Why The Bihar Elections Were Not A Victory For 'Secularism'

22/11/2015 9:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
PATNA, INDIA - NOVEMBER 8: Janata Dal-United (JD-U) leader Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janta Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav during a press conference after landslide victory in Bihar Assembly elections at Nitish Kumar's residence, on November 8, 2015 in Patna, India. Nitish Kumar said, 'I express my gratitude towards people of Bihar, will try our best to match up with their expectations. We respect our opposition in Bihar; want to work in consensus with everyone to develop Bihar. This victory is big win and we will work towards the grand alliances mandate for the development of Bihar.' Lalu Yadav said, 'BJP had its eyes on Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. It wanted to move eastwards. Bihar stopped them in tracks. PM Narendra Modi is nothing but an RSS pracharak.' The grand alliances victory is also attributed to the rejection of communal politics, driven mostly by the recent debate over cow slaughter and consumption of beef. Data from the election commission’s website for 240 of the state’s 243 seats showed the RJD-JD(U)-Congress alliance led in 178 seats, an emphatic victory over the NDA that could only win around 59 seats. (Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In some intellectual circles, the Bihar verdict of 8 November 2015 marks the victory of the forces of secularism over communalism. In the annals of documented history, it will go down as the day in which the juggernaut of the mythical and invincible Modi was arrested. Half a century down the lane, these documented histories will be nothing more than mythological tales shamelessly hiding the biases and intellectual dishonesty of the intelligentsia/media/liberals -- just like the Puranas and smritis hide the dishonesty of the Brahmins. In this retelling, Modi will be reduced to a mythological demon who was crushed by the forces of truth, brotherhood and poor, innocent people.

However, the truth is far from any of this and the worrisome issue is that most of us either do not know it or refuse to accept it. An expert in the psychology of political communication and rhetoric can always capture the Indian mind because of its obsession with fairy tales and mythology.

"[T]he sad truth is that whenever the BJP has tread on the path of development and used this plank to garner votes, it has suffered electoral defeats."

Though the objective of this essay is to explore the causes of the BJP's grand defeat in Bihar, the reason I have painted the above picture as an overarching background is because I want readers to have this understanding before they delve into the political stories of India.

Now, to get back to the point, it must be said right away that the verdict is not any kind of earth-shattering Stalingrad-/Waterloo-type landmark event in Indian politics, as it regarded by the intellectuals. Nor was the rise of Modi a revolution marking the doomsday of Indian secularism. In my opinion, people have always voted in a pattern which can be explained rationally. Those who are able to understand the pattern and understand the workings of the Indian mind are able to capture power with well-established instruments of political mobilisation.

Communalism to win, development to rule

The BJP has always benefited whenever it has been able to unite Hindus, generally using radical, aggressive rhetoric that raises the real or imagined fear of Muslims, Pakistan and even Christian conversions.

This pattern can be clearly observed in the last 20 to 30 years of BJP's active politics. Prior to the Shah Bano case, the BJP could not make much headway using communal rhetoric because the Congress was not seen by Hindus as a pro-Muslim or pro-Dalit party. Its image was of a centrist and inclusive party whose rank and order were dominated by caste Hindus, and which co-opted Muslims and Dalits but not at the cost of the majority community's political interests and religious sentiments. Shah Bano changed that and there was a sizeable dent in this image of the Congress. Subsequently, the spectacular rise of the BJP was largely the result of the Rath Yatra and Ram Mandir movement, which was overtly communal and a firm political assertion of Hindu religious identity.

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JD(U) supporters celebrate their victory.

However, while the BJP's Hindutva ideology is effective as long as it underlines political rhetoric or is used as a tool to mobilise people, it becomes BJP a bit redundant when the party comes in power. When the BJP has actually held the reins, at least at the national level, it has tried to steer the nation into the unknown territories of development and innovation, be it in the economy, science and technology or foreign policy. This progressive approach has been immensely beneficial to India as one could see during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's reign. Therefore, it is no surprise that even the people in Pakistan and Bangladesh wanted Atalji to win in 2004. But, the sad truth is that whenever the BJP has tread on the path of development and used this plank to garner votes, it has suffered electoral defeats. This has more often than not compelled the BJP to go back to its original weapon of communal politics.

"The upper- and lower caste Hindus of Bihar are not secular along the lines of Barkha Dutt or Arundhati Roy."

Here, I would like to make one digression. It must be noted that development was the primary electoral agenda in the 2014 general elections; however, under the surface there was a parallel narrative of the Congress as anti-Hindu and anti-national. If he was pushing only development, Modi would never have won a landslide victory. The permutations and combinations were such that everything went in the favour of Modi -- the anti-Hindu image of the Congress (and state parties like SP, JDU, BSP, RJD) along with its reputation for corruption, inefficiency and poor economic performance. Modi's stellar performance as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, along with what often appeared like a politically motivated, excessively aggressive persecution of him for the 2002 riots, earned him additional points. The people trusted him for national leadership.

The victory of caste, the past

Now, coming to Bihar, I would like to begin with an assertion that this verdict is in no way a victory of secularism over communalism (as far as Hindu voters are concerned because Muslims anyway would hardly vote for the BJP and especially not under Modi's leadership). I say this because the upper- and lower caste Hindus of Bihar are not secular along the lines of Barkha Dutt or Arundhati Roy. If the rumour of beef-eating goes viral or a Godhra-like incident occurs in Bihar or UP, the magnitude, fervor and violence of communal riots would certainly be far greater than what happened in Modi's Gujarat. The Yadavs, Kurmis, Thakurs, Bhumihars and Pasis of UP and Bihar are as sensitive about cows or their caste/religious beliefs as any other Hindu.

"[Bihar] preferred the safety, stability and continuity of their traditional feudal lifestyle under local leaders, even if this emotional comfort came at the cost of poverty, crime, corruption, caste politics and inefficiency."

In the Bihar election, although issues like cow slaughter were raised by the BJP, the campaign remained centred on development and "jungle raj". Now, the rhetoric on cow slaughter may have alienated the Muslims further but it's unlikely that they would have voted for the BJP even in its absence. Secondly, in Bihar the issue of development does not occupy a central position in people's hearts. Caste identity is still central to the average Bihari and development is something that requires erosion of caste-based politics, culture and existence.

Bihar is still largely a feudal and agrarian state where trying to insert modern capitalist styled development with complete disregard for caste realities/feudal values is like putting a square peg in a round hole. In Bihar, for Yadavs, Manjhis, Kurmis etc. the fearless assertion of their caste identity, dignity and power vis-a-vis dominant castes like Bhumihars and Thakurs is more important than sprawling Gurgaon-type MNC complexes and call centres. Even now, people are haunted by gory tales of upper caste violence. Therefore, where outsiders see chaos and lawlessness in "jungle raj" and the corruption of leaders like Lalu Yadav, these are perceived by Bihari lower castes as being necessary for their upward mobilisation and acquisition of political/social/economic power.

narendra modi bihar

BJP supporters in Bihar

Then, Nitish Kumar as a Chief Minister had performed very well so the BJP's negative campaign, and especially personal remarks by Modi, hurt people's sentiments. Nitish Kumar is a politician with a clean image who enjoys mass support across communities. On the other hand, Modi and Amit Shah were regarded as outsiders who were questioning the DNA of Biharis. The campaign machinery of Nitish under Prashant Kishore turned the contest into a face-off between Biharis and outsiders.

For the rural, emotional and illiterate masses of Bihar it was presented as a question of their ego. They preferred the safety, stability and continuity of their traditional feudal lifestyle under local leaders, even if this emotional comfort came at the cost of poverty, crime, corruption, caste politics and inefficiency. To them, this was preferable to the uncharted and insecure domains of development dominated by MNCs, sky-scrapers, 12-hour working days and strict discipline. They preferred litti-chokha (traditional Bihari food) over McDonald's and Pizza Hut.

I think that they made the right choice and they did it because they wanted it. I guess even I would want to do so for my state. Here, I am not being critical of Modi's agenda of development. I do appreciate his intentions but doubt the suitability of his model of development in certain Indian contexts.

Until the end, the BJP did not declare its chief ministerial candidate. The lack of local leadership worked against the BJP especially given the popularity and reach of Lalu and Nitish.

Where the BJP stands now

Last but not the least, I would like to mention that there is still something for the BJP to remain optimistic about. The party's vote-share rose from 16% in 2010 to 24% in 2015, whereas it remained the same for the RJD and JD(U). For Congress, there is sufficient reason to bury its head in shame as its vote-share came down from 8% to 6% unless it can find some happiness in Modi's waning popularity. Additionally, there is also no reason to conclude that Modi's "magic" is over or that the people of Bihar were responding to allegations made by the media and certain intellectual cliques of "increasing intolerance" (allegations that smack of dubious intentions and dishonesty). Further, the poll results are not a reason to conclude that Modi has performed badly in governance. While he has not performed any miracles, he has at least given us a corruption-free government and showed an intention to bring changes (though it's still a happy dream).

Ultimately, the worrisome aspect is that once again caste politics have overtaken a development-based agenda. Modi's Western-styled model of development might be partly to blame for this, but what bothers me is that this defeat will push BJP back into the arena of politics where it is at its best i.e. communal politics. This could translate to anything from aggressive rhetoric to bloody communal riots as the party gears up to win the upcoming UP elections.

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