(First published in Quartz, 8 November 2015.)
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.