The Bihar Assembly elections turned out to be a breathlessly close race, with the National Democratic Alliance pipping the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance to the post. Yet the award for man of the match must go to Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, who took on the combined might of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and made the NDA sweat all the way to victory. A political star has been born. Tejashwi has built upon the legacy he inherited from his father Lalu Prasad Yadav to carve out an independent image for himself. His party emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats.
There are two other messages in the National Democratic Alliance’s victory in Bihar. For one, people do not readily shift their party loyalties. For the other, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to loom large over Indian polity. He still retains the capacity to give an edge to chief ministerial candidates, whether belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party or its allies. In return, Modi expects his party will be allowed to call the shots in the alliances of which it is a member.
This expectation of Modi and his team nearly cost the NDA the Bihar Assembly election. It is widely believed that the decision of the Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan to walk out of the NDA was at the BJP’s behest. He fielded candidates against the JD-U, depriving the latter of votes that would have likely come into the NDA’s kitty. This was a significant reason why the JD-U slipped from 71 seats in 2015 to 43 in this election, thus also losing its status as a senior partner in the NDA. The BJP, by comparison, won 73 seats.
Ripe for change
All these factors combined to turn the Bihar Assembly election into a fascinating electoral battle. Yet if there was ever a state ripe for change, it was 2020 Bihar. For years to come, the Indian state’s unforgivable indifference to the poor will be defined by the image of, among others, Bihari migrant labourers who trudged down the highway to escape from cities placed under lockdown on just four hours of notice by Modi. An estimated 32 lakh Biharis returned home.
Multiply 32 lakh with the average Bihari household size of 5.5 persons and you have 1.76 crore people, or nearly 17% of Bihar's population of 10.37 crore (2011 Census), who suffered acutely because of the lockdown. When Modi placed the nation under lockdown, Bihari migrants in cities raised a shindig about returning home. Kumar, however, insisted they must stay where they were, even threatening to stop trains before they entered Bihar. He initially refused to dispatch buses to neighbouring States to fetch Biharis stranded there. Never did a chief minister look so out of depth, so indifferent to his own people.
He seemed out of depth also when parts of Bihar were inundated by overflowing rivers. Around 85 lakh people were said to have been affected. Kumar famously blamed the floods on climate change. His prohibition policy saw his government send, over the last four years, well over 1.5 lakh people to jail. By comparison, during the two years of Emergency, 1.11 lakh people were jailed countrywide. The popular anger against Kumar was reflected during the Bihar election campaign: he was hooted at rallies, looked demoralised, and the people lustily cheered Tejashwi for his attacks on him.
Bihar, however, did not embrace Tejashwi as he might have expected—and as all the exit polls predicted. What possibly came in his way and victory was caste, which defines the loyalty of people to political parties. It will seem Kumar’s core supporters—the Extremely Backward Castes, segments of Dalits and women—continued to repose their faith in him. The percentage of voters who shifted from him was not of the magnitude as to rock the NDA’s boat. The JD-U clocked 15.4% of votes, just a bit down from the 16.83% it bagged in 2015.
On top of it, the upper castes remained solidly behind the BJP, which they continued to identify as the party best suited to protect their interests. The BJP reciprocated that trust—the party gave as many 46% of the 110 seats it contested to the upper castes. It will seem the privileged groups did not blame Modi for the lockdown, on account of which they, anyway, did not suffer as much as the lower castes-classes did. It will also seem the plight of migrant labourers did not horrify the upper castes. In case they were indeed horrified, the memory of their marginalisation under Lalu Prasad Yadav had them rally behind the BJP.
Social justice versus economic justice
It was Tejashwi who turned the Bihar Assembly election into an agonizingly close contest, although Chirag’s departure from the NDA was also a crucial factor. Tejashwi, however, has also been faulted for rarely speaking in favour of social justice or, to put it in another way, expressing his resolve to fight for the dignity of lower castes, a cause his father upheld so spectacularly and audaciously during his 15-year stint as Bihar’s Chief Minister.
It is easy to fathom why Tejashwi chose to shift focus from social justice to economic justice. His party’s support base comprises, in the main, Muslims and Yadavs, who together constitute 30-31% of Bihar’s population. This will always keep the RJD alive in an electoral contest, but he cannot emerge victorious without luring segments of other caste groups. Even before the national lockdown was imposed on 25 March, he had embarked on a state-wide Berozgari Hatao Yatra.
Tejashwi’s economic justice agenda received an impetus because of the lockdown, which brought to the fore the class dimension of caste. Until the lockdown, Bihari migrant labourers belonged to one caste or another. Their torrid experience of the lockdown inserted into their consciousness the sense that regardless of their position on the Hindu social ladder, their role in the country’s production process was more or less the same: bodies and souls scarred by exploitation, left to fend for themselves against the rampaging Coronavirus—and the brutal lockdown.
Tejashwi banked upon the sudden flowering of the class dimension of caste, which always searches for hierarchy. Caste has a sharp edge, but it also undermines unity. Tejashwi did not have to speak of social justice because its principal beneficiaries—the lower castes—had been melded together, to a great degree, by their common experience of the lockdown. And that experience told them that if Bihar were to develop and provide them jobs, they would not have to suffer the exploitation in heartless cities. This is why his promise of providing 10 lakh new jobs had such an echo.
The Assembly election results show that the pull of caste identity is stronger than that of class identity. Nothing else quite explains why JD-U’s vote share did not shrink disastrously.
It is also true that the Grand Alliance sputtered before the majority mark because of the poor performance of the Congress, which won just 19 seats. When the Grand Alliance announced the apportionment of seats among its partners, there were many who were taken aback that the Congress had been allocated 70 seats. It is said the Congress had threatened to walk out of the Alliance in case its demands for seats were not met, although its leaders claim they chose seats where the going would have been tough for even the RJD.
By comparison, the Grand Alliance’s Left partners—the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India—had a very good strike: they together won 16 out of the 29 seats they fought on. In many ways, their emphasis on class imparted a degree of credibility to Tejashwi’s economic justice agenda. And their cadre, in many parts of Bihar, provided the buzz to the Alliance’s campaign. Could the Alliance have gained had they been assigned some seats out of the Congress’ quota? Would it have made sense for the Alliance to retain within its fold the Vikasheel Insaf Party, which had wanted more seats than was granted to them? Well…
Modi and Hindutva
It has become the default mode of almost all political parties, barring the Left, to refrain from speaking out against Hindutva and the social rift it has caused. They believe their criticism of Hindutva roils the Hindus, polarises the electorate and proves advantageous to the BJP. They, therefore, shy away from criticising Hindutva or speak in favour of Muslims, as was also evident from the Grand Alliance’s strategy in Bihar. As the Assembly elections turned into a close fight, Modi and the BJP took to speaking about the Ram temple, Article 370, Balakot and the Bihari soldiers who died in the border skirmishes against China.
It is hard to tell to what extent Hindutva fetched votes for the NDA. Given that Hindutva is increasingly becoming India’s common sense, a reminder to voters, particularly the upper castes among them, about the BJP’s Hindu nationalism might have stopped them from deserting the NDA. The fear of Hindutva dissuades the Opposition parties from speaking in support of Muslims, even when they are oppressed, believing they would be tagged pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.
The Opposition’s silence irks Muslims no end. This explains, at least partly, why Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM has bagged five seats, which likely would have gone to the Grand Alliance. Owaisi’s proposition is that non-BJP parties take Muslims for granted. Muslims must deny their votes to these parties in order to compel them to work in the community’s interests. Bihar has signalled that Owaisi’s proposition may have gained traction. Indeed, Hindutva will continue to dog the Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, until they enter into dialogue with the people, from district to district, village to village, long before an election comes knocking on the door.
Hindutva apart, Modi and the BJP have established their dominance over Bihar. Modi has shown he commands equity as no other leader in India does. He dominates the national consciousness, not least because of the mainstream media’s reluctance to criticise him. It seems the people do not blame him for the hardship the lockdown caused them. Rather, they feel beholden to him for saving their lives. The government’s welfare schemes have always bolstered the ruling party in India’s history. But never before welfare schemes had been so personalized and identified with the Prime Minister as it has been with Modi, perhaps the reason why so many are willing to forgive him for the misery his policies have inflicted on them.
The NDA’s victory in Bihar will have an impact on the elections in West Bengal and Assam, which will elect their Assemblies next year. Given that the two States have a high percentage of Muslim population, the BJP will deploy the instrument of Hindutva to polarise the electorate. Bihar will also embolden the BJP to suppress dissent and send sleuths to compel its rivals to fall in line. The Centre will likely come hard on protest movements. It will continue to cock a snook at those engaged in the civil rights movement. The Opposition desperately needed a victory in Bihar to mount a stiffer challenge to Modi’s BJP than it has. Yet it has also been saved from complete demoralisation because of Tejashwi’s strong showing. He has, in fact, proved that pressing the mute button is not an option for the Opposition.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.