Election Rejection: The Bihar Elections as a Referendum on Modi


The Bihar elections provide a stark reminder of our own ignorance of the Indian electorate. The election of Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister, an Indian state’s chief executive position, for a third term took all of India by storm because it defied all predictions by pollsters and analysts, right up to counting day. Unpacking the people’s mandate in India’s third most populous state has important implications for the fragile balance of power at the national level. This victory came against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs), which was widely touted to win, making it especially relevant in a vitiated and highly divisive political atmosphere where each election can have massive implications on the political mood of the entire country. From the recent elections of Bihar, we find that the maturity of the Indian electorate and the changed impact of caste on electoral results has set the stage for coalitions based on their opposition to Modi. These coalitions will consolidate divergent ideologies and present the possibility of alternatives to the dominant BJP, perhaps challenging and altering the current balance of political power in the nation. The election saw a stunning array of caste- and religion-based coalitions, based on complex electoral arithmetic formulated by each party. Kumar, who presents himself as a secular alternative to the purportedly Hindu right-wing BJP, brought together a Grand Alliance (or Mahagathbandhan) of three parties: the Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Indian National Congress. This coalition hoped to counter the almost hegemonic dominance of the BJP in both regional and national politics, as evidenced by Kumar’s willingness to enter into an alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav, who he had previously criticised vehemently for being corrupt and ineffectual.

Despite his previous involvement in corruption scandals, law and order violations, and electoral malfeasance, Yadav has the backing of the electorally significant Yadav minority in Bihar, and was one of the fundamental pillars in the politico-religious consolidation of minority votes crafted by Kumar. Kumar also brought in the votes of another significant minority, the Kurmi caste, to which he belongs. This combination was supplemented by the Indian National Congress, a party that suffered a humiliating defeat in the national elections but continues to hold significant sway amongst India’s large Muslim minority.

In opposition to the Grand Alliance stood the BJP. After securing an outright majority in the national elections last year, the BJP, under Modi, went on to win elections in key states across the country (including Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, and Maharashtra). By combining forces with various influential regional parties and leaders, such as the Lok Janshakti Party led by influential regional leader Ram Vilas Paswan, and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, which was electorally significant in small pockets of Bihar, the BJP—unlike Nitish Kumar’s JD (U)—established itself as the dominant stakeholder in the alliance and contested the largest number of seats. Joining the array of smaller parties was the Hindustani Awam Morcha: a party led by Jitan Ram Manjhi, a defector from the JD (U) who had been installed as Chief Minister by Nitish Kumar before the state elections and then unceremoniously ousted for defying party orders.

The BJP positioned itself as a development-based alternative, but simultaneously sought to attract the right-wing Hindu votes by playing the politics of religion. Traditionally seen as an upper caste and a middle-class party, the BJP attempted to diversify its support base with the inclusion of Manjhi, who belongs to the influential mahadalit caste, and Paswan, who is a Dalit himself. This coalition was entirely divorced from the ideologies of its constituents: Paswan, who was once allied with the BJP but parted ways after the 2002 Gujarat riots, which took place under Modi’s Chief Ministership, and Manjhi, who is a left leaning socialist, clearly wanted to be a part of what they believed to be the BJP’s inevitable success.

The Grand Alliance was voted to power over the BJP and its allies with an impressive mandate. In a 243 seat Legislative Assembly, the Grand Alliance garnered an overwhelming 178 seats: with the RJD winning in 80 constituencies, the JD (U) in 71 constituencies, and the Congress in 27 constituencies. The alliance headed by the BJP bagged a mere 58 seats, with the BJP bringing in 53, the Lok Janshakti Party 2, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party 2, and the Hindustani Awam Morcha only 1. This flew in the face of opinion polls, conducted in the months preceding the elections; and exit polls, conducted after polling had taken place, which predicted a close fight between the two alliances with a slight edge to the BJP. Despite large sample sizes that were carefully distributed by caste, class, and religion, no pollster came close to gauging the mood of the electorate, a telling sign of a rapidly changing political climate in India that is today impossible to quantify in terms of mere identity politics. The results were also a clear demonstration of the importance of discourse, both at the regional and the national level, in determining voter allegiances. The phenomena of discourse acquiring overriding importance, propelled by the exponential increase in mass media and communications, and the difficulty of predicting voter behavior, will surely have galvanized anti-BJP coalitions across the country in the near future.

The Bihar election evolved through the crafting of narratives, and the creation and magnification of personalities. The colourful construction of personalities included the portrayal of Modi as pragmatic and performance oriented, Nitish Kumar as secular and pro-development, Lalu Prasad Yadav as repentant and humble, and Jitan Ram Manjhi as scorned and ignored for being from a backward caste. Alongside these personalities existed an unacknowledged narrative employed at the hyperlocal level to influence voter bases: Hindutva (Hindu religious fanaticism), fear of minority oppression by the BJP, and, on the Grand Alliance’s part, the protection and benefit of the oppressed.

The serious stakes of this election were demonstrated by the hiring of Prashant Kishor, the man who managed Modi’s 2014 national election, as a consultant for the JD (U). Kishor brought along with him a young and dynamic team composed of Ivy League, Indian Institute of Management, and Indian Institute of Technology graduates who were responsible for the innovative campaigning techniques used by Kumar. An example of this was Kumar’s radical response to Modi’s scathing critique that deceit and treachery were in Kumar’s DNA: Kumar’s JD (U) began a massive DNA sample collection drive across Bihar, gathering over 5 million samples to be sent to the Prime Minister’s Office to symbolically demonstrate the indivisible bond between Nitish and all Biharis. Innovatively titled shabdwapsi (“return of words”), the program’s name was a pun on the gharwapsi (“return to home”) program that sought to reconvert to Hinduism peoples of other faiths under questionable ethical standards run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), often perceived as the ideological parent body of the BJP. With an effective play on statements hinging on divisive themes made by the other side, Nitish Kumar turned negative rhetoric into positive, disarming the BJP in a game it had played so well just a year ago.

The lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate on the BJP’s side meant that the election was fought on the merits of its Prime Minister, Modi. This had worked wonders in previous elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, but in Bihar that narrative was destabilized by hateful statements made by other members of the BJP. Although the image of Modi was crafted as one focused on development and inclusive growth, it was tarnished by his statements on Kumar’s DNA and by statements against caste-based reservation by the RSS’ Sarsangachalak (Chief) Mohan Bhagwat. The Prime Minister’s inability to speak out against offensive comments made by influential senior leaders of a party he remains affiliated with was portrayed as an inability to take a firm stance in the face of opposition, dismantling the previous image of a strongman that had been so appealing in the national elections. Moreover, the lack of a singular prominent local face for the BJP’s campaign hurt their prospects by making Bihar seem like an afterthought in the greater political ambitions of a party.

By not falling for politics of hate or divisiveness, or mere rhetoric, the electorate demonstrated that it was rather sophisticated; in contrast to the national elections held in 2014, the state elections in Bihar also showed that a key takeaway from the results was that communal and religious mobilization was ineffective, and that a complete caste consolidation would probably not be seen in the near future. Most importantly, it made it evident that the lack of complete religious mobilisation made it possible to create coalitions based solely on political opposition to the BJP that could win elections through a consolidation of various interest groups and power bases.

The fundamental lesson learnt from the elections in Bihar is that the electorate is not foolish. Despite contemporary political theories that assume that an uneducated and economically disadvantaged electorate is easily manipulated, the mandate in Bihar revealed how information outreach through mass media and improved communications has rendered such conclusions misguided in the modern age. The failure of divisive rhetoric, moreover, further went on to prove that even an underprivileged population was not susceptible to politics of hatred; negative rhetoric failed to yield positive results. The widespread dissemination of major statements by political leaders via television and radio was crucial in providing universal reference points to be utilised at the local level by at rallies and through interpersonal outreach. In addition to television and radio, the ubiquitous cell phone was targeted for political outreach by parties across the spectrum, meaning that information was transmitted across divisions of class, caste, or religion. This availability of information, combined with a focus on clear deliverables like infrastructure growth (which was visible to one and all), made it increasingly hard to base a winning political strategy merely on a narrative of identity.

The electoral experience in Bihar demonstrates that the impact of caste on politics is becoming increasingly unclear. This is not to say that caste is irrelevant; it remains one of the foundational planks for the creation of political parties and alliances, and holds its ground as a key determinant of electoral allegiances. Still, the rapid reversal of political fortunes in the last five years has thrown the stability of caste as an indicator of electoral results into question. The 2010 state elections in Bihar demonstrated how the JD (U) and BJP could come together to unite lower and upper castes and classes on a development platform that was centred around an opposition to the corrupt practices of Yadav’s RJD, which was then in power. Just four years later, Bihar saw a complete reversal of the caste narrative in the phenomenal victory of the BJP in the 2014 national elections, where,winning over half the number of seats from the state, and doubling its tally to 22 seats from the last election, the BJP trounced all regional parties to emerge as the dominant political force. Kumar’s JD (U), which fought without being a part of any formal alliance, managed to secure only 2 seats of their previous 20. Even Yadav, with his relatively stable caste support base, could only muster 4 seats in the national election. The ability of the BJP to consolidate votes across religious lines in a majority Hindu nation fuelled the perception that it would be able to continue this trend, and therefore remain firmly rooted electorally in more conservative and underprivileged regions. That the BJP was unable to cobble together inter-caste unity in the most recent Bihar elections reflects a popular sentiment amongst an electorate that preferred to vouch for a dependable, development-oriented Chief Minister despite his alliances with the RJD and the Indian National Congress.

This inability of a complete caste consolidation to bear fruit, but a partial caste consolidation to yield rich electoral success, demonstrates the failure of communal mobilization. It points, instead, to what political analysts Yashwant Deshmukh and Manu Sharma called the “ghettoisation of secular votes”: a consolidation of anti-Hindutva forces based on caste alliances that focused on preventing the BJP from gaining power in the crucial state. A variety of attempts were made to polarise the election along religious lines, but a secular riposte was offered by the Grand Alliance. The horrific lynching of a man suspected of eating beef by a Hindu mob in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, a state bordering Bihar, triggered national outrage. Prime Minister Modi’s silence on the event, which was brushed off and even condoned by some of his party members, allowed Nitish Kumar to further attack the BJP and its regressive social policies in the run up to the polls. Divisive rhetoric by senior BJP leaders, including comments on how there would be “fireworks in Pakistan” should Kumar come to power and on how Kumar should go to Pakistan himself further fuelled the perception of the BJP as a party defined by rhetoric without concrete performance. The failure of this inflammatory rhetoric, moreover, to lead to violent tensions on the ground like those seen in Uttar Pradesh during the national and state elections was a testament to the maturation of the electorate in Bihar, and a telling sign of the future of the Indian electorate.

The 2014 national elections saw Modi’s meteoric rise on the platform of development and hope, raising expectations with a narrative of change; a year later, the public has grown impatient with the lack of concrete progress and is now demanding immediate action. Inflation and infrastructure continue to be major hurdles in the average Indian’s life, and electoral rhetoric has not led to long-term solutions, causing a distrust of the BJP’s campaign. It has become politically expedient for anti-BJP forces to join ranks despite deep rooted ideological differences in order to capitalise on the dissatisfaction in regional elections in preparation for the national election in 2019. This coalition presents a significant challenge to the BJP: in the national elections, the BJP only managed to secure 33 percent of the vote share despite winning over half the seats in Parliament owing to India’s “first past the post” system. Elections in Bihar have galvanized anti-BJP forces into creating coalitions of necessity, and their astounding success has already generated talks of such alliances for elections in Kerala, Goa, and Gujarat.

In contrast to American politics, wherein political allegiances are more established and play a greater role in defining voting preferences, the Indian political sphere is undergoing immense shifts in leaders, parties, and ideologies, with the electorate at the center of the decision making process. The lack of clearly defined partisan information sources, either on television or on the radio, and the absence of strong ideological considerations, excepting a preference for populist policies, puts India in a unique position of determining the structure and content of electoral processes going forward.

However, as social activist and political analyst Yogendra Yadav warns, the mood is not one of exuberance. The election of controversial and politically corrupt forces like Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD is emblematic of a regression, reinforcing the perception that politics is beyond moral scrutiny. The proliferation of ideologically unsound alliances, moreover, signals a disturbing trend of personality politics overshadowing ideology. The resulting political instability also casts doubt on the ability of future governments to make sound and expedient decisions on politically controversial topics, presenting a dangerous possibility of a sanitised government similar to that seen after the collapse of traditional party structures in the 1990s. Most importantly, such a political atmosphere suggests that it is high time for a national alternative to the BJP to emerge from these coalitions of convenience. The nature and structure of such an alternative, along with its ideological foundations, is sure to have a lasting impact on the direction the Indian polity heads towards in the future.