(Sanjaya Baru) To attribute the stunning outcome of the elections to the Bihar state legislature to arithmetic alone – the index of opposition unity, to use the phraseology of the psephologist – would be to miss the woods for the trees. Electoral arithmetic was, to be sure, a factor. Not the only factor. If the en masse migration of the Congress Party vote to the Aam Admi Party in the Delhi assembly elections contributed to Arvind Kejriwal’s massive victory, the coming together of the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vote in the form of the ‘all-in-one unity’ of Mahagatbandhan contributed to the victory of Nitish Kumar. The arithmetic worked.
In the era of television, social media and increased direct communication elections have also become presidential in that voter preferences are increasingly influenced by the leadership on offer. Thus, the May 2014 Lok Sabha verdict was as much a vote for Narendra Modi as it was a vote against Rahul Gandhi. Indian elections are not just about policies, but also personalities.
In 2009 the Lok Sabha vote was for Manmohan Singh and against Lal Krishna Advani. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, in Karnataka and Rajasthan, irrespective of the political parties and policies in play, voters chose specific individuals to head their government. Thus, Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrashekhar Rao and Vasundhara Raje worsted the Congress Party, Siddaramaiah defeated the BJP, Mamata Banerjee defeated the Left Front and so on. In Delhi, the BJP offered the wrong option and lost the elections. In Bihar it offered no option at all.
The Bihar verdict creates a new template for the 2019 elections. The choice will be between Narendra Modi and a potential non-Congress alternative. The Congress will remain a midwife, not the mother of new possibilities.
The challenge now for Prime Minister Modi will be to regain the initiative in New Delhi. Between the stunning defeat in Delhi and the ignominious one in Patna, the Modi government had lost its way. That the ‘aspirational voter’ opted for Nitish Kumar over Narendra Modi suggests that within a year of his historic victory Mr Modi is no longer viewed as the messenger of hope by aspirational India. How does he recover that image?
In seeking to remain the symbol of hope of an aspirational, rising India there are no shortcuts. A relentless focus on development, on the creation of the required social and economic infrastructure of a better and a more equitable life will alone keep hope alive, and political support steady. An economics of hope cannot be constructed on a politics of resentment.
Whatever Mr Modi’s detractors may say, this is the strategy he adopted after 2002 in Gujarat. Mr Modi became the symbol of Gujarati pride by being the agent of the state’s progress. He managed to generate and sustain positive expectations about the future of Gujarat, whatever be the past. That worked for the state and for him. In the period 2004 to 2009 that is precisely what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did. He became the symbol of hope of a better life and of a better status for India in the comity of nations. When Dr Singh lost control over that narrative, he and his party lost the plot and the election.
In analyzing the Bihar verdict it would be meaningless for Mr Modi to ask what went wrong in the campaign. Did the BJP get the arithmetic wrong? Should it have had a chief ministerial candidate leading the campaign? Should the focus have been on development rather than divisive social rhetoric? The answer to all these questions would obviously be in the affirmative. But those questions will not provide the answer to finding the way forward in Delhi.
At the centre, Mr Modi needs course correction. To begin with, a cabinet reshuffle that is more respectful of the verdict of 2014. If there is inadequate talent within the BJP in parliament, bring talented and respected people from outside. Powerful prime Ministers have done that in the past. Greater regard needs to be shown to his urban middle class voters by replacing an impolite Smriti Irani and inducting a distinguished scientist like Anil Kakodkar or an inspiring entrepreneur like Narayana Murthi as minister for human resources development. Within his own party Mr Modi has to empower the likes of Dr Harsha Vardhan over the J P Naddas of the party. A demonstration of greater competence and lesser arrogance by his team would help.
Going beyond appearances, the focus of policy has to be on improving quality of governance at the centre, so that the slogan of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ sounds credible once again. Expectations about growth have started turning positive. Those about governance must do too. The ideological campaigns of the past few months have not just dented the government’s image and diverted public attention, but have made investors more risk averse and cautious. Optimism about the future cannot be generated on the back of sullenness about the past.
Sanjaya Baru is an Indian political commentator and policy analyst, currently serving as Director for Geo-Economics and Strategy at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.