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.
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.
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”.