Weighing In On Bihar And What The Pundits Are Getting Wrong

12/11/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 8: Congress workers celebrate after Mahagathbandhan's (Grand Alliance) victory in Bihar assembly elections at AICC, on November 8, 2015 in New Delhi, 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 Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Bihar elections are done. The results have come in. Lalu and Nitish are celebrating and the pundits have started writing Amit Shah's obituary. Lalu claims that he will now focus on travelling across the expanse of the country and fight the "communal" forces of Modi & Co. The BJP is hunkering down and claiming that they lost due to caste and caste alone. The post-mortem will continue for a couple of more weeks, until the next big Bollywood release or cricket match or Sunny Leone's new poster (which Kailash Vijayvargiya will claim is destroying the moral fabric of our country).

I have contested the 2014 elections and had the good fortune to oversee another four elections in my constituency in the year preceding my own election. I present the below points solely based on my own personal three to four years of experience in Indian politics -- I am still somewhat an outsider to Indian politics and think like an outsider given my background, etc. And since everyone is giving an opinion on the Bihar elections and reasons for BJP's loss, I decided to give mine too!

bihar elections bjp

What the BJP failed to understand

1. The Indian voter hates arrogance. For some reason, the Indian voter votes against a candidate if they are perceived to be arrogant (perception is reality in this case); this holds true even if the candidate has done good development work. Modi and Shah are being perceived as a two-man army, as not taking everyone else into confidence -- the media's constant barrage about Modi being arrogant, etc did not help. The question is not whether Modi & Co are arrogant or not (the line between arrogance and confidence is thin), the issue is that they got portrayed as arrogant.

"The average Bihari voter could very simply think, 'Poor Lalu, he has been consistently losing elections... let's give him a chance.' "

2. Sympathy plays a huge role in voting patterns in India. The average Bihari voter could very simply think, "Poor Lalu, he has been consistently losing elections, he has been in Bihar for decades, his two sons are contesting for the first time, let's give him a chance." Sympathy (and other emotions such as anger, jealousy, etc) plays a very large role in the voter's mind when they cast their ballot.

3. The Indian voter generally likes to give everyone a fair chance, and retain the checks and balances of the system The average Bihari voter could very simply think -- "I have voted overwhelmingly for the BJP and Modi in 2014, now let's give the other guys a chance and vote for them." It is as simple as that.

4. Negative campaigning does not resonate with most people. The Indian voter is quite intelligent in the sense that he likes to know what you will do for him, and does not care too much for what you think the other person will not do. So Modi implying that Nitish/Lalu would take away reservations from BC voters and give them to Muslims obviously was not believable and hence negatively affected the BJP.

5. Local leaders are king as far as elections go, especially local elections. For example, in a hyper-local election such as panchayat, the candidate is all that matters; the party matters very little. At the other end of the spectrum, in a national election, the party matters 70-80% and the rest is the candidate. So in the context of Bihar, it would have been very helpful if the BJP portrayed a strong local leader like Sushil Modi as the face of the campaign. Showcasing both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to the extent of downplaying the locals definitely hurt the BJP.

6. Everyone has a USP, and they need to market that USP well. Modi's USP is that he is a man of action, development, etc -- so he needs to sell that. Lalu's USP is his caste, his "common man" style, his jokes, his hyper-local knowledge and instincts honed from decades spent fighting in the trenches of the Hindi heartland, sympathy from having lost last many elections, and the general "Laluness" that is endearing to many. So Lalu makes his jokes, makes fun of people, sits around and chit chats with people and wins votes. Once Modi started talking Lalu's language, he started a war with Lalu that was hard to win. Also, to add to difficulties, Nitish counter-balanced Modi's development USP. In addition, Nitish had Lalu. Modi could have taken on Sushil Modi for this role, but did not and hence failed.

"If Modi had made nice with Nitish in the past 18 months, today's situation in Bihar could have been different."

7. Certain things can alienate the undecided voter -- things like the beef ban, porn ban, Dadri incident, the verbal attacks on Shah Rukh Khan, etc. Initially, I simply did not understand why Modi and Shah did not grasp this but upon some thinking it occurred to me that maybe they stayed mum to keep the rank and file cadres motivated and happy. This reason is somewhat valid -- cadres tend to get upset when the senior leaders make statements against their on-ground actions -- but proper handling is still necessary. Maybe Modi needs to make a statement against extreme actions and then the local mid-level leaders (like MLAs, junior MPs, district leaders, youth leaders, etc) make up for it by speaking to the ground-level workers to keep them happy. However, for this to happen, Shah and Modi need to have the confidence and affection of the various mid-level BJP leaders, which is probably lacking due to their alleged autocratic style of functioning. Anyway, something needs to be worked out --- the PM of a country as diverse as India cannot be perceived to be condoning (with his silence and delayed responses) all sorts of mob actions and hate speeches.

8. Finally, the Prime Minister needs to be what Americans like to call "Presidential". The PM's post is a moral compass for the common man. The PM needs to maintain that level of decency and act like the PM of India, not the PM of the BJP. He needs to stand up for what is morally right, even if it means scolding his own party people occasionally. He needs to reach out to members of the opposition (like so many journalists have said) and form informal alliances to get bills passed. The Congress with about 150 MPs managed to get the nuclear bill passed, while Modi with almost twice as many MPs is finding it difficult to get bills passed. Politics is obviously the art of the impossible -- Modi probably just needs to be a nicer guy and I think many things will get easier.

narendra modi

Finally, let me outline some things many people are saying that I disagree with.

1. Amit Shah is done: Losing an election (albeit an important one) does not mean one's career is over, especially after many wins. If Modi and Shah can change in the ways outlined above, all is well. Wins and losses are part of the game of democracy -- one has to take both with some sobriety.

2. Coalition/regional politics: Long term, as the country gets richer and more educated, people will vote more on policy than caste/religion, and there will be consolidation. I am not saying we will go the American way with two-three parties, but 20 years from now will see fewer parties than today.

3.Congress is picking up: As part of the Grand Alliance, the Congress won a bunch of seats in Bihar. But there is much wrong with the Congress and for it to be a viable alternative for 2019, a lot more work needs to be done.

" If Modi wants to be remembered by history as the greatest PM India ever had (and he can achieve this) he needs to work on the promise he made to India -- first and foremost."

4. 2019 will see a national grand coalition to beat BJP: God knows. Six months is a lifetime in politics. Four years is eternity. Two years ago Modi was just another CM, a year ago he was invincible, today a little beaten up. Two years ago Lalu was a joke, today he is making all the jokes. Anything can happen in politics and there are no permanent friends or enemies. One thing I do believe is that it is useful to be nice to everyone -- allies and opponents alike. If Modi had made nice with Nitish in the past 18 months, today's situation in Bihar could have been different.

5. Bills will be more difficult to pass: Agree because of mathematics. Disagree because if Modi changes, numbers will have much less value, relationships will carry the day.

6. Lalu is back as a national figure: Lalu cannot contest -- his sons have won, and they will take a few years to establish their own personal authority and run the show in Bihar. So while Lalu can speak about creating a pan-India anti-Modi movement, it's easier said than done. I love Lalu personally because he adds certain panache to the political scene and I find him endearing, but I doubt he can create the wave he is speaking so confidently about.

In conclusion, I would like to end by saying -- Modi got elected in 2014 on a promise of hope, on a promise of a better tomorrow for so many millions of young people, middle classes, etc. I still think he can deliver on that hope. He needs to change and he needs to get his close team to change along with him.

He also needs to stop worrying about winning elections -- so what if he is a one-time PM? Abraham Lincoln, PV Narsimha Rao, and Vajpayee were all one time heads of state and history has given them their due recognition. If Modi wants to be remembered by history as the greatest PM India ever had (and he can achieve this) he needs to work on the promise he made to India -- first and foremost.

I was and still remain a fan of Modi, I hope and pray he succeeds for the sake of India.

Meanwhile, talk shows will be so much more fun now with Lalu on a roll!

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