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Home >Opinion >Landslide for Grand Alliance is a rejection of the language of extremes

The results of the Bihar assembly election present yet another conundrum to state politics and development in India. In the 1990s, it had been understood that state elections could be won only around the agenda of development and a chief minister who could be trusted to deliver on these issues. Indeed, the victors of this election, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), had been in alliance and in power with its current enemy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), since 2005, or the last decade or so, giving Bihar one of its best administration.

The state made notable progress in social indicators such as education and, of late, stabilizing its agricultural growth rate. But the alliance fell apart and Nitish Kumar formed a partnership with his erstwhile enemy Lalu Prasad. Indeed, one whose era of misgovernance he sought to set aside.

So, this was indeed an alliance of opposites, the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Lalu Prasad coming together in what was called a Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance. On the other side, the BJP was leading a motley group of allies, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), all three representing socially disadvantaged caste groups such as the Kushwahas, Dalits and Mahadalits. Narendra Modi also came to the state’s electoral arena promising development. So, the state was faced with the conundrum of two electoral alliances both promising development, one led by the state’s chief minister and the other led by the country’s prime minister. Which development model were they to choose from? What was distinct in what each had to offer?

Many would argue that development was indeed only an outer packaging and that with this type of alliance, the state would go back to the era of the 1990s, when social justice and religious politics governed the political levers of the state. So, the issue at stake was whether people would be voting for development of one type or another, or were they simply going to fall back on class and religious identities? Also, was the clock being set back on the state and would the poor cease to reap the advantages of a developing India once again?

What one has seen of the four-to-five-month-long electoral process is that both sides competed to promise and provide more and more. Narendra Modi promised the state a special development package and much more. It was also felt that his alliance with the smaller parties would help moderate the BJP’s image of being a party of the rich and bring in the critical majority vote of the extremely poor and backward castes. On the face of it, this reasoning seems credible, especially as it was only in 2014 that the BJP and Modi had swept Lok Sabha elections in the state. But as it turned out, the developmental pitch of the BJP was pushed more and more to the background as the election unfurled.

The tone and tenor of electioneering was pitched on the use of extreme political language and a national mood that saw extreme political intolerance against plural disposition and the voices of intellectuals and the minority community. BJP’s campaign was also focused on the face of Prime Minister Modi and the party’s national president Amit Shah. In remote rural parts of the state, large hoardings bearing the faces of just these two leaders adorned the walls. Ordinary people wondered why old party leaders and old stalwarts had not found a place in the BJP posters.

Besides, the organizational structure that seems to be the foot soldiers for the BJP on the ground was controlled strongly from the top with little inputs from the ground feeding back into the loop. Prashant Kishore and his team, erstwhile political strategists and data managers for Shah and Modi since the Gujarat assembly elections of 2012, also switched sides to join the campaign for Kumar and the Mahagathbandhan.

On the other side, things did not seem very good at the beginning either. Kumar was seen emphasizing the performance of his government, one he had run along with his current rival, the BJP, while Lalu led the political opposition dividing the electorate on caste lines. There was also the Congress, with little political standing of its own and not having been in power in the state since 1990. But as electioneering gained steam, Kumar did not join the war of words; he kept emphasizing his development plans, the strong record in the electrification of villages and how he had managed agrarian distress very well.

In general, no one seemed to have a special grievance against Kumar. In an astute act of political management, Kumar mostly campaigned separately from Lalu Prasad. Prasad, on the other hand, made sure that the Muslims and the Yadavs, the “MY" combination, solidly gathered behind him and promised their votes to the Kumar-Yadav alliance. The results are stunning for the Mahagathbandhan, with 178 seats; the BJP was left with just 53 seats, little over half of what it had in the outgoing assembly.

The political lessons are not only that state-level issues are different from national ones, but that even more, it matters how trustworthy and accountable political leadership can be presented before people, especially as the electorate in Bihar consists of India’s poorest. The social coalition, therefore, needed to be pitched at the bottom of the pyramid. It was here that Kumar built a solid foundation among the extremely backward castes and women.

So, credible state-level leadership and a social coalition that backed his agenda explained the magic of the strong outcome in favour of the Mahagathbandhan. The landslide, however, is explained by the rejection of the language of extremes. Development requires not just peace and law and order, but also an environment of greater tolerance and diversity.

As told to Mint’s Nikita Mehta.

Manisha Priyam is a political analyst, researcher and academic. She holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science

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