Why India Stands To Suffer If BJP Doesn't Take Lessons From Bihar Rout

12/11/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images
Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters hold up a flag with the lotus party symbol outside the party headquarters in New Delhi on May 16, 2014. India's triumphant Hindu nationalists declared 'the start of a new era' in the world's biggest democracy May 16 after hardline leader Narendra Modi propelled them to a stunning win on a platform of revitalizing the sickly economy. AFP PHOTO/ SAJJAD HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

It goes to the credit of the Bihar voters that they have overwhelmingly voted for the Mahagathbandhan in the recently held state elections. The voters, who in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had given an unprecedented mandate to the Narendra Modi-led NDA in the hope that he would make a difference in their lives by releasing a special economic package, voted for the alliance in the state elections, as they felt betrayed when Modi did not fulfill his promise.

The recent results have sprung two surprises: first, the almost complete whitewash of BJP, and its allies and, second, the RJD becoming the single largest party. Even more than the unexpected scale of the BJP's defeat, what is surprising onlookers most is the groundswell of support for Lalu Yadav, whose RJD is widely held responsible for creating the "jungle raj" in Bihar. However, despite his many failures, Lalu has made efforts to be inclusive of people across religions and castes in his tenure. It is probable that Muslims and people from backward castes have voted for him because they feel safe under his leadership.

The support for Nitish has a straightforward foundation: he went about quietly lifting Bihar from the morass it found itself in during Lalu's tenure, endowing it with an improved law and order situation, access to electricity, better health services and social harmony between different castes and religions. His development agenda resonated with the ordinary people of Bihar. This suggests that Bihar can transcend caste polarisation and focus instead on development. How else one would explain the fact that the BJP, which got an unprecedented mandate in the Lok Sabha elections, should now come now come as a poor third?

"Modi had to pay a heavy price by demonising people like Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, who ended up garnering more popular support than ever."

The fate of the BJP reminds me of the predicament that Alice found herself in when stood at a crossroads. Alice asked the Cheshire cat which road she should take. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the cat. "I don't much care where," said Alice. "Then it does not matter which way you go," retorted the cat.

The BJP did not have a clear roadmap to show to the Bihari voters and, instead, made the tactical (and fatal) mistake of launching personal attacks on Nitish and Lalu. They paid a heavy price for their negative campaigning.

Although almost all the exit polls failed to read the minds of the public, there were indications that the BJP was treading on thin ground in the campaign phase, with Modi's attacks on Nitish backfiring against him. Despite the many provocations of BJP leaders in election rallies, the people of Bihar baulked at supporting such scathing attacks on Nitish's performance and the JD(U) leader enjoyed a groundswell of support from the people of Bihar, across castes and religions.

Both the Delhi and Bihar elections have shown that personal charisma and rhetoric alone will no longer deliver results. People want to see changes that have a direct bearing on their lives. Unfortunately, the BJP did not learn from the mistakes it made during the Delhi elections.

While I don't think the Bihar verdict can be construed as a referendum on Modi's leadership, as he still continues to enjoy a majority at the Centre, there are a few lessons he needs to learn from the debacle.

1.He should immediately rein in his ministers and other party leaders who have been making incendiary communal statements that have invited the ire of the minority community as well as a large section of Hindus. Their verbal diarrhoea has not only harmed his image, but also damaged the reputation of his party. Modi's silence in the face of a growing outcry against intolerance in society will be understood as weak leadership.

2. There is no denying that BJP president Amit Shah is a great strategist, but his inability to inspire confidence had damaged the BJP's chances, both at Delhi and Bihar.

3. Narendra Modi should learn that empty rhetoric and personal attacks on his opponents alone will not bring him success. He had to pay a heavy price by demonising people like Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, who ended up garnering more popular support than ever.

4. As the BJP did not focus on a definite chief ministerial candidate, the people played safe in voting for a man they trusted. After all a known devil is better than an unknown one! The BJP should now adopt a bottom up approach instead of a top down one. For this, it should take steps to develop local leadership in all the states, as no central minister can understand the peculiar needs of a state. It is here that Nitish Kumar's tactic of urging the people to choose between a "Bihari" and a "Bahari" (outsider) paid off.

"The opposition will now be emboldened to stall all crucial bills only to cut Modi to size, and in the process may slow down the country's progress."

I see very difficult days ahead for India. With a boost in confidence, the Congress may now have an additional impetus to go all guns blazing against the BJP. Their one-point agenda has always been to discredit Modi, as he is the only person who, they feel, can come in their way. The BJP, unfortunately, does not have any other leader who has the capacity to connect with people on such a large scale. One shudders to think of what will happen in the winter session of Parliament where crucial bills are pending. The opposition will now be emboldened to stall all crucial bills only to cut Modi to size, and in the process may slow down the country's progress.

Narendra Modi should realise that his charisma and oratory skills alone will not fetch him success in future elections. He should not allow his ego to get in the way of establishing rapport with all opposition parties if he wants to accelerate the economic reforms in the country. While under his leadership, India's stock has gone by several folds the world over, what a common person -- a voter -- looks for is a better standard of living. I sincerely hope Modi learns from the Bihar fiasco, and translates all the promises made by him into action.

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