Arrogance, like water, flows from top to bottom in a political organisation. If the top leader is arrogant, his followers catch the trait as if it were a badge of honour. Since winning absolute majority in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the BJP and its supporters in the sangh parivar started exhibiting hubris of a kind seen only once before in independent India—during the authoritarian rule of Indira Gandhi.
But hubris cannot trump democracy. The people of India may condone corruption, but they rarely tolerate arrogance. In 1977, the Congress under Indira Gandhi received a rude shock when, in the parliamentary elections, it lost to a newly stitched-together coalition called the Janata Party. Something similar has happened in the Bihar assembly elections. The BJP under Narendra Modi’s arrogant leadership has suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a similar coalition of disparate parties—Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress. Even though this was only a state election, and that, too, held within the first two years of Modi’s five-year term, the BJP’s debacle undoubtedly has national ramifications. It is not off the mark to say that the BJP’s defeat in Bihar has suddenly brought 2019, when India will elect the next Lok Sabha, closer.
Soon after its victory last year, a jubilant BJP was talking about Modi continuing to be prime minister at least until 2024. “Congress-mukt Bharat” (India sans the Congress) had become its slogan. Some BJP leaders had begun to jokingly liken India to China that it would soon become like a one-party nation. Addressing an election rally in Purnia on November 2, Modi taunted Nitish and Lalu about allotting 40 seats to the Congress. “Thanks for giving us those 40 seats on a platter. We have already won those,” said Modi.
The Congress, however, won 27 of those 40 seats, increasing its tally from a mere four in 2010. On the contrary, of 157 constituencies in which it contested, the BJP could win only 53, in a 243-member assembly. It clearly showed that Modi was taking the voters’ support for granted. And they taught him and his party a sobering lesson.
Wins and losses are natural in any democracy. No party can be expected to win the people’s mandate in every single election. The BJP had lost so many elections in the past, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, leaders far taller than Modi, at the helm. However, something was ominously different in Bihar this time. Never in the past had the top leaders of the BJP committed so many bloopers.
Both Modi and Shah led the BJP’s deliberate efforts to polarise the electorate. They introduced the politics of beef ban into the election campaign. They brazenly gave a communal twist to the issue of reservations, in order to cover up the controversy created by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, which was deeply hurtful to the BJP. The party’s attempt to communalise the election campaign was also evident in Shah’s notoriously stupid statement that crackers would be burst in Pakistan if the voters rejected the BJP in Bihar. At one stroke, the BJP chief was castigating all those who did not vote for the BJP as pro-Pakistan and anti-national. Eerily, there was nothing new about the mindset that prompted Shah to make such a patently offensive statement. A vocal section of the BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, feeling emboldened after Modi’s 2014 victory, has been routinely badmouthing their critics and opponents as “anti-national”, “anti-Hindu” and “sickular”.
Of course, there were several other important reasons for the BJP’s defeat in Bihar. Three among them stand out. One, steep rise in the prices of certain essential food items like pulses. Two, the BJP’s failure to connect with the rural masses, which is evident from the fact that it lost in most rural constituencies. Three, the near-complete marginalisation of the local leadership of the BJP, with the prime minister himself taking the lead in making the state assembly elections into a Modi vs Nitish battle. This last reason also stems from Modi’s belief that he is invincible because his popularity as a pan-Indian leader surpasses that of any regional leader in any state. It was an affront to the Bihari pride, which Nitish and his supporters adroitly used to their advantage by asking the voters to choose between a “Bihari” and a “baahari” (outsider).
After the verdict, BJP leaders have been busy disingenuously rationalising their defeat by attributing it to the “arithmetic” of caste combinations in Bihar that went in favour of the Grand Alliance. The contribution of the caste factor was, at best, secondary. After all, just 18 months ago, the BJP and its allies had won 31 of 40 seats in the Lok Sabha elections. This could not have been possible without the BJP getting the support of people belonging to those very castes that have rallied behind Nitish and Lalu this time. This shows that no party and no leader enjoys the permanent support of any particular caste.
After the drubbing it received in Delhi in February this year, the BJP could claim, with some degree of persuasion, that Modi was not responsible for the defeat. The blame could plausibly be shifted to Kiran Bedi, who was made the party’s chief ministerial candidate. However, the BJP simply cannot claim that Modi, along with Shah, is not responsible for its fiasco in Bihar. To this extent, the aura of invincibility around Modi has already vanished. Not just the possibility, but also the certainty, that the Modi-led BJP can be defeated, if the non-BJP parties come together on a common front with a credible agenda, has now been established. Moreover, the BJP is not likely to win in any of the states going to the polls in 2016 (Pondicherry, Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala). In 2017, it might succeed in forming governments in Goa and Uttarakhand, but will most probably lose in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur.
The Modi government will most certainly face an aggressive opposition in Parliament from the combined alliance of the non-NDA parties. If it fails manage the economy and social issues properly, the government could also face a rising tide of street protests and agitations.
To make things worse, matters within the BJP will not be as smooth and cohesive for the prime minister in the next three and a half years as they have been so far. The unprecedented expression of discontent by party elders, such as L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, is just an early indication of the difficulties in managing party affairs, both at the Centre and in states.
The BJP’s rout in Bihar has suddenly become a turning point in Indian politics. Modi will have to display an altogether different model—wise, benign, inclusive, accommodative, humble, tolerant and trustworthy—of leadership for his remaining period in office to become smooth and productive. Failure on his part to do so will surely bring 2019 closer, with all its grim implications for the BJP.
The writer was an aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.