India’s Modi faces an existential choice

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules India, has suffered crushing defeat in the provincial elections in the populous northern state of Bihar on the Gangetic plains. Almost all estimates forecast a neck-and-neck fight between the Hindu nationalist BJP and the opposition alliance of secular parties. However, the results were a landslide in favor of the opposition alliance, which won two-thirds seats in the 244-seat state assembly.

Modi must dispatch the RSS warhorses to the stables

The shock therapy in Bihar should prompt Modi to rethink his strategy

Bihar is a major state in the so-called Hindi heartland of north India, which returns 40 MPs in the 540-member national parliament. The BJP and its allies under the leadership of the present prime minister Narendra Modi had won decisively from Bihar in the 2014 parliamentary poll, securing as many as 31 out of the 40 seats.

Modi led the BJP campaign in the provincial assembly election, addressing not less than 26 election rallies, which were carefully choreographed by his campaign managers. The party’s war chest was overflowing with funds from the corporate industry and big business. Modi held out astounding promises that if a BJP government were elected to power, Bihar would receive billions of dollars as dole out from the Centre.

The Hindu nationalist elements mentoring BJP tried all the tricks in the game to polarize Hindu voters in Bihar (Muslims account for 15% of the electorate). The BJP chief Amit Shah, a protégé of Modi, went to the extent of warning Hindus of Bihar that if his party lost in the state, Pakistan would celebrate with firecrackers. But none of these gimmicks worked – neither the Modi ‘charisma’, BJP’s massive money power or the unabashed practice of the politics of Hindu fundamentalism.

In the ultimate analysis, the Bihar election turns out to be a referendum on Modi himself. The single resounding message is that the Modi government’s lackluster performance is steadily eroding the overall credibility of the prime minister and his party.

Equally, the Bihar election has highlighted that Indians are not ready for the politics of right-wing Hindu nationalism. The average Indian has multiple identities and for a Bihari Hindu, his most compelling identity is, evidently, of his caste. This is one thing. Second, the anti-Muslim politics of hate and violence practised by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist supporters produced a backlash.

The Muslims joined hands with the lower castes of Bihar to defeat the Hindu nationalists whose leadership overwhelmingly consists of upper caste elites (In India, caste and class overlap in most situations).

The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which controls the BJP government and its policies, is historically dominated by the upper crust of the caste-ridden Hindu hierarchy. The RSS practises the time-tested method of attracting the lower castes by parading Modi as its mascot, exploiting the lower caste origin of India’s prime minister, with a view to give their platform a pan-Hindu outlook.

But the people of Bihar, vast majority of whom are drawn from the lower castes, rubbished the RSS’ game plan. A foolish remark recently by the RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat, an upper caste Brahmin himself, questioning the quota system provided under the Indian constitution for the historically-downtrodden Hindu castes might have cost the BJP dearly in the Bihar election.

Put differently, the Bihar election results testify to the people’s awareness that in the name of Hindu nationalism, the upper caste elites of the RSS are trying to rally the lower castes of India, who form the majority, by diverting their mind from their class interests towards the morbid passions of hatred and violence on religious grounds directed against the minorities.

Third, Modi has come a-cropper against a local leader of immense charisma, Nitish Kumar who acquitted himself remarkably as the previous chief minister of Bihar. Modi’s campaign ran aground in Bihar partly for the reason that Nitish Kumar, who led the opposition alliance against the BJP, is a staunch secularist and a politician of proven integrity whose humility stood in stark comparison with Modi’s own arrogant and belligerent public posturing.

A need arises to revisit Modi’s impressive win in the 2014 parliamentary poll, where he was pitted against the lackluster leadership of the Congress Party. Simply put, in other words, Modi’s so-called ‘charisma’ shines only if he is pitted against mediocre politicians.

Looking ahead, therefore, it stands to reason that although the Congress Party shows no signs of revival after the withering defeat in 2014, it is not the end of history in Indian electoral politics. Bihar underscores that the growing disenchantment with the Modi government and the BJP can translate itself into support for credible regional parties.

Again, the argument that Modi stands between India and the deluge did not have many takers in Bihar. This, in turn, should compel Modi to seriously worry about his own government’s poor performance so far. One of the criticisms against Modi in Bihar was that he talks big but fails to fulfill his promises.

In sum, Modi’s winning formula in the 2014 parliamentary poll – the so-called ‘development agenda’ to attract the middle classes (castes) plus the Hindu nationalist agenda to polarize the (lower caste) voters on religious grounds – has unraveled in Bihar. Modi needs to think up something better. Which is a difficult proposition, because he also heads a government of mostly mediocre people with no real qualification to be where they are except that the RSS finds them agreeable folks.

Incredibly enough, the minister in charge of education in Modi’s cabinet does not even hold a university degree. Can India, an emerging power, be ruled by a cabinet of mediocrities? India compares abysmally poor in comparison with China, Iran, Singapore or South Korea.

Looking ahead, the BJP’s ‘in-house’ crisis is compounded by the fact that the upcoming state elections through 2016 – in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – will not allow the party (or Modi) to showcase a political recovery after the devastating defeat in Bihar. In none of these three states, BJP counts as a significant political force. That is to say, the BJP will be heading into the next big test in 2017 in the leviathan state of Uttar Pradesh after having suffered a string of political defeats through the past two-year period. In politics, perceptions do matter.

One good thing could be that the shock therapy in Bihar may prompt Modi to rethink his strategy. Clearly, India revolts against the climate of intolerance, arrogance and bigotry that the RSS and its affiliates have created in the country through the past 18-month period. But then, is Modi capable of dispatching the RSS warhorses to the stables?

Modi has been a progeny of the RSS and the RSS is an extra-constitutional authority, which is neither accountable nor transparent – or even representative. On the other hand, Modi today happens to be the prime minister.  His behavior so far signals that he is content to remain in power as the RSS’s gatekeeper.

The country faces a crisis of leadership at a crucial juncture in its modern history.

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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