The Bihar elections have widely been seen as a referendum on the Modi-Shah brand of high pitched politics. While this may be overstating the value of the brand (and understating at the same time, the disruptive influence of the so called ‘fringe’ within the NDA fold), there is no doubt that the elections will lead to deep introspection within the alliance. While some would say it may be too early to tell, there are at least five areas where the Bihar elections will have a lasting impact. These are outlined below:
1. Rethink on the Youth Factor: Many within the NDA thought that the support of the youth, going into the Bihar elections, would be the clinching factor in victory. However, the election results have shown to some extent, a reversion to the mean by the Bihari voter. It would be too narrow an interpretation to attribute this reversion to the comfort zone to the caste arithmetic. Indeed the BJP has not done too badly in terms of the number of seats contested, while the rest of its partners have seen abysmal results. The BJP’s key ally, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in particular was hoping that Chiraag Paswan’s supposed appeal within the youth would lead to many more seats. Conversely, the youth pivot has not managed to sway the tide in the LJP’s favour. And perhaps further deconstruction of the polling numbers would show that the high turnout of women voters in future state elections, could moderate a simplistic youth binary. And of course youth candidates may be able to leverage the youth vote in future elections. A prerequisite for this may be that youth candidates are seen to have a strong connection with local politics.
2. Impact on UP Elections: Having discussed the results with many within the political fold in UP, it is evident that the tide is no longer in the favour of a BJP led victory in 2017. This is owing to a few key factors that will also hold relevance in other elections. While the upper castes will continue to favour the BJP, the Muslim vote is likely to be cornered by the Samajwadi Party (SP). The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is also likely to make a comeback the way things stand. This is owing to an anti-incumbency vote in favour of Mayawati, and the simultaneous lack of a credible alternative. The BJP was hoping that a Bihar victory would cement their party as this alternative. In addition, the BSP has shown that it is capable of a comeback in the recent Zila Parishad elections. The BJP will have to play its cards right in UP – it will have to begin to address some of the popular perceptions against it that are only to take firmer hold in the days ahead. These include the rise of food prices, particularly in ‘daal’. The new slogan doing the rounds in UP and Bihar is “no longer har-har Modi, it is now arhar Modi”. Ironically, sloganeering has been used by BJP to good effect in the past. And in case the BJP is unable to cement a place for itself in UP, Amit Shah’s stellar reputation will take a nose dive, and anti – Shah forces within the BJP are likely to eventually prevail leading to his return to Gujarat.
3. Political Consensus and Economic Reform: Many have feared that an NDA loss in Bihar will slow down the pace of economic reform. However a conciliatory tone adopted by many within the NDA fold, recognizing the Achilles Heel of the NDA Government as being a fundamental inability to navigate egos within parliament (the first failure was the infamous land bill followed up with a slowdown in the GST process) may indicate positive momentum for more inclusive politics. What will this inclusive politics look like? Perhaps the BJP will now be inclined to take the views of both alliance partners and the opposition and follow a more patient, and calculated approach towards its reform agenda.
4. The Role of the RSS: The role of the RSS in this election must be highlighted since it will also have bearing on the future of Indian politics. Mohan Bhagwat issued statements in the run up to the elections that have clearly led to a consolidation of an anti-BJP vote. The greatest beneficiary of this has been Lalu Yadav and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). There can only be two possible explanations for Mohan Bhagwat’s anti-reservation remarks. The first is that the RSS got its caste arithmetic terribly wrong (and Lalu Yadav got it right). The second less tenuous explanation is that the RSS leader knew in advance, the effect his words would have on the Bihar elections. There is no doubt that Lalu Yadav was able to use the RSS leader’s statements as a plank of his election campaign. The relationship between the existing top brass within the NDA, and the RSS, has been exposed. There has been a lack of coordination in either case.
5. Lalu vs. Nitish: Given that the RJD has outdone itself, questions are now being asked about whether Lalu will begin to jostle for political weight with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU). While a lot will be up to the way the cabinet formation process takes place, it may not be off the mark to assume that Lalu Yadav will play his cards very carefully, at least in the initial days. He would not want to expose chinks in his coalition’s armour too early and his first priority should be to put people close to him in positions of power. It may also be wise for Lalu Yadav not to select his progeny for the role of a Deputy Chief Minister. While the Yadavs managed to stay together for this election, it is clear that the projection of Lalu’s sons as Yadav leaders was questioned within their closely knit community. Moreover, Lalu Yadav will also be acutely aware that he cannot be seen to bring ‘Jungle Raj’ back to the state. While rent seeking under his stewardship is not likely to abate, he will not want to be seen as an obstruction to broad based socio-economic development of a state that had become the butt of all development jokes under his reign in the nineteen nineties. Lalu will have to evolve if he has not already.