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. Continue reading “Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?”

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. Continue reading “Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point”

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”

Why CNN-IBN Dropped Its Bihar Exit Poll

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 6 November 2015.]

The CNN-IBN news channel had aired promos for its Bihar exit poll through last week. The exit polls, like counting days, are big for all news channels so this was not out of the ordinary. On Friday night though, as polls came to a close in the crucial battlefield of Bihar and every major television channel rolled out exit poll results, CNN IBN did not air the exit poll results it had promised viewers the previous week.

According to multiple sources in the channel, it decided to drop the poll due to inadequate explanations that were forthcoming from its polling partner, an agency called Axis APM. Its results forecast very high numbers for the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance, at 169-183. It said the BJP and its allies would get 58-70 and others would get 3-7. Continue reading “Why CNN-IBN Dropped Its Bihar Exit Poll”

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?”