Courtesy: Ranjeet Kumar/The Hindu
Nitish’s governance record, Modi’s empty promises sealed saffron alliance’s fate
The landslide victory of the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance of Nitish-Lalu-Congress) in the Bihar polls, with almost 180 out of 243 seats in the assembly, has conspicuously drawn the attention of the entire nation. No other election for a provincial legislature of India may have been watched as closely as this one. In May 2014, after the overwhelming victory of the saffron coalition in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, and in some subsequent provincial elections (such as Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir), the BJP appeared as an invincible force. Even though it lost the Delhi assembly elections, the party’s majoritarian Hindutva offensive went on to create an atmosphere of fear across the country. Communalist virulence was on the rise as the Bihar poll dates came closer. Hoodlums, including saffron lawmakers and ministers, became dangerously intrusive—to the extent of lynching a person rumoured to have a different food habit. Killers of writers and artists were roaming free while autonomous institutions like the Sahitya Akademi were displaying slavish submission before the regime, to the extent of not daring to call a condolence meeting for the victims or condemn the murderers.
Such a scary context made people watch the Bihar polls with bated breath. For most people, even outside Bihar, the very ‘Idea of India’, as Rabindranath Tagore put it, was at stake. Hence, the Bihar verdict on November 8, 2015, brought huge relief to everyone who believes in the historically evolved liberal, plural civilizational ethos of the Indian subcontinent. Still, it doesn’t mean that communalization of Bihar’s society has come to a halt.
Nitish, Lalu balance caste equation
In the poll run-up, observers, reporters, and informed insiders said the incumbent chief minister, Nitish Kumar, seeking his third term, retained his popularity even though a section disapproved of his alliance with Lalu[i]. The reported disapproval had to do with the apprehension that Lalu may not let Nitish continue with his development work. This apprehension was felt more among the educated middle classes, mostly comprising the upper castes and trading communities--the core base of the BJP. The RJD-JDU alliance had already demonstrated a strong performance in the assembly by-elections by winning 10 out of 15 seats. Moreover, this was something the Mahagathbandhan could read well in advance; the contents of the speeches delivered by its leaders in their Patna rally of August 30 made it too evident. They, sort of, almost abandoned the upper castes, the traditional hegemons, pegging the proportion of electoral nominees from this social segment down to 15%, which is equal to their population in Bihar. This realization dawned more decisively after the July 25 rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Muzaffarpur, supposedly a strong base of the upper castes, particularly Bhumihars, who are supposed to have benefitted much from Nitish’s tenure. Yet, they deserted Nitish after he broke his alliance with the BJP in June 2013[ii].
The Mahagathbandhan has reportedly secured around 42% of votes. Except 1957, never did any party/coalition secure such a high percentage of votes in Bihar’s assembly elections. An obvious interpretation of this mandate is that backwards, dalits and minorities, and a huge proportion of women across castes and classes displayed massive consolidation to the extent that despite the chipping in of votes by the Left Front, the Third Front and BSP candidates, the Mahagathbandhan won, in many cases with emphatic margins. The popular endorsement and appreciation of good governance and socially inclusive development under Nitish was loud and clear. Even those who were openly going to vote for other groups had no hesitation in making public their acknowledgement of and gratitude to the Nitish administration. Schoolgirls cycling on good roads were the strongest testimonies of governance and educational uplift. More significantly, the 50% reservations for them in the local bodies testified to the political empowerment of women. This was further burnished by the manifesto promising 35% reservation for women in public employment. The enhanced supply of electricity added to Nitish’s charisma. Not inappropriately, he carries the nickname Sushasan Babu (Mr Good Governance).