Home >opinion >Bihar election results: What next for the BJP?

The astonishing turn in fortunes as votes in the Bihar elections were being counted perhaps has no parallel in recent electoral history. It could be best described as a googly. The ball seemed to be going in one direction before it suddenly turned in the other.

The sight of political pundits on television rapidly constructing one grand narrative as the National Democratic Alliance was shown to be in the lead and then equally rapidly constructing a totally different narrative after the Grand Alliance suddenly moved ahead was a delicious sight. This was a good example of what behavioural scientists call the hindsight bias.

The quick change in trends through Sunday morning also underlined the fact that Indian electoral politics is devilishly difficult to predict. There was another important lesson. The local television channels seemed to have a better grasp of how the elections were turning out. It is a sober reminder that local knowledge usually trumps helicopter analysis or reporting in most Indian elections.

The next few days will see the final narratives emerge—an incredibly complex process of political choice will be reduced to a few simple explanations.

What now? There is no doubt that the Bihar election results are a blow to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. Whether they lost because of the lack of a local face, voter backlash against polarization or simply coalition arithmetics will need very careful analysis rather than hasty hypotheses.

The loss in Bihar comes in the wake of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s drubbing in Delhi and the setback to its hopes of taking power in Maharashtra on its own. It should hopefully remind Modi that he won a stunning victory in May 2014 because he touched a positive chord with a new generation of voters who were tired of the faux socialism, corruption and administrative chaos under the United Progressive Alliance.

Habitual detractors of the BJP may find it hard to come to terms with another simple fact. The BJP now occupies the central axis of Indian politics. It has lost Bihar, but the Lohiaite coalition was fighting the BJP rather than the Congress, compared with the first grand alliance cobbled together by Ram Manohar Lohia himself in 1967 to challenge Congress dominance, and which included the erstwhile Jan Sangh as a junior partner.

Elections these days are about the BJP versus local opponents, as it was with the Congress after the 1980s. The tectonic shift in Indian politics in May 2014 has not been reversed in that sense.

The recent local elections in Kerala show how the BJP is growing even in states where it has traditionally had little heft. The coming elections in West Bengal and Assam could also highlight the same reality, though perhaps not in Tamil Nadu.

Party bosses should realize that such dominance over Indian politics will need a certain broadness of vision that is foreign to the likes of Mahesh Sharma or Yogi Adityanath. Whether the BJP can mature into a party of the modern Indian Right is still to be seen.

There is good reason to believe that Modi missed his Thatcher moment in the first 100 days after he won power. There was no reforms blitz that some of his supporters had expected. The prime minister said last week that reforms should be seen as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Another athletic analogy can be used here. Will the Bihar setback prove to a big hurdle in this marathon? The months to the next budget should be watched with this question in mind.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government got its most important reforms done in the second half of its tenure. The Thatcher moment has passed, but Modi may still have a Vajpayee moment ahead of him. Much depends on what lessons that BJP leadership in general and the prime minister in particular take away from the Bihar election results.

Will Modi now focus more on the economy and economic reforms? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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