The Big Lessons from Bihar
Bihar equally divided between NDA and MGB alliance
The election results in Bihar have come as a surprise to many of the progressive and left minded people in the country. Going by the huge response to the energetic election campaign of Tejashwi Yadav followed by the predictions of the exit poll, an expectation had built that the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) alliance of RJD-Congress-Left would be in a position to form government defeating the juggernaut of the BJP led NDA alliance. However, the election results showed that people of Bihar have by and large voted to continue with the old dispensation though with greatly reduced seats for JD(U).
What are the lessons of this election? What conclusions can be drawn from the results of Bihar elections?
One obvious conclusion is the continued support enjoyed by the BJP-RSS under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in so far as it not only bucked the anti-incumbency sentiment but actually improved its seat count significantly to emerge as the undisputed big brother of the NDA alliance in Bihar.
Considering the fact that Chirag Paswan led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) with over 5 per cent votes cut into the support base of the JD(U), the victory is quite impressive by all accounts. With LJP onboard, the NDA alliance could easily have swept the elections as it would have got a roughly 5 percent margin of popular votes over and above the MGB alliance. As of now, both MGB and NDA have secured almost the same level of votes in the elections, with MGB being slightly above at 37.7 percent, while NDA got 37.5 percent of the votes polled.
However, hidden below the obvious conclusions drawn from the election results about the popularity of the NDA alliance in Bihar are two significant outcomes which need close attention. These relate to the performance of the relatively smaller parties- AIMIM led by the feisty Asaduddin Owaisi and the CPI (ML).
One points to the dangers ahead in the increasingly majoritarian and communal political milieu that has taken hold of Indian politics and the other offers a hope for a possible resurgence or resistance to the dangerous path that Indian polity seems to be taking.
The victory of the Asaduddin Owaisi led AIMIM on five seats of the Seemanchal area is significant in so far as it comes from those areas which are considered to be Muslim dominated areas of Bihar. The Owaisi led AIMIM has till now been restricted to certain areas near Hyderabad and a few places in Maharashtra. However recently it has been expanding its presence in several other places.
Bihar was a significant location in its plan to expand its presence across the country where it has remained a marginal and insignificant player.
Looking back at the electoral history of India, ever since the first parliamentary elections, Muslims across the country had never voted for a Muslim party. Closer to the 1950s in the polarised atmosphere in the country in the aftermath of partition, Muslims could have opted for a 'Muslim' party to represent their interest in Parliament. But they never did so. They always voted for the mainstream, non-sectarian, secular parties like Congress, Samajwadi party, RJD, even BJP or whichever party was relevant to protect their interest in the states. The victory of five candidates in the Seemanchal area of Bihar could mark a significant change in the possible direction of Muslim politics in India.
Over the last several years together with the ascendancy of the majoritarian communal politics led by the BJP-RSS combine in India we have seen a gradual retreat of most of the other political parties from taking an explicit and clear position on the issues of minorities.
The mainstream political parties including the Congress have tried to steer clear of any issue that may give BJP a handle to brand them as pro-minority. Whether it was the question of Ram Mandir-Babri Mosque, CAA or NRC, abolition of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, mob lynching and killing of Muslims in the name of religion or 'Love-jihad', political parties have been rather cautious and defensive in not taking a position in favour of Muslims. This clearly indicates the victory of the ideological universe that BJP-RSS combine has sought to build in this country.
It would be naive to believe that the right-wing forces under the leadership of BJP-RSS seriously think in terms of driving away the Muslims from India. They know it is not possible to do with such a vast number of people living in the country as equal citizens for several hundred years. Their game plan clearly is to create a situation where the minorities in the country are forced to live the life of second grade citizens without the usual rights of protest on issues affecting them in any significant manner or safeguards to their culture and religion.
Under the circumstances, organisations like the AIMIM of Asaduddin Owaisi and AIUDF led by Ajmal Khan are gradually being seen as capable and willing to take up Muslim issues in a straightforward and clear manner. Bihar elections point to this regressive and potentially dangerous development in the psyche of the minorities in preferring a religion-based party over those which profess to be secular and non-religious in their approach. Though natural under the circumstances, it may further exacerbate the polarisation of society creating a background of an ethnicity-based democracy in India.
On the other extreme is the significant victory of 12 CPI(ML) candidates in Bihar. The victory shows that the possibility of politics based on struggle on the ground for the causes that affect the lowest sections of society have not been exhausted. In a deeply divided, semi-feudal society of Bihar, CPI(ML) has been able to carve a significant position for itself even while the other mainstream left political parties like the CPI and the CPM have shown a secular decline over the period. Indeed, they never recovered from the consequences of the social justice politics which caught them napping as they continued to ignore social justice as an important sight of the struggle in society.
Though the presence of CPI(ML) is localised and limited, it shows the possibility of an alternative politics to exist even in a place like Bihar which is otherwise riven with caste politics and other regressive elements that mark our polity today.
Coming back to the voting pattern seen in Bihar, it becomes abundantly clear that people of this country have given a long rope when it comes to blaming the government for the crisis that was precipitated by the coronavirus. Many commentators have pointed out that a large number of people in Bihar looked at the corona crisis as a curse of God. Once it was accepted as a curse of God, the gross mismanagement and sufferings encountered by the migrant people returning to their homes after the pandemic hit their places of work also lost the sharpness of reaction and consequently retribution through voting in the elections.
The opposition parties need to learn a lesson from this incident. Any such epidemic or natural disaster and its mismanagement will have a limited potential to turn people’s anger against the government. The opposition should realise that there is no substitute to a long-term and sustained struggle at the grassroots level coupled with political education of the people and effective communication, if they wish to come back to the centre-stage of politics in India.
The election results in Bihar have proved that an effective challenge can be mounted against the BJP which is flush with unlimited amounts of money and support from the government machinery. Despite losing the battle for ruling Bihar, RJD has emerged as the largest party in terms of number of seats as well as vote share which stands at 23 percent, decisively more than the vote share of BJP or JD(U) individually.
Tejashwi Yadav was able to galvanise the people of Bihar towards a narrative of employment, development and economic issues which completely bypassed the one which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP stalwarts tried to set up for Bihar. Issues like Ram temple, Article 370, CAA-NRC did not cut much ice except for a small percentage of upper caste people who seem to have hitched their band wagon to BJP permanently.
On the other hand the bankruptcy of the champions of social justice like Chirag Paswan and Mayawati is also exposed thoroughly in these elections. It is naive to believe that the oppressed classes are automatically predisposed towards opposing ruling classes. It is evident that a significant portion of the Dalit community as well as smaller communities within the OBC are now with the BJP.
The internal contradiction of the called social justice plank is becoming obvious with each election within the Dalit and OBC communities. The disenchantment of the more dispossessed classes castes and a feeling that the benefits of reservation and exercise of power when they hold the reins of the government are being cornered disproportionately by certain castes is being effectively capitalised upon by the BJP.
While the struggle for social dignity and fight against caste oppression remains important in India and is likely to continue to be so in the near future, there is a need to re-imagine and broaden the vision of social justice to include larger sections of society in its fold.
It would be wrong and self-defeating to exclude a hawker, a rickshaw puller, a factory worker or an office boy laid off from work due to the pandemic in Delhi from the ambit of social justice solely based on their caste. Building a larger alliance of people at the receiving end of this oppressive and exploitative and iniquitous system is imperative if we need to fight the looming threat of an even bigger enemy which is moving decisively in dismantling the very foundations of the Indian society.