Going forward the BJP needs some quick wins to build the momentum for 2024 not only in Bihar but pan-India
Whether the “Mood of the Nation” has changed or not, there is a whiff of jubilation in the newsrooms about the developments in Bihar over the past week. There is a spillover of that spirit into the parallel universe of social media. Though it may be too early to borrow the expression of a well-known journalist and say, Twitter feels like a happy family once again, it is indeed a season of strange bedfellows coming together. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues unfazed. But could it be that the party which is known to have its ear to the ground is missing a few cues and being lulled into complacence?
Public sentiment is notoriously fickle and can change in a heartbeat. It can be triggered by a sudden turn of events. At times there is incipient dissatisfaction with the status quo which finds release through a window of opportunity that appears serendipitously. Can the rapid political realignment in Bihar provide such an inflexion point? The BJP’s current top leadership is considered to be one of the most astute and prescient the country has seen since Independence. It is unlikely that they would not have factored in the possibility of Nitish Kumar kissing and making up with his estranged partners and returning to the erstwhile Mahagathbandhan (MGB). Therefore, they would surely have a Plan B, if parting with Nitish was not BJP’s own Plan A in the first place. Often such calculations are based on numbers alone. However, it is the underlying assumptions that determine the outcome, which the best of mathematicians sometimes do not get.
From reactions of various BJP functionaries, it is apparent that the party had long concluded that Nitish Kumar was no longer an asset for the alliance. His own political equity has been shrinking and he was extracting more from the relationship than the value he brought to the table at first. While there may be merit in that argument, the BJP cannot wash its hands off the under-performance of the joint dispensation. Much of the blame will stick to the BJP as the major partner of the alliance. The curious arrangement of having Nitish as the chief minister was dysfunctional right from the time the JD(U) left the MGB to join the NDA midway through its third term.
The BJP could not bring any of the benefits of its much-touted “Double Engine” formulation to Bihar while neighbouring Uttar Pradesh (UP) under Yogi Adityanath went onto benefit from Centre-state working in tandem for economic development with results visible in the form of infrastructures such as expressways, industrial investments and social assets like hospitals and medical colleges. In terms of governance too, where UP showed quantum improvement, Bihar began to slide once again. Implementation of Central schemes were below par and corruption levels after initial ebbing began to make a comeback. Bihar’s handling of Covid-19 relief and implementation of vaccination programmes was reported to be one of the weakest.
Though the BJP had two deputy chief ministers, their performance was lacklustre. While he was part of the government, Sushil Kumar Modi was seen to be working under the shadow of Nitish Kumar, whose own conduct remained erratic, often sounding discordant with the Centre such as in the case of caste-based census. Hence, if there is anti-incumbency it is not against Nitish Kumar alone but for the NDA government at large. So, shifting the blame on Nitish is going to yield limited dividends for the BJP. Further, there is little reason to believe if Nitish continued in this sub-optimal relationship the government would have done better. Instead, the split gives him and Tejashwi Yadav the opportunity to prove to deliver better results.
To the BJP’s credit it handled the divorce with minimum fuss without overplaying the betrayal card, but at the same time not failing to highlight Nitish’ unreliable and opportunistic character. It also allayed apprehensions about engineering defections to precipitate the President’s rule in the state. Its insinuations were targeted largely at Nitish without focusing much on Tejwashi, who is clearly the star of the day. Despite displays of restraint and maturity, what should worry the BJP is the perception that it could make life difficult for the MGB by using investigative agencies. Sushil Modi’s statement about criminal charges against Tejashwi and Lalu’s family members did not go down well with the public. Coupled with this, clips of JP Nadda speaking to party members predicting decimation of regional parties (albeit later clarified to mean “dynastic parties”) caused a flutter once again raising the circa 2015 spectre of “Bihari Vs Bahari”.
The BJP must understand that neither dynasty nor caste is considered a negative term in Bihar. Lalu’s conviction in the fodder scam cases after years of protracted trials till he was in poor health is seen by many of his supporters as harsh. Though it may have earned the Modi government some brownie points for letting law take its own course irrespective of the political stature of the person, it has contributed to the Opposition’s narrative about the vindictive streak in the Modi-Shah administration.
In a state like Bihar, where corruption is a way of life among the political class, the impression of the investigative agencies being selectively used by the government for political ends has begun to stick. The recent change of government in Maharashtra is cited as a case in point that people seem to be buying into. Thus the campaign by the Opposition — led primarily by the Congress — of Modi-Shah’s dictatorial style of endangering democracy, so far restricted to the urban intelligentsia, is beginning to trickle down to the non-elite masses as well.
The Narendra Modi government is acutely aware that inflation and unemployment are beginning to hurt the people. There is only that much leeway the government can earn by welfare schemes like distribution of free ration. Caught in despair, people are sometimes willing to give another party a chance even knowing that its promises, such as creating ten lakh jobs, are utopian at best. Often the cynical feeling is — things cannot get worse. Hyper-nationalism and religious ferment cannot overcome disenchantment.
The ace up BJP’s sleeves so far has been its welfare schemes creating a core constituency of “labharthis” (beneficiaries). This has worked best in states where BJP is in power as it can ensure both delivery and branding. This was true for Bihar as well in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. How far it would be able to leverage the “welfare” card under the MGB government is debatable. This can be the X factor in other non-BJP ruled states as well, as BJP learnt in West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee had appropriated a substantial part of the credit for Central schemes by rebranding them. Finally, BJP may end falling back upon the age-old formula of social re-engineering, hoping that the MGB government will be weighed down under its own contradictions and intra-party tensions affecting governance.
There may not be any discernible shift in the mood of the electorate, but there are headwinds that cannot be ignored. Going forward the BJP needs some quick wins to build the momentum for 2024 not only in Bihar but pan-India.
The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. Views expressed are personal.