With the Bihar assembly elections kicking off on Wednesday, what is on display is an advanced stage of a transformation in the kind of politics that prevailed in the state. This transformation got underway 15 years ago, with the electoral unseating of the long-dominant Lalu Prasad family from office.
Till then, Lalu Prasad or his wife Rabri Devi had been the head of government for almost all of the previous 15 years. But there had been both major and minor hiccups along the way. The biggest was when he was forced to quit as chief minister (CM) after a huge corruption scandal, whereupon he ran the government via proxy from jail after installing his homemaker-spouse in his place. The minor hiccups included brief interregnums of President’s Rule and short, interim governments in a hung assembly.
The 15 year-Lalu Prasad-era in Bihar was also reflected in similar personalities and politics in other states, especially Uttar Pradesh (UP). That period coincided arguably with the peak of caste and identity-related politics, involving the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, the violent protests thereafter, and searingly provocative anti-upper caste campaign slogans.
By the turn of the century, however, it was already becoming evident that the electoral strategy of stitching together a plurality of minority and some caste groups had maxed out. Its proponents realised these limitations, and were already attempting to broaden their appeal. But that broadening was only incremental, selectively co-opting representatives of other caste groups as candidates in certain seats.
That shift was, at best, a tactical one. It never embraced a fundamental strategic shift into going beyond identity politics, trying to appeal to everyone, and attempting to win not just a plurality but an actual majority of the vote. That had to wait for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which had its sights on exactly such a far-reaching vision.
Of course, it is not as if caste politics disappeared. In fact, it is still very much around, and still a significant factor, if not quite the unstoppable force it had once become. But a gradual shifting of what constitutes a winning strategy is the crux of the transformation that has been underway, especially since 2014 with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi at the forefront.
The BJP has been growing at the national level for decades, and under the leadership of Narendra Modi, it has realised the long-cherished dream of becoming the largest party in India. In the process, it also undid the seemingly unassailable norm of three decades, that of coalition governments in Delhi. This is no small matter, and many will recall the conventional wisdom till recently that India would not see a single-party majority again in the forseeable future.
The roots of this national transition, as well as in several state elections, relate to changing demographics, unfettered information, and an increasingly confident and aspirational India. Added to this is the astronomical popularity of the PM, who connects to this new India like no one else. The effects of these were seen in both the past two general elections, where previously rock-solid vote-banks based on identity could not hold.
Many pundits continued to question whether the BJP’s inroads into long-taken-for-granted vote-banks would work in state elections that were not held along with general elections. Indeed, statistics have shown that there is a difference between a general election, where the PM himself is a candidate for office, and assembly elections that are held at other times. However, it is also a fact that the success of the ambitious, aim-for-the-broadest-possible alignment of voters, is clicking in stand-alone state elections too. The results in UP last time around were a classic demonstration of this.
Much has happened in Bihar over these last 15 years. No one can deny the improvement in governance from earlier days, when kidnappings in broad daylight were considered almost a legitimate enterprise. While the NDA in Bihar had its own hiccup several years ago, it overcame that. And how Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) will fare after it has now whimsically gone solo is something to be watched. In the meantime, the Congress has slipped precipitously, and is now little more than a bit player in the state.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav has so far not been able to arouse the usual breathless adulation of Lutyens’ Delhi’s Left liberal media for anyone with even a long shot at taking up cudgels against the BJP. That could be because their frothy reportage, supporting a series of such contenders around the nation as the next big thing, has repeatedly fallen flat.
Or it could be that this latest Yadav dynast — two siblings have already been tried and sidelined — and the Congress’s perennial scion is far from credible. Their absurd idea of development, the fantastical promise of a million government jobs in Bihar, rings false to even the most naive. Together, they essentially occupy the shrunken space for their core brand of identity politics which had once reigned supreme.
The opinion polls reflect these limitations of the opposition in Bihar, as well as the predominantly positive approval ratings of the BJP.
As things stand, the state seems set to keep its tryst with the new India unaltered.
Baijayant “Jay” Panda is national vice-president, BJP
The views expressed are personal