Reading the Elections in Bihar

By Anjum Altaf

Could the 2015 state election in Bihar signify anything about the future of politics in India? It could, and I want to draw out that possibility by linking this analysis to a previous one related to the equally surprising outcome in Delhi earlier in the year (Electoral Choices). Very briefly, the point made was that while the BJPs share of the vote between the elections of 2014 and 2015 in Delhi remained the same, about a third, its share of the seats dropped sharply from 52 percent to 4 percent. This, it was argued, was a vagary of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of election in vogue in a very few countries in which the candidate with a simple plurality of the votes in a constituency is declared the winner.

Now look at the parallels in Bihar between the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2015 state elections. For the BJP, the share of votes dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent while its share of seats dropped from 55 percent to 22 percent. For the RJD, the share of votes dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent but the share of seats increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. For the JD-U, the share of votes increased from 16 percent to 17 percent while the share of seats increased from 10 percent to 29 percent.

It is clear that while the vote shares remained relatively stable, the share of seats was much more volatile. Once again, the outcome was dependent on the idiosyncrasy of the FPTP system. The simple explanation is that in 2014 the RJD and JD-U votes were divided while in 2015 they were pooled.

This highlights very starkly the ugly underside of the FPTP system in a country like India and the almost exclusive focus it directs towards the making and breaking of electoral coalitions by foul means or fair. This was clear even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where the BJP engineered communal tensions in the swing states of UP and Bihar to break opposing coalitions. It became even clearer in the 2015 state elections in Bihar. As soon as the BJP felt its development plank failing to resonate with voters it fell back on the tactic of attempting to split the opposition by lighting communal fires. First, the task was outsourced to the second-tier leadership which came up with some truly bizarre scenarios but when the margin continued to shrink the sab ka saath Prime Minister himself weighed in with references to the appeasement of some communities at the expense of others. In doing so, he became a fellow traveler, very ironically, of none other than Bibi Netanyahu with the latter’s fear mongering of the other community voting in droves and even being responsible for the Holocaust itself.

Be that as it may, our emphasis here is less on the collateral damage and more on the likely implication of the Bihar outcome for the future of electoral politics in India. Now that it has become obvious beyond doubt that the way to best the BJP is by putting together strong coalitions, one is quite likely to see a repeat of the same in elections to come. Here, one must note that the stability of the winning coalition in Bihar required that personal egos be set aside – the RJD agreed up front to yield the leadership to the JD-U and the once-mighty INC was content with being a junior partner.

While this could set the pattern in the state elections to come, there is no straightforward extrapolation to elections to the Lok Sabha where one might be faced with the incongruous situation of not having a single party with a significant national following. The INC has already been decimated and there are no signs of its early revival. The Left parties are also on the ropes. If the BJP loses popularity by virtue of faltering on its development promise, which is quite likely given the mismatch between the urgency of expectations and the time it takes to turn around a country of the size of India, there will be not a single party remaining with a national mandate. Even if there is partial success on the development front, the model the BJP has adopted of economic growth delinked from social welfare does not augur well for its popularity. This could well be a repeat of the ‘Shining India’ debacle.

If this scenario of the absence of any party with a national mandate does transpire one could foresee an India of stable regional parties attempting some very unwieldy coalitions at the center. It is difficult to say at this time whether that would work or not. Quite intriguingly, it could take India back to its norm of being a landmass governed by many quasi-independent rulers tied together in shifting arrangements. After all, in its very long history, India has only really been united for brief interludes under Ashoka, Akbar, and Victoria. The Victorian legacy has now had a seventy-year hangover. Has the pendulum begun to swing the other way?

We will find out sooner rather than later. One thing to watch would be the strategy of the BJP from here on. From a rational perspective one might think it would read the tea leaves and adjust towards a more inclusive and welfare-oriented stance. But politics is rarely ever rational. It is more than likely that the BJP would harden its stance while simultaneously becoming unable to control the fringe elements it has unleashed as part of its tactics. If that happens, not only might there be a regression to the mean, it could be accompanied by a lot of unpleasant tremors.

Let us hope better sense prevails. India’s strength is its civil society and its remarkable response to the unraveling of the social fabric gives hope that some corrective action, whose exact nature is unclear at this time, would right the situation before it swings too far out of control.

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  • Shreekant Gupta
    Posted at 04:23h, 14 November Reply

    Thanks for this excellent analysis. I greatly enjoyed reading as I do most of your posts. Please keep them coming.

  • Harbans Mukhia
    Posted at 04:33h, 15 November Reply

    Hope is our best friend. Hope and the proven fact that the illiterate Indian electorate being the most discriminating given the options and will never allow itself to be taken for granted by anyone. However, the dilemma (if such) before the BJP is that if it even dilutes its Hindutva core, it loses the formidable organisational support from its master, the RSS; and if it goes on with the RSS agenda without even the semblance of vikas, it loses electoral support. Let us remember that it received only 31% of the votes cast in 2014, that is about 22% of the total electorate or perhaps 15% of the Indian populace. So, nothing is lost. Hope is alive and kicking !

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 13:12h, 15 November Reply

    See the following for early indications:

    “Taking a cue from the massive victory of the Grand Alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said on Sunday such a tie-up was possible in the State where Assembly elections are due in early 2017.”

  • Vikram
    Posted at 00:08h, 27 November Reply

    The dominant paradigm you have used to make historical comparisons is that of region. This was reasonable, since with its abundant supply of water and arable land, plus the long coastlines with which to trade, the subcontinent could easily produce the kind of surplus needed to produce relatively strong pre-modern states. Thus creating a far-flung empire required astute alliance-making, the ability to share power and a good deal of luck. The combination of all three, was of course, quite rare and did not endure for long.

    But I dont think this paradigm applies today. India’s regional parties arent really regional. They are caste based parties, whose clans occupy a large region within a state. Even the ‘Tamil’ parties fall in this category. Therefore I doubt the Bihar ‘model’ can be replicated elsewhere.

    See this breakdown of voters across castes in the Bihar polls:

    It is quite clear that the upper castes and Dalits (two genuinely pan-Indian groups) voted for the NDA. But the numerically plural middle peasantry (Yadavs and Kurmis) voted heavily for the GA, and this plus the Muslim vote carried it through.

    This also illustrates the two main faultlines in Indian politics: the real structural conflict between the middle peasantry striving for status and the Dalits who work on their farms. The fabricated and unnecessary conflict between Hindu UCs and Muslims. The latter unfortunately dominates the English media.

    But it will be much more difficult to replicate the Bihar strategy in a place like UP, where the Dalits are much better organized. Dont be surprised if the BSP and BJP fight the UP elections together (has happened in the past). Goons of the SP have done things as bad, if not worse with Dalits in UP as those of the Sangh Parivar have done with Muslims. So dont place your bets on an SP-BSP alliance.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:12h, 05 September Reply

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