Posted by: John Elliott | November 8, 2015

Narendra Modi and the BJP routed in Bihar state election

Indian politics have today been hit with the biggest disruption since last year’s general election, with prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffering an unexpectedly heavy defeat in the state of Bihar’s assembly polls. 

A close result had been widely predicted, but that proved wrong and a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar, chief minister for the past ten years, has won 178 seats in the 243-seat assembly, while Modi’s BJP-led group has only 58.

The winners Lalu Yadav (left) and Nitish Kumar

The winners – Lalu Yadav (left) and Nitish Kumar

This is a personal defeat for Modi, who addressed about 30 election campaign meetings, far more than is usual for a prime minister in a state election, and was relying for victory on his personal charisma that won him last year’s general election. It is also a significant defeat for Amit Shah, Modi’s abrasive chief aide and president of the BJP, who exemplifies the Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim approach of many leaders both in the party and in the RSS, the ideology-driven parent organisation.

It is also a serious setback for his government, which needed a victory in Bihar to begin to build up its minority position in parliament’s Rajya Sabha (upper house) where members are indirectly elected via the states.

Modi leaves in a few days for a visit to the UK where, next Friday November 13, he will address what was expected to be a celebratory assembly of some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s mammoth Wembley Stadium. He will no doubt still be cheered like a pop star, as he has done at similar spectaculars in other capitals over the past year (though there have been some reports of a backlash). It will be worth watching to see if he shows how he intends to recover his political authority in India.

Modi and Shah ran a divisive campaign, which included trying to rally Bihar’s majority Hindu electorate with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The BJP claims it had a development-oriented agenda, but that did not emerge from most of the campaign speeches at a time when the national focus has been on extremists trying to ban beef eating and restrict freedom of speech.

Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah

The losers – Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah

Nitish Kumar , leader of the Bihar-based Janata Dal United (JDU) party has won a remarkable victory, being voted in as chief minister for a third consecutive term.

The most surprising aspect of the result however is that Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister convicted of massive corruption, has won more seats than Kumar’s party – 80 compared with 71, going up by around 55 whereas Kumar has lost some 45. The Congress Party also did surprisingly well, winning 27 seats, up from just four in the last (2010) state assembly election.

Yadav is disqualified from standing for election or holding political office, but he is still his party’s leader and is lauded for leading a social revolution in the 1990s that empowered his backward Yadav caste. 

This indicates that the election result stemmed from a strong vote by Lalu Yadav’s large Yadav caste and other low castes and Muslims combined with recognition of Kumar’s development record, and concern about the Modi and Shah divisive approach.

Kumar has done an amazing job building roads, bridges, and electric power supplies, as I saw on a visit to the state a week ago. That was specially evident in his first term in office, but he has shown little or no interest in promoting private sector business and entrepreneurship, which the BJP could have been expected to do, had it won.

Kumar therefore has two main challenges. One is to ensure that he and not Yadav’s RJD runs the government – and, linked with that, he attacks corruption which he has failed to do effectively in the past. 

Second, he needs to broaden his development horizons for what is India’s poorest state so that businesses begin to appear along the roads that he has built, and that so far non-existent investment comes in from elsewhere in India. 

The result marks a new low point for Narendra Modi and the BJP, which also suffered a unexpectedly major defeat in Delhi’s assembly elections at the beginning of this year. Modi’s image, and that of the government, has slumped in recent months, partly because of Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric from ministers and other activists that he has failed to curb over the past 12 months.

Few real successes

His government has few lasting successes to chalk up on economic and social development, or on foreign affairs. Modi has launched many campaigns such as Make in India, Digital India, and Clean India, but he has failed to show firm results in reforming the way that India is run, and has developed a reputation for being more interested in personal glory and symbolism than in implementation. That is in stark contrast to his reputation as chief minister of Gujarat before last year’s general election.

He has also failed to build constructive relations with chief ministers of states, including some run by BJP politicians who do not belong to his camp in the party, as well as those from other political parties. The lieutenant governor of Delhi, who reports to Modi’s home ministry and has some key administrative responsibilities, has continually tried to undermine Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the populist Aam Aadmi Party that defeated the BJP earlier this year.

Abroad, Modi has had major successes with more than 20 high-profile foreign trips, such as the one he is about to make to the UK, and he has even been billed in the past few days by Forbes’ magazine as the world’s ninth most powerful person. But there have been few firm investments from tens of billions of dollar promises he has reaped in places ranging from China and the US to Japan and Dubai, and little evidence of real power.

In South Asia, he has squandered much of a constructive approach that he began to adopt last year with India’s neighbours. Government policy on Pakistan has little coherence, and Modi’s successful efforts at establishing good relations with Nepal have turned into a disaster with a blockade of oil and other supplies from India, triggered by a constitutional row in Nepal. India also last week inexplicably lodged a formal complaint at the United Nations for the first time over Nepal’s human rights record.

The impression in all these areas is that the prime minister is not focussing on following through and implementing the announcements he has made. Much will now depend on how he reacts to today’s defeat – whether he reshuffles his ministers and sidelines those who have been the most disruptive, and whether he begins to emerge and act as a statesman and leader.

Perhaps the unkindest remark on television, as today’s results have been emerging, came from Vir Sanghvi, a veteran commentator. Referring to Modi’s UK trip and the overseas Indians’ Wembley Stadium event he said, “He might win in Leicester or Wembley but not in Bihar”.


  1. In a democracy, it is important to accept the verdict, draw the right lessons and move on. A few observations on some points:

    “..Modi and Shah ran a divisive campaign..”
    Both sides guilty of moving away from talk on development.

    “..He has also failed to build constructive relations with chief ministers of states, including some run by BJP politicians who do not belong to his camp in the party, as well as those from other political parties..”

    This is a subjective view. Look at the track record of the previous governments. 18 months is too short a time to come to conclusions on this issue.

    “.. he has developed a reputation for being more interested in personal glory and symbolism than in implementation..”

    This is a subjective view. Look at what the previous rulers were doing? (Came across this link – )

    As regards symbolism, 18 months is too short a time to see implementation of the tasks which he has taken up. For eg., one target was to have toilets in schools & seems to have progressed well though there will always be challenges (eg., water availability) (See link – ) In any case, if Modi doesn’t perform, people will decide in elections in 2019. Looking at the extreme anti-Modi “noise” that emanates from the media outlets, perhaps Modi seems to be on track which if taken to culmination may see his long term presence in government. Perhaps that’s why there is too much negative news.

    “..Much will now depend on how he reacts to today’s defeat – whether he begins to emerge and act as a statesman and leader..”
    This is again a subjective view. It implies he has not been statesmanlike or he has not been a leader till now. The one point where this govt has been actually weak is in prosecuting the corrupt in a vigorous and public way.

    “..Perhaps the unkindest remark on television, as today’s results have been emerging, came from Vir Sanghvi, a veteran commentator..”

    Veteran commentator?? 🙂
    (Came across this link –


  2. John, a good analysis. the best analogy would be like Modi gave us all hopes to change our lives and for the better, but not much has changed except sloganeering and full page ads, one feels and believes that they have been deceived. let us, the doomsayers, also not under estimate the might of the winning duo to deliver. we must wait and watch and keep the powder dry for some time. Both sides have show stoppers, who have brought upon us this malaise. Delhi sucks with snarls on the roads and pollution in the air. nothing nothing nothing has been done by Modi sarkar. gadkari should sort out Dhaula Kuan mess first than talk of the mega money spinners of by passes of delhi

  3. San Man · 4 hrs ago
    It’s absolutely slanderous of John Elliott to claim that Modi ran a divisive campaign – it’s the other side who ran a divisive campaign with constant ethnic-baiting. John Elliott only shows himself as a racially biased journalist.

    Rahul Lodha · 3 hrs ago
    modi did divisive politics in this election and that is why he lost

    Ankit Pandey · National Institute of Science Education and Research · 1 hr ago
    Division in name of caste, religion, reservation, beef, blaming inflation on state governments, name-calling, ridiculous first page ads on all local papers, trying to incite communal riots, thats how they ran their campaign. Nitish was the only leader who actually talked abuot development stuff without fake stories.

  4. ProgressForIndia • 3 hours ago
    Note that BJP’s defeat in Bihar elections is trending on Twitter in Pakistan – as predicted, Pakistanis are celebrating with firecrackers following BJP’s defeat in Bihar.

    What have I learned?
    I’ve learned that a large section of the english media are predatory liars, including John Elliott. It wasn’t Modi who ran a divisive campaign – it was Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party who engaged in non-stop ethnic baiting during this election campaign.

    What have I learned?
    I’ve learned that the media cannot be relied upon to report accurately or impartially – they engaged in naked partisan support for BJP’s opponent Lalu right from the start of this election. Media neutrality and objectivity are absolute myth.

    What have I learned?
    The Left and the Congress Party will stop at nothing to regain power – they will

    What have I learned?
    I’ve learned that Muslim bloc-voting patterns are a fundamental liability to the country, because they will nakedly vote for the most corrupt politicians imaginable.

    • 6 hours ago
    Defeat is pillar of success. Every great Man faces the music of devastating failure and then success comes. The key is whether the lesson is learned?

    In my analysis, this is what our Prime Minister Narendra Modi should do after the devastating loss in Bihar assembly election.

    Prime Minister Modi must have to stop all the below non-issues happening currently in India and should solely focus on development and economic agenda.

    1. Cow Drama 2. Perception of Intolerance 3. Loose Cannon with arrogance and communal statements

    That is the lesson should Prime Minister and his party learns. Then nothing can stop him to return to power in 2019 General election. We all love him and want him to remain in power until he reaches India to the level she deserves.

    Undhyu Patil • 7 hours ago
    I am a busy doc, but once I reach India on wednesday promise shall read ur article after Diwali. Modi has let the poor of India down.

    ProgressForIndia > Undhyu Patil • 3 hours ago
    You’re completely ignorant, of course. Modi himself worked his way up from his poor upbringing. Modi hasn’t let down the poor – Modi has been obstructed in the Rajya Sabha upper house of parliament by the wealthy Sonia Gandhi and her wealthy Congress Party. If you can’t acknowledge that the Congress Party has used its strength in the upper house to block reform legislation, then you’re only acknowledging your ignorance and your state of denial.

    JSA • 12 hours ago
    I am amazed that this author has a deeper understanding of Modi and India than many journalists living in India and authoring political articles. Excellent article. If you really want to see how intolerant has India become, see the comment below.

    SANJIT NEOGI > JSA • 12 hours ago
    Neither Nitish Kumar nor Lalu Prasad Yadav is anti-National that means they hate Anglo-Saxon protestants even more than Modi whom you attempt to defame as Hindu Nationalist.

    john elliott > JSA • 12 hours ago
    thanks JSA – I do live in India (Delhi) and have for more than 20 years, writing earlier for the FT, Economist, Fortune magazine and the New Statesman. And I have done a book now in updated paperback – “IMPLOSION – India’s Tryst with Reality” (thanks for giving me an opening to plug it!)

    ProgressForIndia • 3 hours ago
    John Elliott, your article is a complete misrepresentation of what’s happened in Bihar. What has triumphed here is the Return of Jungle Raj – the return of Lalu Prasad Yadav – due to the politics of fear-mongering by his Yadav clan and Muslims who are determined to label the other guy the hate-monger while giving themselves a clean chit.

    Bihar won’t develop under the worst politician India has ever seen – Lalu Prasad Yadav. It will only get worse and worse – not that the Left minds this, of course. Their goal is not to improve the lives of Indians, but to gain power for themselves by scapegoating those who are more educated and productive, to replace merit with narrow catering to caste. If the Left-wing fear-mongering continues to wreck India’s chances for economic revival, then India simply won’t survive.

    > JSA • 12 hours ago
    Nitish will treat David Cameron same way the way Modi will do. You know nothing of Indian psyche. ha ha ha lol

    I am looking forward Nitish led united opposition vs Modi led NDA in 2019 General Election.

    It may happen, the ambitious Lalu will withdraw support and BJP will offer outside support and Nitish Kumar will return to NDA.

    The bottome-line is you or this author know nothing of Indian regional politics. Just waste of time and space lol

  5. Sadness felt In Tokyo

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