or those who are working to uproot poverty. Bihar will send a message to all of India.”

In several interviews during the Bihar campaign, Amit Shah noted how important it was for the BJP to win Bihar: “Bihar is very important for BJP,” he told The Economic Times, “because we believe that we have had a comparatively poor electoral mass base in eastern India. After forming the government in Bihar, it will become an entry point for us into eastern India. It will become a big symbol for acceptance of our ideology in the east.”

In one of his 30 rallies in Bihar, prime minister Modi had echoed Amit Shah’s views on the national import of the Bihar elections. “The people of India get to learn a lot from the political wisdom of the people of Bihar."

amit shah modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National President Amit Shah.

Ignoring the Bihar results, as though the statements cited above were never made, is not an option for the BJP. And the explanations don’t add up, either. If the BJP’s allies in Bihar are to blame, it was the BJP which made the choice to go with them. If the caste arithmetic of the Mahagatbandhan is to blame, the it must also be pointed out that Amit Shah was said to be putting together a much superior caste arithmetic, one that would “redraw Bihar’s caste map”.

It is also facetious for the BJP to say that Bihar was a foregone conclusion because, if you look at the vote shares of the different parties in 2014 and apply them to the 2015 assembly election, then the Mahagatbandhan was going to win anyway. If the Bihar result was so obvious, why was a third of Modi’s cabinet camping in Bihar for days on end?

Besides, the numbers show something more disturbing for the BJP. The BJP, and the NDA, have both lost significant vote-share since 2014. The BJP’s voteshare fell from 29.4% in 2014 to 24.4% in 2015. The NDA’s voteshare fell from 38.8% in 2014 to 34.1% in 2015.

bihar vote

Voters queue up to cast their vote during Bihar assembly elections on 28 October, 2015.

Truth is, voteshares don’t count for much in the first past the post system. The Mahagatbandhan’s vote share actually fell from 44.3% in 2014 to 41.9% in 2015. Voteshares are sometimes more reflective of how many seats you contest, not how many you actually win. That is why the Congress won only 4 seats from 8.38% votes in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections. This time, it won 27 seats with 6.7% votes.

This is also why it is facetious to say the BJP has increased its voteshare from 16.46% in 2010 to 24.4% in 2015. In 2010, the BJP had contested 102 seats, but in 2015 it contested 160 seats. If greater votehsare than 2010 is an achievement, than losing votehsare over 2014 must also count as proof that brand Modi is losing some of its value.

In his first speech as BJP president, Amit Shah had said, “We will win these (assembly) elections by reaching out to the people on the strength of our well-knit organisational structure and on the commitment of providing good governance in these states.”

Prime minister Modi himself addressed 30 rallies in Bihar. Twenty-six of these were held after the polling dates were announced. In 16 of those constituencies, the BJP lost.

It could not have been that the Amit Shah’s team would have put up a bad organisational structure in seats where the prime minister himself addressed rallies. The only thing that can explain the losses, then, must be the voter’s rejection of the BJP’s commitment to good governance.

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