In politics, they say, defeat often follows victory. A sobering thought while we sing praises of a dream win (206 out of the 243 seats) for the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party, or JD(U)-BJP, combine in the just-concluded elections to the Bihar state assembly. It is a mandate for Kumar to lose from here.
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We don’t have to go too far back in history. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) serves as a good example. Re-elected by an unexpected margin in the April-May 2009 general election, it has floundered so badly that it now comes across as a lame-duck government as opposed to one which still has nearly four years left in power.
Kumar faces a similar situation as the UPA did immediately after the election to the 15th Lok Sabha.
The UPA’s return to power was managed by a smaller coalition, decimation of the opposition and, of course, some former (but troublesome) allies such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by former railway minister and Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad. And it only got better after the Congress combine won in Maharashtra. But in the last six months, the situation has unravelled so dramatically that its only failure, not containing double-digit food inflation, was eclipsed by corruption charges that piled up with unprecedented frequency.
As a result, the UPA, which otherwise has fantastic social democracy initiatives (such as the attempt to politically empower women by providing reservation in Parliament and state legislatures) to its credit, has, in public perception, assumed a dubious record that is synonymous with corruption and inflation—two highly sensitive electoral chords.
It will be impossible to prove, but it may well be that the JD(U)-BJP combine benefited from this negative image of the coalition in power at the Centre. It may have exaggerated the good governance image of Kumar to give the coalition the dramatic edge over its rivals that has left us all gasping. To be sure, the opposition was splintered after the Congress and the RJD failed to strike an alliance.
It would be a mistake to misread the mandate. It is an overwhelming vote to realize the aspirational quotient of the residents of Bihar and hence, a verdict on those who made credible promises—not the other way round. It was almost as if all of Bihar believes that Kumar holds the key to the revival of their state, which otherwise had hit its lowest ebb by the turn of the millennium after stagnating from the 1970s. The burden of expectations is obvious.
For Bihar, the surge in aspirations has been greater than normal. Even as the country’s demography altered—with 50% of the one billion population now below the age of 25—India launched into an unprecedented growth phase. This growth, though visible to all, was not shared equally across the states; particularly in the case of Bihar (often uncharitably included in the so called BIMARU states made up of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, all of which suffered anaemic growth). So the aspirations of this state were excessive.
It is to Kumar’s credit that he recognized this and made a virtue out of necessity. Handicapped for want of a popular caste bond and up against entrenched interests, Kumar realized that feeding these aspirations was a sure way of altering the conventional power equations. By providing road connectivity, law and order, and creating self-help groups headed by women (targeted gender as an electoral ally, something like N.T. Rama Rao did in the early 1980s in Andhra Pradesh), Kumar cleverly created new stakeholders in the development process (Capital Calculus had flagged this on 18 October). Since there had been virtually no economic growth earlier, Kumar and his regime became synonymous with development—a clever piece of branding that would do any corporate entity proud.
The expectations underlying the overwhelming mandate show that this was the easy part. Going forward, Kumar does not hold the advantage of a low base any more. Also, the indices of growth are going to be less tangible from now on, and hence, difficult to showcase; you can measure investments in roads and infrastructure, but how does one give a number to empowerment, or ensure that people continue to be included in the growth process at the same pace when the next round of benefits will percolate differentially based on education, economic status and so on. All the more since Bihar is primarily an agrarian state, and is likely to stay so.
Value-added agriculture—something that is being attempted in parts of Bihar—can lift people up, but not in the manner that big-ticket manufacturing projects can.
It is unlikely that Kumar is not seized of this. The subdued manner in which the victory was acknowledged suggests that the chief minister, a shrewd politician, is looking ahead, and not behind. For him, personally, there is much more at stake. If indeed he does overcome the odds and delivers yet again, there is a good chance that the outcome in Bihar after the next general election in 2014 would not be any different. It would make Kumar a strong choice for prime minister, given his impeccable secular credentials.
If indeed this does play out, it will be the crowning glory for the people of Bihar.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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