Reading between the votes

The touch-up artists are out in full force in the BJP to somehow shield Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the fallout of the Bihar election results. State election, local issues, caste configurations, arithmetic, the opposition, Lalu Prasad Yadav and various other explanations are being offered, so as to protect Modi from blame.

The problem for the voters of India though, is that Modi campaigned extensively in Bihar and addressed over 30 rallies. He promised huge financial benefits, made fun of the opposition candidates and presented his party as the only one which could bring the right kind of development to Bihar. When the BJP was asked about its chief ministerial candidate, it said we have the prime minister after all.

PM Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Sasaram, Bihar, on October 9. Following the whitewash in the polls, the BJP says it should not have “over-exposed” its prime asset. Pic/PTI
PM Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Sasaram, Bihar, on October 9. Following the whitewash in the polls, the BJP says it should not have “over-exposed” its prime asset. Pic/PTI

Now the BJP says it should not have “over-exposed” its prime asset. A fine explanation if it made any sense. And just what did the “over-exposed” asset start promising finally? The prime minister dumped the development platform halfway through the campaign and went back to the old BJP staple of attacking Muslims and the old Bihar chestnut of whipping up caste anger. Modi suggested that the “Grand Alliance” of Nitish Kumar, Lalu and the Congress would take reservations away from the backward castes and give it to Muslims. The Grand Alliance had made no such promise in this election. But Modi said he knew based on a statement made 10 years ago. But perhaps he had to. By suggesting that caste reservations needed a rethink, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had upset the applecart and allies for the BJP mid-campaign in Bihar.

By then, the killing at Dadri had already happened and the protests by intellectuals, creative people, writers, scientists and academics were on full scale. The Asset however felt that this was the correct time to play both caste and communal cards. His closest associate, the BJP party president, went a step further and said that if the BJP lost in Bihar, Diwali would be celebrated in Pakistan.

The lines were laid out in front of Bihar’s voters: Caste benefits would be taken away and given to Muslims and Pakistan would celebrate if the BJP lost. Instead, in spite of the best efforts of exit pollsters and some TV journalists, something remarkable happened on November 8. The people of Bihar rejected the idea of Maybe Development and Maybe Communalism and Sometimes Caste and chose what they knew and understood — a chief minister in Nitish Kumar who had delivered for them.

It’s been 18 months since May 2014 and the BJP’s grand victory at the Centre. And it has taken a bit less than that for the “development for all together” mantra of the prime minister and his party to be abandoned as defunct and meaningless. We have returned to business as usual. Modi won all those state elections in Gujarat by exactly the same means that he used in the latter half of his campaign in Bihar. It was all a combination of mocking the opposition and belittling religious minorities. But what worked in Gujarat like a charm over and over, was a non-starter in Bihar this time. The BJP contested 157 seats in Bihar and won 53. Those figures are much worse than those of the Congress, which had seemed almost defunct, until now.

It is actually almost impossible to protect the prime minister from this loss, no matter how hard his spin doctors, in the party, the media and social media, work. Since 2013, Modi has presented himself as the saviour of India, someone who would right all the problems caused by 60 or 67 or 68 years of misrule, depending on who you talk to. The nation has not seen the promises of Modi’s 2014 campaign fulfilled and the people of Bihar did not believe the promises made to them.

Even worse for the prime minister, perhaps some of the people of India have seen through him.

A member of a security force I met on the day of the results, commented in idiomatic, if direct, Hindi: “Modi and the BJP got a slap from Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and now from the people of Bihar. But will he learn his lesson, that is the question.”

What’s the answer?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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