Even more than the crushing defeat which the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered in Delhi, its setback in Bihar will hurt it a great deal more not only because of Bihar’s greater importance as an electoral arena but also because of the huge emphasis which the party had placed on the contest.
Perhaps to avert the demoralizing effect of a second successive defeat in an assembly poll, the BJP used all its supposed assets to register a victory with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing nearly 40 rallies, which is likely to remain a record of its kind in the foreseeable future, and deputing as many as 14 cabinet ministers to campaign in the state even if, so far as political importance is concerned, they are mostly non-entities.
Party president Amit Shah may be an exception in this context but he apparently shot the party in the foot by saying that a victory for the ‘mahagathbandhan’ or the Grand Alliance of the Janata Dal-United, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress will be celebrated in Pakistan.
This puerile attempt to depict the anti-BJP alliance’s supporters — Muslims — as anti-nationalist evidently backfired. Just as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion about a review of the quota policy was effectively used by the alliance to portray the BJP as intrinsically pro-upper caste who have never liked the policy of reservations.
Not to be left behind, Modi himself added fuel to the fire by snidely suggesting that the alliance, if it won, would take away some of the quotas meant for the backward castes to give them away to the Muslims.
But it may not be these petty games alone which let down the BJP. There are two other factors which undoubtedly cut the ground from under the party’s feet.
One is the murderous activity of the Hindu Right ranging from the killing of rationalists to the lynching of suspected beef-eaters, which have persuaded the artistes of various professions to return their awards in protest against the prevailing climate of intolerance.
The other is the overweening arrogance of the BJP leaders, which was demonstrated by Subramanian Swamy’s advice to the government to sack the Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan for echoing the grievances of the writers – who have done "nothing for the country".
Even a maverick like Swamy could not directly criticize President Pranab Mukherjee for voicing sentiments similar to those of the disaffected intelligentsia. But this was done in the cyber world by the so-called Internet Hindus – a section of the Hindu Right – who recalled Mukherjee’s association with the Congress.
The party’s increasing arrogance was displayed in a milder form by pro-BJP film star Anupam Kher, who called himself a patriot in the context of the protests by the writers, hinting that the latter did not answer to that description.
For Modi’s critics, the journey downhill for him and his party has begun. The BJP’s hope that Bihar will pave the way for further successes in the east, including in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, has been comprehensively nullified.
Few would have expected, even after the Delhi defeat, that Modi’s "magic" would start fading so soon. In retrospect, his mistakes seem obvious. He might have had a chance if he hadn’t tried to ride two horses at the same time – allowing the RSS to plant its men in various institutions (and failing to rein in the saffron militants) while claiming that he is solely for inclusive development and extolling the country’s diversity even as some of his ministers, like Mahesh Sharma, say the opposite.
The excruciatingly slow pace of development or "prudent gradualism", to quote the well-known economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, is probably another reason for the growing popular disenchantment with his rule.
Modi may believe that the reforms are not a sprint but a marathon. But for today’s impatient generation, only quick results are of value.
The Bihar outcome may not mark the end of development, for Nitish Kumar, if not Lalu Prasad Yadav, knows the importance of bijli, sadak and pani for the average citizen.
The Bihar chief minister also knows that the Grand Alliance has won not only because Lalu Prasad roped in the backward caste votes but also because of Nitish Kumar’s enthusiasm for development and good governance, which is why it was said about him during the election that he did a lot for Bihar (‘bahut kaam kiya’).
At the same time, there is little doubt that investors, especially the foreigners, will see the Bihar results as a blow against the Indian growth story if only because there are elements among the winners – Lalu Prasad, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi – who bank on caste-based politics and socialistic ideas for their parties to move forward. Even Nitish Kumar believes in introducing quotas in the private sector, the surest way to discourage investment.
In the end, Modi let himself down after a great beginning because he doesn’t seem to know how to suppress the extremists and advance his own agenda of moderation.