At The Pivot Of The Battle In Bihar

Praveen Patil

Oct 19, 2015, 09:42 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 08:52 AM IST

The second part of the article on Bihar polls tries to give some hope for the BJP for the future phases.

At the height of electioneering in 2004, while I was travelling across Pune and Marathwada divisions, I came across an interesting phenomenon in Sangli district. Here the ex-Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Vasant Dada Patil’s son and incumbent MP, Prakashbapu was once again contesting on Congress ticket despite serious health issues that had forced him into almost total absence from campaigning. BJP had wisely given ticket to Deepak Shinde Mahisalkar, the son of a popular NCP leader and a post graduate engineer who was known for his very good organizational skills.

Sangli is a completely Congress territory where the party had never lost an election (until 2014 when Modi wave swept even this Congress fortress), and this was a great chance for BJP to create history. The saffron party was also being supported in every village by the Shetkari Sanghathana of Sharad Joshi and his 10000 strong cadre base in the district. All political signs were favourable to the BJP except for one crucial factor.

Local RSS workers were downright unenthusiastic about the whole electioneering process. In fact, a section of Sangh cadre was working for Nagnathanna Naikwadi, an eminent freedom fighter who was contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket. In Miraj, when I asked an wise old man who had spent many years in the Sangh (who has since passed away) about the prospects of the BJP and why RSS was not campaigning vigorously for the party, this is what he had said to me, “If RSS ‘really’ (emphasis on ‘really’) wants you to win an election, almost no power on earth can stop you from winning an election!”

One can treat such a statement with a reasonable amount of skepticism considering the fact that many lifetime Sangh members seem to possess an overtly grandiose notion about the powers of RSS, but there is some element of truth in that statement. The same old wise man had predicted the debacle of Vajpayee in that election when all the opinion polls were still predicting an NDA sweep. As for Sangli in 2004, Congress won that seat by 80k votes over its nearest rival, the BJP, while Samajwadi Party secured some 1.3 lakh votes in that election.

It is now a matter of historic record that RSS almost completely invested itself in the electioneering process of 2014 and, probably for the first time since 1977 (the post-Emergency JP Election), every Sangh worker cutting across organizations and hierarchy worked for BJP’s victory. To what extent BJP derived benefit from this unequivocal participation of RSS may not be quantifiable, but it was definitely one of the important reasons for the party winning an outright majority on its own.

Here it must be stressed that RSS is not BJP’s election machinery as is the widely believed notion propagated by the media, for as a social organization only small sections of RSS get involved in regular electioneering work under most circumstances. In fact, RSS’s independence from BJP is also a lesser known phenomenon as many a times the former is known to take a contradictory position on many issues and is also known to support non-BJP parties during elections in specific geographies.

From whatever we could make out in the first two phases of Bihar elections, this seems to be one of those elections where RSS is “less than enthusiastic” about supporting the BJP candidates. On both the polling days, in Bhagalpur on day one where RSS has a very strong base and in Gaya on day two, many RSS workers were either not working with BJP cadre in tandem or were “busy” with their routine activities. One can argue that such a phenomena could be due to localized factors, but one must remember that the Sangh is a deeply hierarchical organization with the centralized command structure. Furthermore, the whole election has also been muddied by the Sarsanghchalak’s twice-repeated statement about “Reservations” which has only created an atmosphere of a conspiracy among the saffron circles.

There is a section within the BJP who is still living in denial as to the probable impact of Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on Bihar’s momentum election. In fact, many political pundits still live in an old world of 70s India wherein such ‘last moment’ comments made a little impact only in urban areas. Many pundits also suggest that an overwhelmingly rural state like Bihar where even newspaper readership is minuscule, trends cannot be generated so quickly (of course it is another matter that Modi wave was also generated in a similar fashion in 2014).
As election observers, one of the metrics that we at 5Forty3 constantly monitor are the way generalized trends are shaping up in any given geography that is essentially the study of electoral causality – how “cause and effect” relationship works during elections. We made a telling observation in phase two on last Friday in this regard.

A. CADIPS (Cloud Application for Data Intensive Population Studies) is a special electoral tech tool being developed by 5forty3 data labs that we are currently testing in the beta format in Bihar. Among many other things, CADIPS also monitors “internet and Social Media noise” in a particular geography to understand demographic undercurrents. What we found out in the last week or so is the sudden ten fold increase of chatter on “Reservations” (and various related topics) in Bihar, especially in those southern districts that were going to polls in phases 1 and 2. One can be dismissive of these findings sighting little penetration of internet in a backward state like Bihar, but CADIPS has also shown us that there are 80 lakh WhatsApp users in Bihar and a substantial number of them are also registered voters in electoral rolls. Our estimates suggest that nearly half a million WhatsApp/Facebook messages on the “Reservations” issue were circulated in Bihar in the last ten days.

Since most WhatsApp/Facebook users also belong to the below 30s age group (main BJP vote base), the impact could have been far higher for NDA than most political pundits have understood. It must be remembered here that such a messaging creates a multiplier effect in small towns and villages where many voters of heartland make-up their mind only in the last 24 hours depending on who is ahead of the contest. Youngsters with a mobile phone are the “go to” people in Bihari villages these days for news trends.

B. On Friday, we began to notice an anomaly in voting patterns. Many Mahadalit voters (especially in Gaya district) were supposedly former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi fans but were not exactly registering for NDA as the choice. Initially, we believed it to be a by-product of confusion, but by evening it was virtually a clear pattern. Not only many EBCs but even a section of Mahadalits had stuck back to supporting Nitish Kumar despite the Manjhi factor. “Reservations” chatter was the causal wave and the voting pattern on Friday was its clear ‘effect’ while Manjhi became the casualty.

We cannot of course suggest that our tools and pattern analysis are perfect, most of these activities carry internationally accepted error margins of 3% and to add to that many of our tools are still being tested. Furthermore, it must be pointed out here that even a 3% error margin in Indian elections can completely alter the final results. The trend, we believe, is nearly clear. The momentum that was with NDA just a few days before polls seems to have shifted in a big way towards the Nitish alliance.

There were two clear cut pointers towards voter behaviour on Friday in the form of Jitan Ram Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha whose parties had both contested 7 and six seats respectively. Not only have they underperformed in these seats, but they have also seemingly faltered in bringing their caste bases to the NDA fold. For instance, in Gaura assembly segment of Gaya district where two Dangis (a subsect of Kushwahas) were pitted against each other from BJP and JDU, the latter got most Kushwaha support while union minister Upendra Kushwaha failed to get his community to vote for BJP.

In fact, many local second rung RLSP leadership was working for JDU on polling day sighting the “Reservations” backlash among their cast members as the main reason along with the secondary reason that BJP had given a ticket to an outsider (BJP candidate Rajiv Nandan belongs to neighbouring Tikari assembly segment).

If that is the case of RLSP, Jitan Ram Manjhi who was supposed to be an X factor in favour of NDA in this election may have turned out to be a complete dud. In fact, in my travels across Bihari villages in the run-up to the elections, I had observed the kind of reverence that many Mahadalits had for the former CM and had concluded that he would be a great asset to the saffron alliance.

After the elections, if our assessment of Manjhi’s performance were to come true and he underperforms, there would be a clamor to throw him simply under the bus, but such a knee-jerk reaction would be totally wrong. Manjhi has extraordinary amounts of goodwill among Mahadalits here but he has probably simply failed to convert that into votes for NDA due to three reasons-

  • He was incorporated into the BJP style of campaigning which is essentially a top-down approach of addressing big public rallies whereas he would have been far more effective if he had travelled across villages and met local Mahadalit leaders to canvass their support. He addressed a dozen rallies in the run-up to the second phase but hasn’t had the desired impact.
  • His party symbol was not popularized among voters so many Mahadalits were confused even on voting day as to who to vote for.
  • The “Reservations” comment by Bhagwat hurt Manjhi as it impacted his core constituency. BJP-RSS cadre also did not fully mobilize the Manjhi vote base on polling day that only doubled the negative impact.

Thus after first two phases NDA has most likely under performed. The degree of this under-performance is debatable, but what is clear is that the saffron alliance now needs to regroup and score big in the remaining phases. There are both good news as well as bad news for NDA, first let us look at the bad part.

The first bad news is that in the first two phases, momentum has been with the opposition alliance.

The second bad news is that news of underperformance travels quickly from phase to phase in an election season which means that your cadre can easily get demoralized in the future phases – in fact, this is how the “winner takes it all” phenomenon works in favor of the leading party in India’s first-past-the-post system.

The first good news for the NDA is that 162 assembly segments of Bihar are yet to vote and will only go to polls in the next three phases.

The second good news for NDA is that BJP still has nearly 120 seats to show its mettle whereas its main rival, the JDU is only contesting half that number at 63 in the next 3 phases of Bihar.

The third good news for the BJP is that our estimates suggest that at least 78 of those 120 seats that BJP is contesting are in the “definitely winnable” category.

The fourth good news for BJP is that there is a gap of more than ten days to recalibrate its Bihar strategy and try and recapture the saffron lead. What BJP needs to do over the next fortnight to win Bihar is manifold, we are just highlighting nine important aspects-

  • Prime Minister must make an emotional appeal to Bihar BJP leadership to bury their differences and give their 100% to the next part of the battle. Sometimes such an emotional appeal may work where strong words may yet fail.
  • Party president Shah must address the Karyakartas and help build their morale. More importantly he needs to instill disciplined approach that is sorely missing in this election.
  • RSS must be brought on board at any cost. Bhagwat’s comments have already made the damage, now is the time to undo that damage by completely halting all other Sangh activities and instead concentrating full time on Bihar elections only. If RSS cadre works in tandem with Dalit and the backward workforce of NDA allies, it can still achieve phenomenal results within a short period.
  • Why hasn’t the BJP and the Prime Minister not leveraged Modi’s backward status in Bihar is really baffling. In heartland, this is important political messaging which must be driven home both subtly as well as overtly. Somehow this has now become a forward v/s backward election, and BJP is being identified with the “forward” block that is hurting the whole alliance.
  • What is wrong with BJP’s message campaigning while a new entrant like Prashant Kishore is succeeding in creating a huge whisper campaign around the “Reservations” angle simply by leveraging technology and limited cadre base? This needs to be rectified immediately. Let there be a counter whisper campaign about how a backward Prime Minister is being attacked from all corners (including the Gandhi dynasty).
  • The top-down approach of only Modi addressing big rallies or other leaders like Sushil Modi and GiriraJ Singh following it up with a few smaller rallies at divisional or district headquarters is obviously not working. BJP must change the course now. Especially leaders like Paswan and Manjhi should be encouraged to canvas in villages by interacting with local leaders and seeking their support.
  • Fresh new strategies in backward and Dalit mobilization are needed now. NDA must try and fully utilize all the backward-Dalit leadership at its disposal even if it means sidelining the upper castes, for the time has now come to make a choice in Bihar.
  • As the last measure, NDA may even try and declare a backward as the chief ministerial nominee of the alliance as there is an impression gaining ground that BJP will eventually nominate a “forward” as the CM after elections that would mean that the “backward” vote is essentially wasted.
  • NDA needs to have a clear strategy for the 57 seats that will go to polls in the 5th and final phase of polling in the Seemanchal-Kosi region to prevent a sweep by RJD-JDU. This is because all indications are that after 28th the Mahagathbandhan will go on a full “secular” overdrive and also bring Lalu to the forefront as this is his territory (till now the Yadav chieftain has been mostly below the radar besides his “beef” comments).

Every election has its historic significance and its political ramifications. Whatever be the result of Bihar, BJP should begin to prepare for a post-Bihar India wherein, if the results are adverse to the ruling party, there would be a cacophony of unnecessary outrage by media and the intelligentsia. For instance, what is the BJP’s strategy for the winter session of parliament? Will it be another wasted session dictated by the whims and fancies of Rahul Gandhi?

The economic stasis that India is going through and the lack of revolutionary reforms are also an important reason BJP is struggling in Bihar. Hope Modi realizes that even rural India expects decisive leadership from him and not just an incremental continuation of the same.

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.

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