Bihar poll loss a bitter lesson for BJP

Voters in the northern Indian state of Bihar inflicted a crushing defeat on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in elections to the state assembly. This is a second electoral blow in a row to the BJP, which only 18 months ago swept to power in national elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah should blame themselves for the party's poll loss in Bihar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah should blame themselves for the party’s humiliating election defeat in Bihar

The defeat is not only a setback to the BJP but also demolishes the aura of invincibility around Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led the BJP’s campaign in Bihar.

The rapid reversal in the fortunes of the BJP has taken many by surprise. In the May 2014 general election, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 282 of the 543 seats nationwide to the lower house of parliament.

It did exceedingly well in Bihar, winning 31 of the 40 seats from this state; 22 of which were secured by the BJP. In the just-concluded Bihar assembly election, a Grand Alliance of three parties – the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress – swept the election, winning 178 of the 243 seats in the assembly. The NDA trailed far behind with just 58 seats.

Since the Bihar debacle, criticism of the arrogant and non-consultative styles of Modi and his close aide and party president Amit Shah is gathering momentum.

BJP veterans like former party presidents Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have called for a “thorough review” of the election defeat; hitherto the party has refused to pin accountability.

They have publicly denounced the manner in which the party is “being forced to kow-tow to a handful [read Modi and Shah], and how its consensual character has been destroyed.”

However, Modi and Shah cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. Modi was the BJP’s star campaigner in Bihar, addressing 26 rallies across the state, while Shah addressed 70 meetings. Modi drew huge crowds but his provocative speeches ruffled feathers and turned away voters.

The BJP sought to cash in on Modi’s popularity and made the Bihar election a referendum on his government’s performance. It seriously miscalculated. It did not read accurately the changing voter mood. Rising prices, caste and communal conflicts, and targeting of religious minorities have not gone down well with voters. The defeat handed out by Bihar’s voters was the result.

Modi seemed invincible last year. He led the BJP to its biggest general election victory ever and left India’s ‘grand old party’, the Congress, gasping for survival. A string of victories to state assemblies in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, etc followed.

Then, early this year, voters dealt the BJP a stunning blow. It was decimated in the election to the Delhi assembly, where it won just three of the 70 seats. The Delhi verdict signaled that it was possible to vanquish Modi. The Bihar result confirms this.

Modi has emerged from the Bihar election diminished and weaker.  Not only has his popularity waned but also his authority in the BJP is under fire.

India’s opposition parties, which had been crushed by the Modi juggernaut, are upbeat post-Bihar. The Grand Alliance’s win will provide a boost to opposition efforts to unite against Modi. This unification could take place under the leadership of Nitish Kumar, the JD-U chief who led the Grand Alliance in Bihar.

However, will he and Lalu Yadav, the RJD chief, be able to work and importantly hold together? The two, after all, were till recently bitter rivals.  Can they bury their acrimony and ambitions to put up a united challenge to Modi in 2019?

The Bihar result will provide a shot in the arm to the Congress, which has been demoralized and in a state of disarray since the May 2014 drubbing. Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, whose leadership has come in for sharp criticism so far, has scored a victory at last. His strategy of joining forces with the JD-U and the RJD and conceptualizing the Grand Alliance paid off.

The Bihar election is an important turning point for the BJP.  The result holds lessons for it, which the party will ignore to its peril.

The incendiary speeches of its leaders – Modi in particular – that were aimed at polarizing society in the hope that it would deliver the party votes did not work. But the party and its leaders are unlikely to draw this lesson from the debacle.

When under pressure, the BJP and its fraternal outfits have turned to the politics of communal polarization with a vengeance. That is likely to be the response of the party in the coming months.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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