Every student of political science will try to make sense of the outcome of the election in Bihar.
It is easy to make nonsense of the result, as the BJP’s Parliamentary Board did, blaming it on the “arithmetic”. What arithmetic? They added the vote shares of the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress in the Parliament election of 2014 — when the JD(U) and RJD contested separately — and concluded that the NDA’s vote share was smaller and therefore the BJP/NDA was defeated!
Several obvious questions arise:
1. Was the arithmetic not known before the counting day, and yet why did every BJP leader declare that the party would get an absolute (some said two-third) majority?
2. Does a voter vote for the same party in every election?
3. If arithmetic decided elections, how did the BJP win 22 of the 40 seats in Bihar in the Parliament election of 2014? Going by the vote shares in the Assembly election of 2010, the BJP should have won less seats than the JD(U) in 2014.
The Change since 2014
The answer lies in the change that has taken place in the BJP since 2014, a change that Mr L K Advani, Mr M M Joshi, Mr Shanta Kumar and Mr Yashwant Sinha described as the ‘emasculation’ of the party.
In 2014, the BJP presented itself as a democratic party with a collective leadership (although it was subservient to the RSS). Even after he was anointed as the candidate for prime minister, Mr Modi usually deferred to his colleagues. He resolutely and unwaveringly stuck to the theme of development. There was no mention of reservation or the cow or uniform civil code or rewriting history or banning beef, books, jeans or love. In short, the BJP’s campaign, spearheaded by Mr Modi, did not challenge or run counter to the ethos of the Indian people. The BJP seemed to respect Indian society’s diversity, pluralism and tolerance of differences among the people.
True, there were incidents of intolerance in the run-up to the elections, but few blamed the BJP for those incidents. Even when the extreme right wing of the Sangh Parivar was the provocateur, the BJP’s leadership was absolved. In 2014, throughout the period of the election to the Lok Sabha and, subsequently, elections to the legislatures of Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand, the BJP seemed to be in sync with the ethos of India. The fear of a fundamentalist right-wing party assuming power receded. The electorate warmed up to Mr Modi and his eloquence and gave him a mandate that no party had got in 30 years.
The mistakes that were made
In the Delhi Assembly election, the BJP made its first mistakes, and paid a price. Those were tactical mistakes like projecting Mr Modi as the face of the next government in Delhi and, later, projecting Ms Kiran Bedi, a new entrant, as the chief minister.
In Bihar, the mistakes were compounded by challenging the very idea of India and allowing the extreme elements to ridicule the idea and its flag bearers (“Abdul Kalam was a nationalist despite being a Muslim”, “Mr Shah Rukh Khan may live in India, but his heart is in Pakistan”, “the return of awards by writers is a manufactured protest”).
Take the statement that Mr Modi made after some bombs exploded at Gandhi Maidan, Patna, during a rally in October 2013. Mr Modi asked, with feeling, should Hindus fight Muslims or should they fight poverty; should Muslims fight Hindus or should they fight poverty? It was considered high-minded and placed Mr Modi above the fray. After the murder of Akhlaq, and after many days of silence, Mr Modi made the same statement in October 2015. This time it sounded hollow and left Mr Modi at the centre of a bitter battle.
What was eloquence in 2014 sounded like empty rhetoric in 2015. What were considered credible promises in 2014 appeared to be just chunavi jumla (election theatrics) in 2015.
What a PM cannot do
Who contributed most to the dramatic change of perception?
I am afraid it was Mr Modi himself with liberal help from Mr Amit Shah. As the candidate in 2014, Mr Modi spoke like a prime minister. As the Prime Minister in 2015, he spoke like a candidate. When there was a backlash following Mr Mohan Bhagwat’s call to review reservation, Mr Modi repeatedly referred to his caste as ati pichhda (extremely backward). When the slogan of ‘Bihari or Baahari’ caught on, Mr Modi ridiculed Bihar for its poverty, illiteracy and crime.
A Prime Minister cannot sound like a stump speaker at a municipal election. A Prime Minister cannot identify himself with a caste. A Prime Minister cannot refuse to empathise with a state and its people. A Prime Minister cannot accuse a Chief Minister of shielding terrorists.
Mr Modi addressed election rallies in 26 constituencies. The BJP lost in 13. The BJP drew a blank in 13 out of 38 districts of Bihar. It was a crushing defeat. The ethos of India had won.
All is not lost for the central government. As I had said in the last column, Mr Modi can “pause, take stock, pull back and steer the party on the path of good governance and development”. Will he, won’t he or can’t he? Your guess is as good as mine.
Follow P Chidambaram on Twitter: @Pchidambaram_IN