No lessons learnt

No lessons learnt

At 10.30 am on the counting day of Bihar elections, after waking up from an hour and half hour long false sense of feel-good, supporters and well-wishers of the BJP must have asked in unison: “What are the lessons our party strategists learnt between the dreaded February 10 and another dreaded November 8?” They would get only one answer to this question: “None”.

Had they learnt from the historical drubbing received in Delhi elections, they wouldn’t have suffered an even severe fate the same year. In its entirety, the BJP campaign conducted in Bihar was a true copy, albeit on a larger scale, of its Delhi campaign minus a Kiran Bedi. Both campaigns, in fact, suffer from a singular malady: the absolute violation of the cardinal principal that constitutes the political process. Arvind Kejriwal and the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar duo, on the other hand, stuck faithfully to the established principal of ‘respecting the local and the social’ to become Davids of our land by slaying the Goliath again and again.

The first principal of political process that the chief brass of the BJP assiduously avoided is the imperative of drafting the local unit in its vanguard. They, instead, successfully reduced the party’s own state organisation to redundancy and replaced it with people and forces that were not well-versed in the local conditions. Who can forget the common refrain of state-level workers, and also of the allies of the BJP, about the person who is running the show from the comforts of Patna’s Maurya Hotel.

The illustration of this contradiction was the bearded face of Amit Shah, a stranger to the eyes of Biharis, adorning the BJP posters up until the first two stages of election. However, to be fair to the inherited political problems of the current leadership, the BJP was forced into this folly. In a manner similar to Delhi, they had no credible face that could represent the desires and hopes of party ranks in Bihar and, at the same time, convince the high command about his/her ability to deliver.

Though the figure of Sushil Modi did present a faint possibility, his not so famous years as number two under the Nitish government stopped Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah from throwing their weight behind him. Besides, his image of an ‘Advani man’ further diminished his chances. Other leaders of the BJP in Bihar exuded too narrow representation of their social groupings to become acceptable to the larger community of electorate.

Having reneged on the first principal, the generals of the BJP war room went on to commit the second blunder by overlooking the aspect of the social. In one of his early observations, Amit Shah revealed his understanding about the grounds of Bihar when he said that the NDA and the Grand Alliance were basically going to slug it out for the 30 per cent odd votes lying between the two corresponding support bases.

In other words, he was saying that the upper caste, urban-educated, upwardly-mobile Modi lovers were competing against the Yadava-Muslim-Kurmi-Koeri base of Lalu-Nitish to win the favours of extremely backwards plus dalit-mahadalit votes.

In a sense, this understanding was not  off the mark; but Shah’s hands were tied because the BJP, on its own, lacked the social resources to claim this ground. As a result, he had to put the onus of winning this middle ground on the likes of Kushwaha, Manjhi, Paswan, etc. The over-dependence of the BJP on upper-caste support created another dependence that made its allies indispensable because they claimed to represent the EBCs and the SCs.

Given the conditions, however, this part of the strategy needed a nuanced approach in ticket distribution. While the BJP had to meet the demands of its social mainstay, as a party, it could ill-afford the chest-thumping Bhumihar and Rajput communities to further alienate the weaker sections of the society. More aggression and open polarisation of the upper caste could have pushed the support base of its allies to gradually veer towards the space of social justice politics.

Multiple failures
Looking at its ticket distribution, the BJP failed miserably in this task and ended up with an image of a party which would reinaugurate the fiat of Babu Sahebs. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s ill-timed statement and the BJP’s own ambivalence towards reservation helped its opponent further. The dissatisfaction of its allies over the scheme of constituency allotment by their big brother only made things worse.

It goes without saying that the Congress, in its best or worst days, never discounted the political process, but the BJP blundered a second time by replacing it with the ‘management of Shah’ and the ‘demagogy of Modi’, as if the Delhi defeat was not enough. On the contrary, under the arbitrator-like presence of the Congress, the Grand Alliance fared far better on every count the BJP faltered.

Lalu and Nitish, as seasoned leaders steeped in the political culture of Bihar, planned thoroughly and took care of even the minor details, such as whom to garland on the dais in the midst of a rally. Apart from dividing the kitty neatly among the three partners, they put up a well-coordinated united front against the NDA. The Grand Alliance followed a Kejriwal kind of campaign dominated by local, small meetings as against the hyper-rally strategy of the BJP that attracted handsome crowds for Modi, but less and less votes for the party.

The NDA will do well to remember that it has been regularly trounced by those who were soundly thrashed by it in 2014. One wonders whether primacy of political process will stage a comeback in the book of electoral strategy that the BJP leaders are fond of consulting. Somebody will have to tell them in the manner of a Clinton that, ultimately, it is the political process that matters most in an electoral battle.

The sole dependence over political management and political rhetoric works only in special conditions where strong, anti-incumbency generate the wave of sympathy. But that kind of election does not come every day.  

(The writer is Director, Indian Languages Programme,Centre for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi)
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