Modi juggernaut brought to halt, what next?
Modi juggernaut brought to halt, what next?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered crushing defeat in the state elections in Bihar. Almost all estimates forecast a ‘neck-and-neck’ fight between the BJP and the opposition alliance of secular parties. However, the results are a landslide in favor of the opposition, which would probably translate as two-thirds majority in the 244-seat state assembly when the final tally gets known. Bihar is a major state in the so-called Hindi heartland, which returns 40 MPs in the 540-member national parliament. The BJP and its allies under the leadership of the present prime minister Narendra Modi had won decisively from Bihar in the 2014 parliamentary poll, securing as many as 31 out of the 40 seats. Modi led the BJP campaign this time around, too, addressing not less than 26 election rallies, which were carefully choreographed by campaign managers.
The party’s war chest was overflowing with funds from the big business. Modi held out astounding promises that if a BJP government were elected to power, Bihar would receive billions of dollars as dole out from the centre. The Hindu nationalist groups mentoring BJP tried all the tricks in the game to polarize Hindu voters in Bihar. The BJP chief Amit Shah even issued an incredible warning that if his party lost in Bihar, Pakistan would celebrate with firecrackers. But none of these gimmicks worked – neither the Modi ‘charisma’ nor BJP’s money power or the unabashed politics of Hindutva. In the ultimate analysis, the Bihar election turns out to be a referendum on Modi himself.
The single resounding message is that the Modi government’s lackluster performance is steadily eroding the overall credibility of the prime minister and his party. Equally, the Bihar election has highlighted that Indians are not ready for the politics of right-wing Hindu nationalism. The average Indian has multiple identities and for a Bihari Hindu, his most compelling identity is, evidently, of his caste. This is one thing. Second, the anti-Muslim politics of hate and violence practiced by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist supporters produced a backlash. The Muslims joined hands with the lower castes of Bihar to defeat the Hindu nationalists whose leadership overwhelmingly consists of upper caste elites. (In India, caste and class overlap in most situations.)
The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which controls the BJP government and its policies, is historically dominated by the upper crust of the caste-ridden Hindu hierarchy. The RSS paraded Modi as its mascot, exploiting the lower caste origin of his family, with a view to give their platform a pan-Hindu outlook. But the people of Bihar, vast majority of whom are drawn from the lower castes, rubbished the charade. A foolish remark by the RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat, a Brahmin himself, questioning the raison d’etre of the reservation system cost the BJP dearly. The Bihar election results testify to the people’s awareness that in the name of Hindu nationalism, the RSS is rallying the lower castes by turning them toward the morbid passions of hatred and violence directed against the minorities. Third, Modi has come a-cropper against Nitish Kumar, a politician of immense charisma and great dignity, who acquitted himself remarkably as chief minister. Modi’s aggressive campaign ran aground in Bihar partly for the reason that Nitish Kumar is a staunch secularist and a politician of proven integrity whose humility stood in stark comparison with Modi’s own boastful, arrogant, belligerent, but ultimately vacuous, public posturing. A need arises to revisit Modi’s impressive win in the 2014 parliamentary poll, where he was pitted against the lackluster leadership of the Congress Party, which was already marooned in scores of corruption scandals. Simply put, Modi’s so-called ‘charisma’ shines only when pitted against mediocre or hopelessly tainted politicians.
Looking ahead, therefore, it stands to reason that although the Congress Party shows no signs of revival after the withering defeat in 2014, it is not the end of history in our electoral politics. Bihar underscores that the growing disenchantment with the Modi government and the BJP can translate itself into support for credible regional parties. Again, the argument that Modi stands between India and the Deluge didn’t have takers in Bihar. This, in turn, should worry Modi regarding his government’s poor performance so far. One of the criticisms against Modi in Bihar was that he talks big but fails to fulfill his promises. In sum, Modi’s winning formula in the 2014 parliamentary poll – the so-called ‘development agenda’ to attract the middle classes (castes) plus the Hindu nationalist agenda to polarize the (lower caste) voters on religious grounds – unraveled in Bihar. Modi needs to think up something better. Which is a difficult proposition, because he heads a government of mostly mediocre people whose qualification to be where they are lies principally in their acceptability to the RSS.
Incredibly enough, India today has a minister of education who doesn’t even hold a university degree. Can India, an emerging power, be ruled by a cabinet of mediocrities? India compares abysmally poor in comparison with China, Iran, South Korea or Turkey. Looking ahead, the BJP’s ‘in-house’ crisis is compounded by the fact that the upcoming state elections through 2016 – in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – will not allow Modi to showcase a political recovery after the devastating defeat in Bihar. In none of these three states, BJP counts as a significant political force. That is to say, the BJP will be heading into the next big test in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh after having suffered a string of political defeats. In politics, perceptions matter. Arguably, the shock therapy administered by the Bihar electorate ought to worry Modi. But then, is Modi capable of dispatching the RSS warhorses to their stables and take the reins of his government in his own hands? Modi is a progeny of the RSS and the RSS is an extra-constitutional authority, a cabal that is neither accountable nor transparent — or representative. Modi’s behavior so far suggests that he is quite content to remain in power as the RSS’s gatekeeper.
All in all, therefore, the spectre of an unprecedented political stalemate haunts the nation. No doubt, a triumphant opposition is staging a comeback within the first two years of the incumbent government’s 5-year term. Coupled with a dysfunctional parliament, a national consensus on issues of governance is all but impossible. This is a scary scenario — a government well ensconced in power for another 40 months to go, but with the fizz already gone and in drift. Two, Modi is a wounded man today, and the opposition knows it. Simply put, his aura of invincibility has dissipated — perhaps, forever. Without the high theatrics and the accompanying aura, which are his ‘strategic assets’, Modi is at a disadvantage because he himself may look below-average in performance as prime minister. Three, RSS in all probability will continue to push the envelope since it is playing the long game and Modi is expendable. Four, Modi is saddled with a government that is abysmally lacking talent and is simply incapable of fulfilling the high expectations he had raised during the 2014 poll, which in turn becomes a poor reflection on him ultimately.
Finally, with Modi at suboptimal, the fear element is likely to disappear among his party men. There is great restiveness amongst them already that Modi is keeping a sharp-eyed security czar precisely for the sake of monitoring their nefarious activities and to report to him one-on-one. Many of them openly complain that politics has become a drab affair and is becoming pointless without the opportunity to make money. Now, they — or at least some among them — may become audacious and take matters into their hands, feeling emboldened to make hay whilst the sun still shines through the next 40-month period .