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Bihar Defeat Could Send BJP Down A Dangerous Path

16/11/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stand in line to hear Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India, on Saturday, July 25, 2015. More than anywhere, Bihar reflects the challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces in overhauling modern India. A vast, landlocked plain bordering the Himalayan nation of Nepal to the north and bisected by the Ganges, India's holiest river, the state is home to about one in 12 Indians. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is much about Bihar -- one of India's most populous and poorest states -- that sets it apart from more prosperous regions of the country.

After you arrive at the airport in the state capital of Patna, as I did around this time last year, you are herded into a small, stifling, room with low ceilings to wait for your baggage, which eventually emerges from a rickety conveyor belt that advances in slow, violent jerks. This airport, which serves a city with a population nearly the size of Philadelphia's, is a far cry from the glitzy, ultra-modern facilities in many other Indian state capitals.

It's not just airports that reflect the differences between Bihar and numerous other Indian states; politics does as well. In Bihar, the ideological legacies of once-powerful communist and other leftist political parties remain strong. This translates to strong support for social welfare programs and sharp anti-American sentiment. When I was giving a talk at a Patna university, a professor literally worked himself into a frenzy while delivering an anti-American jeremiad. Students roared with approval as he lambasted the United States for "creating" the ISIS terror group and excoriated American military forces for raining destruction down on Afghanistan.

"[T]he BJP will have strong incentives to fall back on its hard-line social agenda in order to reassure a base that is both restless about a lack of progress on reform, and traumatised by an embarrassing electoral performance."

Contrast all this with the BJP -- a right-wing political party with a free-market orientation that is eager to deepen its relations with Washington. Consider also that since taking over the national government last year, the BJP has emphasised modernisation and urban-focused growth. Bihar, however, remains an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural state.

This all helps explain how just 18 months after scoring a resounding national election victory, the BJP suffered a shellacking in Bihar -- a state, with a population of more than 100 million; that is more people than all but 12 countries. The BJP won only about a quarter of the contested seats in Bihar's state legislature.

bihar election

Still, all this said, the plain truth is that the BJP lost Bihar in great part because it ran a lousy campaign. The victorious coalition led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar won over voters by focusing on concrete bread-and-butter issues -- from food inflation to free bicycles -- that resonate with a poor electorate.

By contrast, the BJP articulated a vague message of development, growth, and modernisation -- worthy themes, but mere abstractions for a constituency focused on more immediate and tangible objectives such as meeting basic needs. The BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, also resorted to crude appeals to communalism that explicitly singled out Indian Muslims. Playing the Hindu nationalist card doesn't always play well in a state with a Muslim minority population of nearly 20%.

In an ideal world, a chastened BJP would emerge from its Bihar defeat as a more conciliatory and inclusive party -- reaching out to emboldened opposition forces, and scaling back its communal rhetoric so that it can refocus attention on the economy, which the BJP was elected with a mammoth mandate to fix.

Unfortunately we don't live in an ideal world. Ominously, there is reason to fear that the BJP, post-Bihar, could emerge as a more divisive party and double down on its Hindu nationalist agenda.

Back in September, I wrote for the South Asia Channel that the Modi government may feel compelled to appease its conservative base by redirecting attention to its social agenda, should its troubled economic reform plan continue to lapse. Thanks to the Bihar defeat, Modi's reform agenda will be even more difficult to pull off. The upper house of Parliament, which was already controlled by the opposition prior to the Bihar election, will now host more legislators hostile to Modi and his policy objectives (the Rajya Sabha's composition is determined by state legislatures). Overall, with diminished political capital, the polarising premier will have to work even harder to earn buy-in from his political opponents.

In effect, the BJP will have strong incentives to fall back on its hard-line social agenda in order to reassure a base that is both restless about a lack of progress on reform, and traumatised by an embarrassing electoral performance.

"There are already cracks in [Modi's] glowing image abroad- on his recent trip to the UK, a generally warm reception was offset by protests and hard-hitting questions from the media."

Of course, as demonstrated by recent BJP policies -- such as attempts to ban beef -- the party has already started tapping into its social agenda. This has coincided with a series of disturbing acts of religious violence and intolerance across the country, most of which have received a disturbingly muted response from BJP leaders. One shudders to think what could happen if the party maintains, or even intensifies, its pursuit of its social agenda.

A likely consequence would be heightened sectarian tensions and an upsurge in communal violence. Another could be economic. In the days before the announcement of the Bihar results, the governor of India's state bank and an assessment from Moody's economic analysis group issued subtle warnings about the economic risks of a continued climate of intolerance in India.

narendra modi bihar

This raises an unsettling possibility for an Indian government keen to elevate India's role on the world stage: communal tensions and economic struggles could start to harm India's image abroad -- one that Modi has worked assiduously to enhance through his frequent international travel. There are already cracks in his glowing image abroad- on his recent trip to the UK, a generally warm reception was offset by protests and hard-hitting questions from the media.

Fortunately, a grim narrative of heightened communal tensions and economic setbacks is far from assured for India in the long term, and for three reasons.

First, the BJP may have suffered a big blow in Bihar, but it could well bounce back in a big way. India will hold four state elections next year, with an additional one -- in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state -- scheduled for 2017. BJP victories in some of these contests could restore its confidence and make its economic plan a bit easier to sell and achieve. Progress on the economic front could induce the party to pull back on its social agenda.

Second, the BJP's defeat in Bihar can be read in part as evidence that Indian voters resent crude appeals to communalism. With more state elections in the offing and national elections less than four years away, the BJP may contend that its broader electoral prospects are strengthened by scaling back, even if modestly, its social agenda.

Third, a determined Modi will find creative ways to keep executing his economic plan, despite diminished political capital. "Wherever possible," predicts Milan Vaishnav, an India analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, "the Modi regime will circumvent a divided parliament, deploying executive action and pushing reforms that can be adopted by India's states, where a divided national parliament poses no obstacle."

Still, this much is clear: the Bihar election debacle marks the definitive end to the Modi honeymoon in India. And at least in the immediate term, it could prompt a BJP reaction that produces troubling effects at home -- while also undercutting Modi's sparkling reputation abroad, or at least outside of South Asia. If the reception that Modi has received on his recent trip to the UK -- which featured more angry protests than are typical for his trips abroad -- is any indication, it's safe to say he can no longer take his superstar status overseas for granted -- just as his party can no longer regard its status as a political juggernaut as an article of faith.

This is an updated version of a post first published here

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