Home >Politics >Policy >Bihar election debacle seen as clear setback to Modi’s image

New Delhi: As much as the grand victory by the Grand Alliance, it is the severe drubbing the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has received in Bihar that has drawn attention of the media pundits. One pointed question is about the influence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who went out of his way to campaign extensively in the state, wields over India’s electorate and within his own party, following the debacle.

Thus, the Financial Tiimes said that the crushing defeat of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party in Bihar could prove to be a turning point for the man who won the biggest Indian general election victory in a generation only last year.

For Modi, 2015 has been his annus horribilis, spotlighted by the BJP’s humiliating loss in the Delhi elections in February, and now the even more humiliating and momentous loss in Bihar. Bihar has been bruited about, mainly by the BJP, as a referendum on Modi’s popularity. Modi heavily invested his political capital in the Bihar campaign. He turned it into a make or break election.

Instead of relying on local BJP leaders to fight the election on local issues, Modi, a sharply dressed and highly skilled orator, took personal control of the campaign in the hope that his reputation and charisma would seal victory. He promised jobs and growth for Bihar’s 100-million-strong population, mirroring the platform that swept him to power on a wave of euphoria in last year’s general election and recalling his successes in Gujarat, reported UK’s Independent.

While Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was quick to point out on Sunday that the Bihar election result was a referendum on Modi, BJP leaders including Ravi Shankar Prasad and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, among others, jumped to insulate Modi’s image from such attacks.

But it is indeed time to reflect for Modi and the BJP.

Eighteen months in power, and Modi and the BJP are already at the crossroads. The PM needs to regain the initiative, rein in the recalcitrant hotheads in his party and engage with his opponents in a more befitting manner, said a BBC report.

“The results are a big blow to Modi’s momentum. His future now depends on how he responds. If he uses this verdict as a wake-up call and cleans out the ugly side, he could turn it around. There will be also infighting in the party now," political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta told BBC.

For Modi, as he gets ready to embark on a much-hyped trip to the UK next week and for another fawning reception by the diaspora, it is possibly time to reflect. “It may be easier for him to win an election in Wembley or Leicester than in Bihar," said analyst Vir Sanghvi. That cannot be very good news for a man who offered India so much hope.

But has the defeat diluted Brand Modi? Senior BJP office-bearers who spoke to The Hindu on condition of anonymity said that while the Prime Minister’s personal popularity remained undiminished, “it was not right to over-expose him in this way". He was referring to the record number of rallies that Modi addressed during the campaigning for Bihar elections. “Prime Minister Modi is a political person, therefore unlike Dr. Manmohan Singh he does campaign extensively in the State polls, but it is now time to move away from the ‘big Modi rallies and nothing else’ strategy," said the office-bearer.

Recriminations were swift within the BJP. Some party leaders questioned whether Modi had erred in the closing weeks of the Bihar campaign by elevating hard-right appeals to Hindu nationalism over his more unifying message of “vikas", or development, for all Indians, reported The New York Times.

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav denied that Modi’s popularity is waning, but said, “We try to learn from every election. Give us some time. We will take corrective measures." Party MP Chandan Mitra was, however, sharper, writing in a column, “It seems that the low-key GA (Grand Alliance) campaign and its decision to project soft-spoken Nitish Kumar as chief ministerial candidate did the trick, with voters rejecting the high-pitched BJP campaign crafted by party president Amit Shah."

Within the party, any criticism of Shah is not expected to grow beyond a point though voices against the leadership are bound to be raised in closed-door meetings, if not in the open. The point of contention, as articulated by some seniors, is that decisions are taken “unilaterally" with the new team around Shah directly involved. BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya told the media, “Shah will get a new term later this year as the organizational polls are close to finish." That did not really seem in doubt, but the going may not be easy in terms of organizational challenges ahead.

A Firstpost report says that the Bihar election results will affect national politics by immediately weakening the Prime Minister and BJP president Amit Shah, both within their party and among their coalition allies. While the Bihar votes were still being counted, a party MLA from their home state, Gujarat, raised questions publicly about the party’s leadership. And it might have been interesting to listen to home minister Rajnath Singh’s meeting with the RSS chief while counting trends were emerging. Rajnath was the previous party president and his endorsement of Modi’s candidature led to the rise of the Modi-Shah duo. Soon after the new government took over, Singh chafed under the humiliation of media reports (evidently planted by another senior colleague) about his son being questioned by the PM. He is unlikely to have forgotten that.

If there is unease within the ruling party, it is likely to remain under wraps for the moment. But the arrogance with which the Modi-Shah duo treated NDA allies such as the Shiv Sena has already come home to roost. A leader of that party was quick to squarely and publicly blame Modi for the debacle.

It is no secret that most senior leaders in the party feel stifled under the Modi-Shah dispensation. JDU general secretary K.C. Tyagi, speaking on a TV channel a day before the result, openly joked that Amit Shah would regret his remark about crackers going off in Pakistan in the event of a BJP defeat in Bihar. “Forget us, there will be celebrations tomorrow in the homes of every BJP leader, barring Modi and Shah," he said.

BJP leaders privately rue that the curse of arrogance and authoritarianism, long associated with the Congress, has afflicted their party’s duo so completely and so soon. The Congress had been in power for decades before its leader—principally Indira Gandhi—was afflicted by that disease. But that it has taken less than two years for it to happen in their “party with a difference" is a hushed refrain.

But does all this mean we will see a more flexible Modi in days to come? However, after Sunday’s defeat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is likely to take independent feedback from senior BJP leaders. Shah’s re-nomination will now depend a lot more on this assessment even though the PM can always exercise his right to have the final word. “After the debacle in Delhi, RSS nudged Shah to take out time for interaction with party workers on a regular basis. Let’s see what happens now," a party insider told the Economic Times. The other issue before the PM is how to deal with criticism of the government’s alleged leniency towards right-wing elements within the saffron ranks, which is threatening to exact an economic cost on his reforms agenda.

After Bihar, sources told the Economic Times, Modi may take proactive steps to show that the government is firmly committed to his stated economic priorities even if it means disciplining some within his own party.

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