Modi projected himself as the BJP's electoral face in Bihar, he campaigned tirelessly, and the campaign was masterminded by his trusted aide, Amit Shahand they lost
It appears certain at this juncture that the battle of Bihar—the most important electoral test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since their resounding victory in the general election in 2014—has been won by the Grand Alliance.
It means current chief minister Nitish Kumar and former chief minister Lalu Prasad, once sworn enemies now turned allies, will rule Bihar for the next five years. It is a bitter defeat for Modi and the BJP, who threw everything they had into winning in Bihar, and came up short.
At the level of simple arithmetic, a mechanical explanation for the BJP’s defeat lies in the logic of the first-past-the-post electoral system. In the 2014 general election, the BJP won big in Bihar because the opposition parties contested separately. Thus, a small plurality of votes for the BJP was sufficient to win a majority of the seats in the state. But this time, with former enemies joined in an alliance, the BJP would have had to record a gain of 10 percentage points or more in its share of the popular vote to win the electoral vote, facing a united opposition—a Herculean task that even the electoral magician Modi, and his right-hand man, BJP party president Amit Shah, could not manage.
The arithmetic alone tells you that the BJP—a party which polled around a third of all votes cast nationally in last year’s general election, its highest tally ever—cannot win easily, if at all, when faced with strong regional parties and alliances who band together—as they did this time in Bihar—or when voters are strategic, as in the Delhi assembly election—in which the BJP’s vote share hardly changed but Congress voters migrated en masse to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The numbers are simply not there for the party.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that, while the BJP is struggling to supplant the Congress as the principal national party, the Congress itself seems to be slowly sinking into electoral oblivion.
As wise observers called it after the general election itself, a decimated Congress is bad news—not good news—for the BJP. It means that opposition to the BJP, and everything it represents—or is presumed to represent—will coalesce around wily and charismatic regional leaders who champion regional causes remote from the highfalutin debates about economic reforms and all the rest that dominate the darbars of south Delhi and south Mumbai, and as far removed from the Congress as from the BJP in Delhi.
In other words, had Bihar been a contest between Modi and the Congress’ putative leader, Rahul Gandhi, as the general election was, Modi would no doubt have wiped the floor with the inept and bumbling Gandhi, as he did last year. Defeating battle-hardened and wizened veterans like Kumar and Prasad, with immediate connect and credibility with voters on the ground, proved a bridge too far for the BJP, whose campaign was masterminded from Delhi—a thousand kilometres or so from Patna on the map, perhaps, but a light year apart psychically.
What’s the larger message? The first, at any cost, please discount the ex post facto rationalizations and punditry as you digest the results. We were treated to the hilarity, and near disbelief, of well-known pundits, pollsters and prognosticators earnestly explaining to viewers on a major cable news channel why the BJP had won—energetic campaigning, focus on development, and so forth—when that network incorrectly called the election for the BJP prematurely—only to have them turn on a dime and explain, a few minutes later, why the BJP had lost—stirring the communal pot, raising the issue of cow slaughter, taking their eye off the electoral math, and so forth.
Elsewhere, some commentators declared the end of religion-based politics, while others extolled the resilience of caste-based politics. The spectacle would have been risible, had it not been, apparently, conducted in deadly earnest.
What the pundits with predigested wisdom won’t tell you is that, all said and done, elections are a crap shoot, and analysing the outcome is somewhat akin to trying to peer into a black box and divine its contents—without the benefit of Superman’s X-ray vision. The truth is, we don’t really know, had they done something differently in the campaign, if the BJP might have been able to pull off a win, despite the challenge of a united anyone-but-the-BJP opposition.
The bottom line is this: Modi projected himself as the BJP’s electoral face in Bihar, he campaigned tirelessly, and the campaign was masterminded by his trusted aide, Amit Shah—and they lost. Whatever the reason, the buck stops with the Modi-Shah duo. With their election juggernaut halted at the gates of Patna, the knives are already out and being sharpened as you read this. Today, winning re-election in 2019 just got a whole lot harder.
Every fortnight, In the Margins explores the intersection of economics, politics and public policy to help cast light on current affairs. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.
To read Vivek Dehejia’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/vivekdehejia