BJP’s back to back defeats in Delhi and Bihar – no lessons learnt

Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar
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Bihar assembly election results are out. BJP has lost the second assembly election in a row.

Coincidentally I was in Bihar in February early this year to attend my brother’s wedding when the first defeat – in Delhi assembly elections – had taken place. I had written about BJP losing Delhi elections then.

Based on what I witnessed and experienced during my trip in February, I felt, before the Delhi results were announced, that the BJP was more likely to lose Bihar than Delhi.

I could see that the Janta Parivar was already in campaigning mode then, even though they were in power. BJP was a late starter.

I could see big posters at bus stands put up by Janta Parivar showing cartoons where Narendra Modi was taking away money from poor people (for Lalu Yadav, they would all belong to some particular castes) and giving away to fat businessmen in suit boot.

It appeared funny to us when Rahul Gandhi repeated the same ghisa-pita suit-boot jibe in his rallies, but that messaging was already delivered by the Janta Parivar to the masses.

The message that BJP was anti-poor and thus anti-lower caste (a spin that will be later provided by Lalu) was being hammered for more than a year. I had shared this observation on Twitter after coming back.

Ideally BJP, the opposition party, should have been in campaign mode, but I thought JD(U)-RJD had the first mover advantage. BJP, at that time, appeared to be happy enjoying the Schadenfreude out of Manjhi trolling Nitish Kumar big time.

My personal or professional life didn’t take me to Bihar again and thus all my source of information was secondary ever since, except a couple of phone calls to friends.

I was rather surprised when many in media started predicting that it was going to be a tough fight in Bihar elections. For me, BJP was more likely to lose. Then I thought that maybe Amit Shah, hailed as a master strategist, had taken control of the party and the first mover advantage of Janta Parivar had been neutralized.

Well, results are out today. Forget first, BJP has been pushed to the third spot.

Today I read my own article that I had written in Patna when Delhi election results were announced, and I felt – sorry for the narcissism and immodesty – that most of what I had said about the reasons of BJP’s defeat in Delhi was valid even in Bihar.

It appears that BJP simply didn’t take any lessons from Delhi debacle.

Let me repeat the three broad reasons I had pointed out during Delhi, and explain why they are still valid:

“Communication”

With the mainstream media allergic, if not inimical, to your cause by default, BJP has to put in extra efforts. But as I had felt in February, the party was a late starter.

Everyone is talking about Prashant Kishore now, who seems to have amplified the Janta Parivar or Mahagathbandhan’s communication strategy further.

Well, it’s not like Prashant Kishore, if he were to continue with the BJP, would have helped the party sweep elections, but the party needs to wake up on this issue.

Yes, it was not Kishore’s communication strategy alone that got the 2014 general elections victory to BJP. But it was definitely not the party’s strategy alone that saw it win so big.

2014 was a special case. Modi’s personal charisma, UPA seen as hopelessly corrupt, and millions of individual dreams – a passionate Twitter user, a young entrepreneur, a rejuvenated RSS worker, a hopeful dad, a jobless youth, a Hindu libertarian, et al – culminated in the political crescendo we witnessed on 16th May.

Neither Kishore nor Modi himself can repeat that so soon.

BJP needs to understand this need to communicate with different audiences that voted for them. The same tool or the same strategy will not work for all of those. The party seems unable to communicate beyond the cadre.

I don’t watch much TV news, but I happened to watch one show by NDTV’s Ravish Kumar where he showcased how dozens of young unemployed youth in Ara area of Bihar used to assemble at one place and prepare for competitive exams. Ravish preferred to highlight the fact that all of them were from different castes and religions (great for secularism and harmony) and that they had just one concern – getting a good job.

Most of those young guys said that they liked Modi but were disappointed that there were no job creations as promised by Modi. They said that the banks had not announced fresh vacancies, that government departments were not hiring, and even the biggest employer of the world – the Indian Railways – had not hired in bulk, thus creating jobs.

Come to think of it, this is in direct conflict with Modi’s mantra of “Minimum government, Maximum governance”, but those guys believed that “job creation” meant government hiring more and more people, and they all liked Modi.

That is the diversity of constituencies Modi was able to reach in 2014. Clearly, different communication strategy is needed to communicate to different constituencies as their worldview is different on different topics.

BJP can’t expect a Ravish Kumar to explain to those guys that the concept of job creation went beyond government hiring; and that creating environment conducive to entrepreneurship, improving ease of business, and programs like “Skill India” were part of the job creation agenda.

There is no point calling NDTV or Ravish Kumar biased. They are not supposed to communicate on behalf of BJP. Communication is the party’s problem, and they have to find a solution.

Take this for example. During early stages of campaign, Modi had raised the issue of lack of educational institutes in Bihar due to which Bihari youth had to go out of Bihar to study, causing outflow of money.

Just like JD(U) had started the rather stupid campaign of sending Modi the hair and nail samples of Biharis to prove DNA being same, what if BJP had started a campaign to send Nitish Kumar copies of bills that Bihari students had to pay while studying abroad? That would have been an indirect communication to the likes of students Ravish was talking to.

“Fringe Groups”

This thing appears again. During Delhi, it was Church attacks and Gharwapsi, it was Beef and Intolerance during Bihar.

And as I had insisted during Delhi, this is a part of the “communication” problem.

I won’t be politically correct and put it just as it is. Utterances of such groups are supposed to polarize the voters, and it helps BJP. People making claims that BJP lost due to intolerance chatter or beef controversy are just being politically correct or politically immature.

On the contrary, BJP is reported to have done comparatively better in phases when “polarization” is supposed to have happened.

However, it doesn’t mean polarization becomes a central and legitimate strategy. It helps only in certain areas. The same effect can be achieved though strategies that can work in wider areas and are more legitimate and moral.

Besides, the party should learn from Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar. While Kejriwal gave ticket to the guy who had put communally sensitive posters in Okhla, Nitish left such dirty work of polarization (on caste lines) to Lalu.

And Lalu did so much polarization that he’s now the leader of the largest party in Bihar assembly.

Yes, BJP can’t have the same luxury that is available to Kejriwal or Nitish – where media won’t question them for the acts and statements of their respective “fringes” – in fact, fringe groups based on caste feelings are celebrated and supported by the media – but this art of branding and positioning yourself differently from the fringe has to be learnt.

“Ideology”

Hindutva. It could mean different to different people, but in terms of electoral politics, let me put it simply as uniting Hindus. Not to fight or attack any other religion (which fringe groups appear to be doing appealing to small sections in particular areas), but for a positive cause (which will be hated by the “Idea of India” guys but appreciated by an average Hindu).

BJP failed to argue why Kejriwal’s rise was not good for Hindu unity. In fact, that was very challenging if not impossible; it’s not easy to argue that at all except to politically and ideologically committed guys. To an average Hindu, that will sound ludicrous.

However, it is not that difficult to argue why casteism is against Hindu unity. But this can’t be achieved just by saying “Hey Yadavs and Bhumihars, let’s unite, that Muslim is coming to kill us.” Especially when the media is showing that it’s the Muslims who are being killed for eating beef.

It can definitely not be achieved when RSS chief talks about Reservations. Yes, his statements were twisted, but RSS has to be worse in communication than BJP if they still don’t understand how their statements are twisted by the media. They need to be more astute and practical.

I had talked to a friend of mine in Bihar who happens to be from so-called lower caste and he confirmed that Lalu’s men were successful in communicating to some people in his colony that BJP was against reservations. Many of them were earlier thinking of voting for Modi according to my friend.

Casteism is so strong a factor that I think this was the first time when Modi and Shah were forced to respond to an agenda set by their opposition. Usually, they set the agenda, and the opposition follows.

Both Modi and Shah had to clarify on reservations, while they didn’t care to clarify about Bihari pride which was another agenda that Nitish was trying to set. That was a sign of weakness (forced into responding to an agenda set by opposition), and that gave the hint that perhaps BJP was not confident.

Casteism has been the undoing of Hindutva, and the BJP has to figure out how to tackle this. This is as much an ideological challenge as political. The party has to strengthen the ideology by creating a helpful ecosystem.

“Bihar specific reasons”

Apart from the above three issues, which were present during Delhi elections too, there were some Bihar specific issues that compounded the problem for BJP.

It sounded desperate and lame when Nitish Kumar claimed that Modi had insulted every Bihari’s DNA by mocking his political DNA, but as the campaign progressed, he could make this Bihari vs Baahari (outsiders) a political issue to a smaller extent.

Almost like Modi used to brand aggressive statements by Sonia Gandhi (like ‘maut ka saudagar’) as an attack by an outsider on Gujarati pride, Nitish could turn Modi’s aggressive tone as attack on Biharis. Many BJP supporters too accepted in private that the way Modi had announced the special package for Bihar was not in good taste.

Modi did the right thing by not directly responding to the agenda, but he needed to counter it in different ways. The fact that BJP was not promoting any local leader or using any local star campaigner compounded this problem and gave Nitish Kumar an excuse to further his Bihari vs Baahari agenda. This was not the central reason, but combined with about factors, this too worked against the party.

I think it won’t be exaggeration to claim that ‘achche din’ for BJP has ended and so has the Modi Wave. It is now up to the party to learn from this debacle.

They tried to comfort themselves by thinking that Delhi was a good election to lose (and I agree), however it seems they started believing in conspiracy theories that they deliberately lost Delhi.

No, it was not due to any grand conspiracy, but Delhi was lost due to incompetence, and there were lessons to be learnt from that loss. The party didn’t learn any, and now they have lost Bihar.

If they don’t learn any lessons even now, hmm…