Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?

(First published in HuffPost India, 25 October 2015.)

First they said they have an OBC-EBC strategy. Then they gave away a large number of tickets to upper castes. Then they said their chief minister will be from amongst the backward castes. Now Amit Shah says it could be from upper castes or backwards, we’ll decide after the elections.

The BJP’s shifting, confused, botched up caste strategy in Bihar can best be described with the Hindi proverb, Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka. By now the party finds itself between a rock and a hard place, sending mixed signals and confusing all voters.

In an interview to Dainik Bhaskar newspaper on Saturday, BJP chief Amit Shah said that the party’s parliamentary board will decide after the elections who the chief minister will be. He said that unlike the Nitish-led Grand Alliance, the BJP had no dearth of chief ministerial worthies. “Chunav baad taye ho ga CM agda ya pichda,” Bhaskar said in the headline.

bihar

Until September, the party’s strategy didn’t seem so confused. In August, a number of media reports had outlined Amit Shah’s strategy in Bihar. All such reports highlighted how the Bharatiya Janata Party was attempting to stitching a grand social alliance of upper castes and Mahadalits with the Extreme Backward Classes, the EBCs, and even wooing Yadavs.

In September, this strategy was not reflected in the BJP’s ticket distribution. Of the 160 seats it is contesting, it announced tickets candidates for 153 of them by 20 September. It was clear in the names announced by then that a bulk of the tickets were going to the upper castes, way beyond their 13% population. This was the beginning of the end of the BJP’s idea of creating a broad-based coalition to win Bihar.

If backward caste voters had any doubt that the BJP was going back to its identity as an upper caste party, Mohan Bhagwat laid such ambiguity to rest. On 21 September, news broke that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had called for a review of reservations in an interview in Oragniser, the RSS mouthpiece.

It was immediately clear that the ticket distribution and Mohan Bhagwat’s statement were together used by the Nitish-Lalu Grand Alliance to make “backward vs forward” the key point of polarization in the election. Lalu Yadav said as much openly on 27 September, for which the BJP took him to the Election Commission.

The next day, Union minister Giriraj Singh, himself from the upper caste Bhumihar community, declared that the BJP would not make an upper caste person the chief minister of Bihar. He had first said this in July, but now it gained a new urgency. In response to a question, finance minister Arun Jaitley endorsed the view.

However, ​former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, himself with chief ministerial ambitions, told the Indian Express on 5 October that these were personal opinions of some party leaders, and ultimately the BJP parliamentary board will decide who the chief minister will be, should the NDA win the election. “Any Bihari will be CM,” he said.

On 12 October, the first day of voting, party leader Shahnawaz Hussain unilaterally announced that the party’s EBC leader Prem Singh will be chief minister.

Now, after two phases, the party’s national president Amit Shah has added to the confusion by saying that forward or backward, the parliamentary board will decide. In political circles, this statement is being interpreted by some as a way of stopping upper castes from voting for the Grand Alliance.

The BJP’s inability to decide the caste of their future chief minister, leave alone his name, is only a symptom of how its grand strategy of wooing all castes has gone awry. After the first two phases, it has stopped pretending that it is interested in wooing the Yadav vote, and is now trying to make it Yadavs vs EBCs and Dalits. But perhaps this has come too late in the day.

While the BJP accuses the Grand Alliance of caste politics, Sushil Modi has said that Narendra Modi is India’s first EBC chief minister. (His caste, Teli, is in the EBC category in Bihar.) This is a correction over his earlier statement that Mr Modi was India’s first OBC prime minister. Nitish Kumar had responded by saying that that title goes to HD Deve Gowda.

The BJP in Bihar has tied itself up in knots with its caste strategy. The root of it all lies in the NDA giving 90 odd tickets to upper castes – that is, around 37% tickets to a community whose population is 13%. This created a threat of upper caste ruled for the OBCs and EBCs, uniting them in favour of the Grand Alliance.

The BJP defends its ticket distribution by saying that the upper castes are their core vote-bank, but in saving the core-votebank it seems to be losing out on retaining the EBCs and OBCs who had voted for it in large numbers in 2014.

Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point

(First published in HuffPo, 16 November 2015.)

Home minister Rajnath Singh, himself a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has this to say on the BJP’s resounding defeat in Bihar: “Victory and defeat are part of the democratic process. We had won elections in the past, we had lost elections in the past. We will not do justice to future if we decide future only on the basis of one elections.”

The top leadership of the BJP is playing down the Bihar defeat. The opponents came together, they say. We lost to their caste arithmetic. It’s just one election. We still got a good vote-share.

None of this adds up. Try as the BJP might, it can’t deny that Bihar was a turning point for it, not least because the BJP itself made it a prestige election.

Soon after the BJP won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a clear majority, the party said it wanted to usher in a Congress-free India and be the country’s natural party of governance. In that project, the Delhi assembly election results in February this year were seen as an aberration.

After becoming BJP president, Amit Shah had in his speech at the BJP’s national council meeting emphasized the importance of winning every state election. He had said that the party needed to help form a “BJP-led government from J&K to Kerala and from Gujarat to Nagaland.”

He had said, “We must form our governments whenever elections are held in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Also, we will have to make special efforts to win elections and form our governments in states like Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamilnadu where we have polled significant percentage of votes. To realize this objective, we should make BJP’s effective presence felt in each and every village Panchayat, Zilla Parishad, municipal corporations and other elected bodies.”

In July this year, just before launching his campaign in Bihar, Shah had said that the BJP needed to rule India for a lot more than just five years to make it a “Viswa Guru” or world superpower. Shah had reportedly said, “It can only happen if a party has an uninterrupted reign, from panchayat to Parliament, like Congress enjoyed from 1950-67. Therefore, the BJP must ensure its victory in elections at all levels — from panchayat to Parliament — for the next 25 years in order to accomplish the objective.”

Bihar was clearly up there in the scheme of things. Launching the campaign in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on 16 July, Shah had said, “I want to tell the people of Bihar to not think that the impact of the Bihar verdict would be limited to Bihar. The Bihar verdict will decide whether power in India is going into the hands of selfish politicians or those who are working to uproot poverty. Bihar will send a message to all of India.”

In several interviews during the Bihar campaign, Amit Shah noted how important it was for the BJP to win Bihar: “Bihar is very important for BJP,” he told The Economic Times, “because we believe that we have had a comparatively poor electoral mass base in eastern India. After forming the government in Bihar, it will become an entry point for us into eastern India. It will become a big symbol for acceptance of our ideology in the east.”

In one of his 30 rallies in Bihar, prime minister Modi had echoed Amit Shah’s views on the national import of the Bihar elections. “The people of India get to learn a lot from the political wisdom of the people of Bihar.”

Ignoring the Bihar results, as though the statements cited above were never made, is not an option for the BJP. And the explanations don’t add up, either. If the BJP’s allies in Bihar are to blame, it was the BJP which made the choice to go with them. If the caste arithmetic of the Mahagatbandhan is to blame, then it must also be pointed out that Amit Shah was said to be putting together a much superior caste arithmetic, one that would “redraw Bihar’s caste map”.

It is also facetious for the BJP to say that Bihar was a foregone conclusion because, if you look at the vote shares of the different parties in 2014 and apply them to the 2015 assembly election, then the Mahagatbandhan was going to win anyway. If the Bihar result was so obvious, why was a third of Modi’s cabinet camping in Bihar for days on end?

Besides, the numbers show something more disturbing for the BJP. The BJP, and the NDA, have both lost significant vote-share since 2014. The BJP’s voteshare fell from 29.4% in 2014 to 24.4% in 2015. The NDA’s voteshare fell from 38.8% in 2014 to 34.1% in 2015.

Truth is, voteshares don’t count for much in the first past the post system. The Mahagatbandhan’s vote share actually fell from 44.3% in 2014 to 41.9% in 2015. Voteshares are sometimes more reflective of how many seats you contest, not how many you actually win. That is why the Congress won only 4 seats from 8.38% votes in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections. This time, it won 27 seats with 6.7% votes.

This is also why it is facetious to say the BJP has increased its voteshare from 16.46% in 2010 to 24.4% in 2015. In 2010, the BJP had contested 102 seats, but in 2015 it contested 160 seats. If greater votehsare than 2010 is an achievement, than losing votehsare over 2014 must also count as proof that brand Modi is losing some of its value.

In his first speech as BJP president, Amit Shah had said, “We will win these (assembly) elections by reaching out to the people on the strength of our well-knit organisational structure and on the commitment of providing good governance in these states.”

Prime minister Modi himself addressed 30 rallies in Bihar. Twenty-six of these were held after the polling dates were announced. In 16 of those constituencies, the BJP lost.

It could not have been that the Amit Shah’s team would have put up a bad organisational structure in seats where the prime minister himself addressed rallies. The only thing that can explain the losses, then, must be the voter’s rejection of the BJP’s commitment to good governance.

After travelling hundreds of kilometres in Bihar, a reporter’s diary on why Modi lost

(First published in Quartz, 8 November 2015.)

Patna, Bihar

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost a key, prized state election in Bihar. His party’s alliance had done stupendously well in the state in the general elections in 2014, winning three-fourths of the seats. But, in the state elections, the incumbent tied up a better coalition.

The BJP had hoped to transform its 2014 victory into a 2015 win in a state that it has never directly ruled. They had hoped that the Modi government’s performance would be appreciated and applauded by voters in the state, who would thus reward them with a chance at the state level, too.

This has not turned out to be the case. The BJP told voters that the same party ruling the centre and the state would be ideal for Bihar’s development. But voters have clearly rejected the idea, giving the incumbent alliance a two-thirds majority. Why?

Travelling hundreds of kilometres to different corners of Bihar this election, I met many voters expressing disenchantment with the Modi government. Referendum is a strong word, but voters were clear in judging the BJP’s campaign with its performance so far at the centre.

Voters complained, most of all, of food inflation. Thanks to falling oil prices, overall inflation has been under control since Modi became India’s prime minister. But rising prices of certain food products have pushed the retail inflation higher in the last few months. In the middle of the campaign, the prices of arhar dal—split red legume—shot through the roof, becoming a campaign issue.

Voters also complained that the Modi government had reduced funds in social welfare schemes, particularly the Indira Awas Yojana, a scheme to help build pucca houses for the rural poor. They were also unhappy over funds drying up in a rural employment guarantee programme and a food subsidy programme, as well as reduction of the minimum support price for farmers.

“Modi is good for the country. Perhaps he is good for the cities. But he is not good for the villages,” said a wealthy farmer in West Champaran, near the India-Nepal border.

Taking the government’s focus away from poverty alleviation programmes is an article of faith for Modi’s government. When his key aide, Amit Shah, took over as president of the BJP, he said in his acceptance speech:

“We have to understand that the entire emphasis of the Congress-UPA government was on entitlement-based policies. They believed in entitlement first and empowerment later. In our thinking, empowerment has to come first and entitlement would naturally follow. We do believe that people have right to good governance. But more importantly, first and foremost it is the duty of the government to give good governance. Using rights as a vote catching gimmick is just unacceptable to us. We believe that neither framing of an act nor an agitation by the people is required for them to get their rights. It is our considered opinion that we have to create conditions in such a manner that people automatically get their rights.”

The unequivocal response from Bihar’s voters is that the Modi government needs to rethink this formulation of entitlement versus empowerment.

There were many voters across castes, and even some Muslims, who said they had voted for Modi in the 2014 general elections, partly because they needed to oust the Congress government, and partly because Modi showed them hope. Now, they said, they were losing hope. Voters expressing this sentiment insisted that they didn’t care about caste.

Even those who said they were voting for the BJP again, who came mainly from the upper castes, said that food inflation was a problem. Meanwhile, they struggled to name Modi’s biggest achievement as prime minister. “He has improved India’s stature before the world,” they said, and soon became defensive about the prime minister’s frequent foreign trips.

It can easily be said that the Bihar results are a reflection on Modi’s government in New Delhi, because Modi himself campaigned extensively in Bihar, telling voters about his achievements as prime minister so far. He spoke, for instance, of signing up hydropower projects with neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan, which would bring electricity to Bihar. He also spoke of the Jan Dhan Yojana, an effort at banking inclusion, which has so far given bank accounts to 190 million citizens for the first time.

However, poor voters complained that they had queued to sign up for the bank accounts under the impression that they would get money from the Modi government into those accounts. The impression was fed further by the opposition parties, who went around Bihar showing voters a video of Modi from the 2014 campaign. In the video, Modi was seen telling voters that they could get Rs15 lakh ($22,700) each if he managed to bring back India’s black money stashed abroad.

It is important to consider the points voters across Bihar have told me. For the next few days, there will be a lot of commentary on the Bihar results, on the arithmetic of caste and religion, on personality clashes and vote share percentages, but most will miss the voice of the electorate.

To defeat Modi, the opposition needs to woo Nitish Kumar back

(First published in ThePrint, 3 July 2018.)

Nobody asked Nitish Kumar to join hands with the BJP. He did so on his own, blaming it on corruption charges against his deputy CM, Tejashwi Yadav. 

In truth it was a brazenly opportunist decision made with the calculation that the opposition had no prospect of dethroning Modi in 2019. “Nobody can defeat Modi in 2019,” Nitish Kumar had declared after switching sides.  Continue reading “To defeat Modi, the opposition needs to woo Nitish Kumar back”

Yes, we clan: The sibling rivalry in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home

(First published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 August 2015.)

Photo via Twitter/Tej Pratap Yadav

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s official residence in Patna, 7 Deshratna Marg, is heavily guarded. People from across Bihar wait to be called in. They want their grievances addressed. Mobile jammers disable their phones, and men in uniform have a tough time controlling the crowd that is desperate to get in.

Only three houses away, at 10 Deshratna Marg, lives Lalu Prasad Yadav. Access here is easy. People seem to enter and leave with ease. All you have to do is name the person you want to meet. Lalu Yadav doesn’t give appointments to journalists. They simply walk in. Continue reading “Yes, we clan: The sibling rivalry in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home”

Amit Shah vs Prashant Kishor: Who will be wizard for forthcoming Bihar elections?

Firstpost, 20 July 2015

The forthcoming assembly election in Bihar is arguably the most important state election during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister. Bihar’s result will have an impact on the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. If the BJP is unable to fly its flag in Patna and Lucknow, it will have frittered away the chance to reap long-term benefits from the Modi wave of 2014.

The election will also be a litmus test for Amit Shah whose reputation as an electoral wizard has been dented considerably by the gargantuan AAP victory in Delhi. With so much at stake, the man in the BJP crosshairs, however, is not even a member of the JD(U). Continue reading “Amit Shah vs Prashant Kishor: Who will be wizard for forthcoming Bihar elections?”

Why Janata 3.0 is doomed to failure

For Scroll.in, 12 November 2014

First they came together against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1977. Then they came together to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. On those occasions it had taken support of the Bhartiya Janata Party (known as Jan Sangh in ’77) to oppose the Congress. Now, India’s hoary socialists want to come together once again to oppose the Bhartiya Janata Party. Continue reading “Why Janata 3.0 is doomed to failure”