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Bihar election doesn’t reflect what is happening in India or in lives of Indians

Bihar election doesn’t reflect what is happening in India or in lives of Indians

Two weeks ago, I wrote on why I was not excited about the Bihar election. The first response came from Rama Lakshmi, Opinion Editor at The Print, as she read the article: “Must have been quite painful to write this, as a psephologist. It almost sounds like a divorce.” But not many others noticed the argument I was trying to advance. Everyone else I knew was excited about the Bihar polls.

I had made three points. One, Bihar is no longer the epicentre of north Indian politics. Two, state elections are no longer the principal arena for shaping the national mood. Three, elections are no longer pivotal to politics. Now that it’s done and dusted, it is time to revisit and revise the proposition.

Not the epicentre of North

How much did this election reflect what is happening or may happen in the rest of north India? Not much. For one, the party system of Bihar is more fragmented than the rest of the Hindi belt. While most other states have bipolar or tri-polar contests, the highest vote-getter in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), secured just 23.11 per cent votes. Second, politics is not played around the rural-urban divide here. The result brings out the significance of political regions within the state: Bhojpur and Magadh went with the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) while Seemanchal and Mithila backed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But these regions do not reflect any pattern that may throw light on any other state. Finally, the OBC configuration that made Bihar the epicentre of Mandal politics has taken a unique direction. The unique placement of Kurmis, the absence of Dalit consolidation and the rise of extremely backward OBCs (or the EBCs) now make the caste sociology of Bihar politics very atypical.

There is one general lesson, though. This election in Bihar reaffirms the ineffectiveness of older political strategies to take on the hegemony of politics of Hindutva. If anything, Bihar points to a new model of how the dominance of upper castes may be sustained in a post-Mandal era. It also confirms a trend towards Muslim exclusive politics, exemplified by the success of the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the Muslim dominant region bordering West Bengal. The established ‘secular’ practice of mobilising Muslim voters on religious lines has reached its limits. Muslims have started to become sick and tired of being used as hostage to this kind of secular politics.

Not a national verdict

To what extent can we infer national political mood from the outcome in Bihar? Again, very little, because state politics is no more the principal site of political contestation. The NDA had swept all but one seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Bihar, with a whopping vote share of 53.25 per cent. Despite winning the state election, the NDA vote share is down to 37.98 per cent, within one percentage point of the MGB. The NDA nearly lost this election.

Does this indicate popular disapproval of the Narendra Modi government? I am sure most of my political friends would have jumped to this conclusion if the MGB had touched the majority mark. Yet, there is little evidence to support such a reading. If anything, this election again attests to the continuing popularity of Prime Minister Modi. At the same time, it reminds us that even he cannot swing state elections any which way. The NDA edged past the majority mark, but not because of Modi. Nor is there any evidence of Article 370, Ram Mandir, or Sushant Singh Rajput being a factor. The fact is that state politics and national politics have diverged.

While TV anchors persist with the old habit of reading national trends in each state elections, the voters have started treating both these levels differently.

Detached from politics

Finally, how much do elections tell us about politics in this new era? We in India are used to elections being the carnival of democracy, the most happening place in the national political life. It has been at once the site of gauging public mood, framing public policy, forging social coalitions and the moment of course correction of the nation’s collective journey. I have often compared Indian elections to an over-crowded bridge that carries too much load that should have been carried by other democratic institutions. Elections have been one of the few functioning mechanisms through which democracy was kept alive in India.

This is no longer the case. As we move towards an electoral authoritarianism, the function of elections is undergoing a crucial shift. Autonomous constitutional authorities, including the judiciary, are now more or less aligned to the demands of the Modi era. Institutions like Parliament have been reduced to a mere formality. Mainstream media is subservient, more so than before due to over-dependence on government patronage in the Covid economy. Any form of protest has been made so costly – just witness the continuing witch-hunt of anti-CAA protesters or that of independent journalists – that only the exceptionally courageous would take it up. That leaves elections as the only legitimate site of political contestation. The Modi government is happy to let that be, even if it means occasional reverses for the ruling party, as long as elections can be detached from larger issues of politics.

The hollow elections

Just step back and take another look at the Bihar election. This was the first election after the mishandling of coronavirus pandemic and the harshest possible lockdown, sharpest ever shrinkage of national economy and largest Chinese occupation of our territory since 1962. Bihar suffered all the three, more than the rest of the country. The largest contingent of migrant workers walking back home was from Bihar. The state has suffered one of the worst employment crises. Bihar suffered more casualties in the avoidable clubbing of our soldiers at the China border. Did you hear any resonance of these issues in the recently concluded elections? This was the first election after the most wide-ranging changes in labour and farm laws. Were these even debated? Democratic elections have been known to be notoriously ineffective in addressing deep structural issues like poverty or lack of education or health infrastructure. But now we have elections that do not address the most visible and pressing issues of the time.

Once an election is emptied of political significance, detached from the real issues affecting the lives of millions, it becomes a lovely ritual that deludes us into believing that we are practicing democracy. We spend hours and hours discussing how Nitish Kumar was cut to size, whether it was a mistake to allocate 70 seats to the Congress, if it was fatal to allow Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahni to walk out of MGB…

And then we switch to the IPL final.


Author: Yogendra Yadav

Published In: The print

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