Narendra Modi faced arguably the most significant electoral debacle of his life yet, after the NDA was routed by the combined strength of the RJD-JD(U)-Congress Mahagathbandhan (MGB) in Bihar. Although, the electoral arithmetic based on caste alliances was always in the MGB’s favour, due to the unprecedented index of opposition unity, the BJP was expected to perform credibly rather than experience a humiliating loss. This reasoning is based on two factors:
First, the BJP won nearly 30% of votes in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 in Bihar compared with only 24.5% in the Bihar Assembly elections of 2015 and the resultant lost vote is expected to have mostly gone MGB’s way. This 5% loss for BJP culminated in a 9-10% gain for the MGB.
Second, BJP’s allies performed exceptionally poorly in these elections winning in a mere 7 of the 87 seats in which they contested although their performance (except Manjhi’s HAM which did not exist then) was quite impressive in the LS polls.
This evidence negates the popular idea of certain BJP apologists who contend that the consolidated caste votebanks made in an ‘impossible’ election for the BJP to win or that the state unit of the Bihar BJP was utterly incompetent and unable to capitalize upon the Modi goodwill factor transcending across communities. Considering the electoral turnout was similar during both the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, the fact remains that a significant section of voters who opted for Narendra Modi previously shifted their vote to the MGB. The reasons which led to this massive swing of votes away from the BJP warrant a suitable explanation.
The scale of the defeat will render comparisons with the February Delhi debacle where the BJP faced a staggering defeat at the hands of Arvind Kejriwal. Nevertheless, such comparisons are spurious for, in Delhi, the inevitable reason for the defeat was the poor electoral campaign strategy of the BJP, the novelty of ‘corruption fighter’ Arvind Kejriwal and the passion for subsidies among the Delhi’s electoral classes.
In contrast in Bihar, Nitish Kumar was the ten year old incumbent, his development record was mediocre at best with no worthwhile foreign investment, industry and job creation to boast off, he had joined hands with a convict under whose reign Bihar had been notorious for a complete breakdown of its law and order and finally subsidies or the lack of it were not much an electoral agenda in one of the least developed states of India where the availability of electricity itself is still deemed a luxury in hundreds of its villages and towns.
Six forms of specious reasoning have been postulated for the Bihar debacle.
1.Referendum against ‘intolerance’
First, the leftists, ‘secularists’ and their media sympathizers have declared it is a referendum against ‘intolerance’. This is not much different from the misleading claims made regarding so called ‘church attacks’ preceding the Delhi elections. This pernicious narrative expects the Prime Minister to condemn and apologize for incidents of intolerance in which minorities and fellow ideologues are victims of alleged Hindutva proponents. The columnist Rajeev Mantri persuasively argues:
“the position India’s eminent intellectuals are taking is Narendra Modi is not the Prime Minister of India, but the Prime Minister of Hindus: he should be made answerable for the crimes of Hindus but not of those committed by individuals of other faiths, even though these crimes may just be heinous”.
The PM did absolutely the right thing in maintaining a dignified silence over a few unfortunate yet isolated incidents which occurred in states ruled by non-BJP parties since under the federal structure of the Indian constitution, law and order is a state subject. Moreover, the ethical conduct of the PM was upright since he has been forever silent regarding numerous Hindu victims of communal violence or desecrations of Hindu temples especially in non-BJP ruled states led by parties known to historically indulge in the politics of appeasement of religious minorities.
2. Lack of ‘Economic Reforms’
The economic liberals within the BJP and outside it, while accepting the ‘leftist’ anti-Hindutva cultural position in whole or part, will combine it with a seductive narrative of deviation from the “developmental” agenda and the lack of what they call ‘economic reforms’. The latter is constituted by desire for greater disinvestment of public sector companies, facilitation of ease of doing business by cutting red tape, more tax holidays for industry, labour reforms, reduction in direct taxes (along with increasing the net tax base). Such actions have the potential to increase foreign investment and create employment opportunities which in all likelihood should create goodwill and votes for the BJP.
Even accepting the merit of economic reforms for improving growth rates and the gross domestic product, I have argued previously that they are unlikely to translate into electoral votes. This is because,
a) Radical economic reforms are often accompanied by short term hardships which may extend up to the next general elections. Some of them like labour reforms and disinvestment will initially lead to loss of jobs which will be mercilessly exploited by the ‘socialist’ opponents across the political spectrum and within. Anecdotally, I know a Bihari joint family of 20, who voted for the Congress in 2004 because the head of the family was forced to take voluntary retirement during the NDA government’s disinvestment drive.
b) The idea that public sector companies are destined to be loss making is a myth. For instance, BSNL until 2005 registered profits in hundreds of crores but political and administrative mismanagement rendered it a lost making company. Similarly, the decline of Air India has been attributed to the unholy nexus between politicians and crony capitalists. Moreover, historically disinvestment did not fetch any electoral benefit for the NDA which lost in most major urban centres in 2004.
c) As I have previously argued, economic development will guarantee BJP electoral benefit only in its existing bastions or where it already has substantial electoral presence. In India’s complex federal structure, there is no evidence to suggest that economic development in BJP-ruled states will attract it new voters in those states where it is a marginal player like West Bengal, Orissa, Telangana, Kerala or Tamil Nadu.
d) How is an average voter who voted for Nitish in Bihar, Jaya in Tamil Nadu or Patnaik in Orissa supposed to distinguish between development ushered by the state government and development ushered by the centre in 2019? This argument for development as BJP’s panacea is actually based on the cynical assumption that extant non-BJP state governments will fail to bring about material development which is not always the case. Also, states which are relatively nonchalant to the practice of fiscal prudence can compensate and rationalize the poor infrastructure development or lack of adequate electricity among minds of voters through a culture of subsidies as evident in Tamil Nadu.
e) Development based on economic reforms in this age of globalization is dependent upon the global economic climate and events like economic depression cannot be predicted with absolute certainty which renders undue dependence upon expectation of foreign direct investment as an instrument of electoral success equivalent to a desperate gamble.
f) Sixth, widening the tax net by including agriculturalists and traders will invariably lead to discontentment and likely electoral backlashes.
3. Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservation
A third rationale for the defeat has been attributed to the statement issued by the RSS chief Shri Mohan Bhagwat who issued a statement calling for review of existing reservation policy during the eve of elections. This statement was exploited by the MGB and interpreted as intent for ending caste reservations in government jobs and educational institutions by reservation beneficiaries and it supposed to have turned the tide in favour of the MGB. This simplistic assumption can be faulted on several counts.
First, reservation policies in recent years have never yielded rich electoral yields. Prior to the UP elections in 2005, Arjun Singh declared 27% reservation for OBCs in higher educational institutions. Nevertheless, that move did little to improve Congress’s prospects and it finished fourth behind the BJP in UP in 2007.
Second, caste-based reservation policy is not a poverty alleviation scheme and its perpetual application renders it a form of elitism where the economically and socially advanced among the ‘backwards’ tend to perpetually enjoy the benefits of reservation especially in the absence or liberality of the concept of creamy layer in scheduled castes/tribes and OBCs respectively.
Since, government jobs constitute a mere 5% of total jobs while the organized sector contributes to less than 10% of jobs in India and probably even lower in Bihar, most of the economically downtrodden and underprivileged among scheduled castes / tribes or OBCs have been deprived of any meaningful benefit through caste reservation. Therefore the suggestion that hundreds of poor Bihari voters who are eligible for reservation benefit yet lack the minimum educational qualifications and other means to avail them but will be alarmed by the prospect of a Mohan Bhagwat’s call for review of reservations is dubious.
Even otherwise, the RSS is an autonomous organization, independent of the BJP and has every right to hold views which may be contrary to that of the BJP. Moreover, the last throw of the dice of most incumbent non-BJP governments when pitted against the BJP involves grant of reservation benefits to a hitherto non-reserved community in order to prevent consolidation of their votes in favour of the BJP (for instance, Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra).
The intellectual foundations of Mandal and OBC reservation ultimately rest upon what the conservative columnist Ravi Shanker Kapoor explained as “the principle that India is a coalition of ethnic and linguistic groups, of religious communities, of variegated cultures and most importantly a coalition of castes”. This not only undermines the idea of Hindutva or Hindu unity but perpetuate caste fault-lines in Indian and more particularly, Hindu society.
The BJP, while officially aligned with Hindutva, through its ideological dishonesty has only facilitated caste reservations as evident in its passage of the 82nd amendment in the year 2000 through which it amended the 335th article of the constitution providing for ‘relaxation in qualifying marks in any examination or lowering the standards of evaluation, for reservation of matters of promotion to any class or classes of services or posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or a state’. It also consented to the 93rd amendment which kept minority institutions outside the purview of OBC reservations.
However, it is entirely possible that the incident involving Mohan Bhagwat was responsible for BJP’s defeat albeit it was not his comment but the BJP and PM Modi’s subsequent reaction which paved the way for defeat. The MGB laid a trap by claiming that Bhagwat’s comment was generating great upheaval among the socially backward communities who intended to vote for BJP.
To quench such rumors, the BJP was forced to issue innumerable clarifications and the PM was compelled to portray himself as a larger than life figure in defense of caste reservation. This has two consequences; first, it facilitated the spread of the rumour and a guilty as charged image for the BJP throughout Bihar. Second, it upset the sensitivities of the upper caste Hindus whose votes the BJP was taking for granted.
The alienation of upper caste votes may have been a decisive factor in these elections as suggested by the loss of the BJP from its traditional strongholds although post poll data for confirmation is awaited. In future, we could expect a demand for reservation in the private sector (as recently suggested by the psephologist Praveen Patil).
Ironically, it was none other than the liberal Manmohan Singh who advanced caste reservation for the corporate sector as an ‘idea whose time had come’. If PM Modi ever succumbs to such a hypothetical situation, the consequences on foreign investment and the subsequent social disruption will be unimaginable.
All in all, reservation remains the BJP’s Achilles heel and the party needs to take a nuanced stand which appreciates the severe limitations of reservations in upliftment of socially and economically disadvantaged communities and also does not completely alienate its core upper caste vote.
The Yadavs who have been deprived of political hegemony ever since the RJD president was voted out were keen to be a part of a government where the RJD would be the dominant partner and a likely guarantor of their privileged development.
4. Focus on Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
A fourth rationale is that such caste consolidation could have been overcome by pushing through the message that investment was a prerequisite for job creation.
Economic liberals should in future take the onerous task of campaigning for BJP by explaining such economic concepts to the people whose commitment to conditions favorable for investment is exemplified when voting for the RJD as the single largest party in Bihar.
5. BJP had no chief ministerial candidate
The fifth rationale is that the BJP did not project a chief ministerial candidate. Nevertheless, the state BJP did not have any one leader who had mass appeal which transcended across castes and communities and whose popularity could rival that of Nitish. Under such circumstances, BJP did the right thing since the same formula had been successful in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.
6. Blaming the good, old ‘communalism’
The sixth and final rationale is expectedly a denouncement of Hindutva and associated ‘communalism’. Hindutva, which foundationally denies the appeasement of any section of society while promoting the establishment of an egalitarian social order vested in a dharmic and spiritual worldview is the antithesis of what is called ‘divisive politics’ in this country. What can be more divisive and unjust than distributing the benefits of material development based on caste, religious or cultural identity instead of actual economic needs? Therefore, in the absence of Hindutva, all development is morally blind and its presence is essential for creating prospects for genuine development.
Modi and Amit Shah deserve credit for not eschewing from the poll arena even when preliminary ground reports suggested heavy losses for the party. However, Mr Modi, the prime minister should accept personal responsibility for this enormous loss for in case of victory, it would have been him, and him alone who would have been revered as its primary architect. More importantly, at a time when the BJP seems to be in disarray while battling a vicious leftist narrative of ‘intolerance’ and ‘anti-Hindutva’ with ample support from some disgruntled BJP ideologues, he needs to be at the vanguard of galvanizing his forces for the greater battles ahead whose verdict will ultimately determine the nature of India and its civilization in the coming decades.