A magnificent victory for Nitish Kumar but it may be too soon to draw broader conclusions from Bihar
Bihar has spoken and spoken clearly. Despite exit polls suggesting a race too close to call, the Nitish-Laloo alliance helped by a surprise act by the Congress has won a comprehensive victory. The scale of the victory is beyond what most observers had anticipated and must be dispiriting for the BJP especially after its heavy defeat in Delhi. How does one interpret these results and what do they portend for Indian politics?
First, it needs to be emphasized that Mahagathbandhan (MGB) started out with a distinct advantage in Bihar. Its social coalition was broader, more stable, and represented a greater degree of ideological cohesion. There is no natural animosity between the political bases of Kumar and Yadav—both have been forged from the crucible of Mandal politics. On the other hand, BJP has always been a party of upper castes in Bihar. Cognizant of its weakness, it has attempted to counter the MGB by forging coalitions with the likes of Paswan and Manjhi. Unfortunately, for the party, that experiment failed quite spectacularly and there is some evidence that the BJP wasn’t able to transfer votes to its Dalit partners. Nitish Kumar is clearly popular and faced no anti-incumbency as even BJP leaders have subsequently acknowledged. Finally, this was a state election in which Narendra Modi was not on ballot though BJP tried desperately to leverage his popularity. The deliberate decision to ignore the party’s Bihari faces may have proved fatal and it is rather surprising that Modi has ignored a lesson he has enormously benefited from: In state elections, local leadership is crucial.
Reflecting the innate advantages are the figures from Lok Sabha elections where even at the height of the Modi wave, the vote share of MGB partners exceeded that of BJP and its allies by some distance. The BJP had swept the elections simply because the opposition vote was divided. The NDA’s hopes in Bihar rested primarily on two factors. First, the votes would not be transferred between MGB partners seamlessly; the sum of the parts would be less than the individual units. On surface, this is a sound assumption. However, as discussed above, it ignored the reality of Bihar politics where the contest between Kumar and Yadav has always been that of personal ambitions; their social base is naturally cohesive. Second, BJP assumed that Modi wave was virtually permanent in nature and would be enough to propel the party to victory after victory. The Modi wave has ebbed—as it inevitably must—and normal politics has been restored. Once these two assumptions were not realized, the BJP defeat was virtually assured. In summary, barring extraordinary circumstances, the MGB should always have won Bihar and its victory should not surprise any careful observer of its politics.
Second, can the Bihar model—a marriage of convenience between regional parties–extended to other states? The increasing dominance of Narendra Modi’s BJP as a central player in Indian politics may leave the regional parties with little choice but to forge coalitions in a desperate bid for survival. Superficially attractive, this premise has two fundamental issues. First, grand alliances are extremely hard to craft and even harder to sustain as they militate against fundamental political differences ranging from ideology to personal ambitions. Despite its magnificent victory and assurances from all partners, it is unclear how sustainable the MGB would be once the immediate threat has been slayed. Indeed, the Janata parivar merger which appeared inevitable only a few months ago quickly collapsed under its own contradictions. Second, Kumar-Yadav duo are almost unique among regional leaders in their unwillingness to break bread with the Prime Minister. Beyond political compulsions and the jostling for power, there are fundamental ideological differences between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. However, most other regional parties are not ideologically opposed to the Modi government or at least willing to ignore them if the carrot dangled is sufficiently attractive. Exploiting the levers of power, it is not difficult for the BJP to attract regional players like Ajit Singh to its fold. However, it would require a willingness to share power and a certain amount of humility and magnanimity. Only time will tell whether Modi who runs perhaps the most centralized government in modern Indian history is willing to do make that compromise. However, he is too crafty a politician to let the opposition isolate him politically and replicating the Bihar model would be a more vexing challenge than perhaps most observers realize.
Finally, the road to 2019. Some analysts are suggesting that Nitish Kumar is now the core of an anti-BJP formation for the 2019 elections. This grand coalition presumably in alliance with the Congress party may include leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav as well other regional players unable to come to an understanding with the BJP. There is little doubt that theoretically at least, such a coalition representing a high index of opposition unity would be a formidable force. However, historically, for such coalitions to offer a cogent political challenge, they inevitably require at its core a party which has appeal beyond the narrow caste/geographical barriers. There is little evidence yet that Nitish Kumar can influence—let alone win an election—outside his stronghold of Bihar. In other words, such a coalition would only be viable if it is led by the Congress party which remains in political doldrums. Indeed, the Congress party has given up any hopes of emerging as an independent political player in Bihar and circumstances might force it into a similar compromise in UP.
In summary, Bihar is a magnificent victory for the MGB and particularly for Nitish Kumar who accepted enormous political risk in taking on an ascendant Narendra Modi. But the broader national implications of Bihar model remain hazy. Indeed, enormously influential Bihar results would be in shaping the course of Modi governance, they may be less instrumental in driving national politics as it appears currently.