Heard in retrospect, Narendra Modi’s 2015 election speeches in Bihar have an ironic ring to them. In the aftermath of the drubbing the National Democratic Alliance received on verdict day, the Prime Minister comes off sounding as if he is mocking himself.
On November 1, just a week before the results, Modi told crowds in Forbesganj that the Bihar outcome would prove all calculations wrong and would be so emphatic that it would be remembered as a turning point in the way Indian States voted.
He was right – except it was the Mahagatbandhan (MGB) that proved all punditry as well as opinion and exit polls wrong by comprehensively defeating the Modi-led NDA. The election might prove to be a turning point too – not for reasons Modi cited but in triggering Mahagatbhandan-like experiments in other States.
Modi said Bihar’s voters were watching the campaign minutely because this election was about `development’. Again Modi turned out to have spoken the truth. The people of Bihar voted for development – but it was for a more genteel, everyday kind of development that Nitish Kumar had brought about by reaching electricity to rural homes, incentivising girl child education and providing a safer environment for urban women.
In an October 12, 2015 article in The Mint newspaper, titled, `How Bihar has fared under Nitish Kumar,’ 1 Manas Chakravarty described as “commendable” the State’s development under Kumar. Chakravarty presented six charts that showed that while Bihar continued to be among India’s poorest States, the last decade had been one of improvement in all indicators for the State - not just measured by its own previously dismal record but even compared to other States.
Significantly, Chakravarty noted that the Bihar government’s development spending had been focused on the social sector and capital expenditure.
A 2012 report of the Institute of Human Development, sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme, expressed cautious optimism for Bihar’s future. 2
“There is widespread perception of improvements in income, employment and living conditions over the last decade, similar for all caste and class groups except for housing where the sense of improvement is stronger among better off groups. The perception of this improvement is much stronger than 10 years ago, and especially compared with the early 1980s when the majority of people perceived deterioration rather than improvement. There is much less agreement about improvements in health conditions, reported negatively by a substantial minority.
“Some innovative programmes for girls have worked rather well, although still the coverage is small because of their introduction in recent years. In particular the girls’ cycle scheme seems to have helped in increasing the enrolment of girls in secondary schools.
“There has been considerable expansion in literacy over the years with now over 60 per cent of the population being literate, although Bihar still remains the least literate State in the country. School infrastructure has expanded considerably with all villages (except one) having a primary school. The enrolments in lower grades for both boys and girls have increased to significantly high levels. Consequently, literacy rates of the lower age groups have sharply improved even for backward castes, lower classes and women.”
In all his rallies, Modi threw questions at his audience, forcing them to give the answers he wanted. This Q & A format had worked brilliantly in the 2014 general election. He thundered and they roared back. But in the State election, the same format looked frayed from overuse and the response was invariably tepid. For instance, Modi would remind people of Kumar’s promise that he would bring electricity to rural homes failing which he would not campaign in the State election. “ Bijli Aaayee? Bijli Aaayee? ” (Did you get electricity?), Modi would ask in a half-mocking, half- theatrical style, that has come to be identified with him.. But despite the coaxing and cues, the audience would either not respond or reply with a feeble “no”.
In truth, the electricity situation in Bihar had improved under the Kumar Government.
A November 3, 2015 pre-result report in The Financial Express argued that regardless of which way the verdict went, Bihar’s achievements under Kumar would remain noteworthy: 3
“Results of the fiercely fought Assembly elections in Bihar will be out on November 8. Whatever that may be, it can’t be gainsaid that with Nitish Kumar at the helm, the State, for long synonymous with backwardness and maladministration, has forged ahead. (However) Under Kumar’s leadership, the State has seen stronger GDP growth; it has consistently beaten national growth in more recent years, more immune than the nation as a whole to the persistent demand slump in the post-global crisis period. While physical and social infrastructure improvement has lately been visible, the State’s power deficit has reduced sharply in the last two years as the peak availability of power has grown from 1,500 MW in 2010 to about 2,700 MW now.
“Of course, per capita electricity consumption remains much lower at 144 kWh compared to the national average of 927 kWh, underlining the need for accelerated capacity augmentation. Though the State’s network of national and State highways have significantly expanded, it continues to be well below national average at 175 km per lakh population compared with national average of 388 km. Despite such weak physical infrastructure, the State has shown some progress in social indicators. There’s a steady decline in infant mortality rate, which is now almost in line with the national average and maternal mortality ratio too has declined considerably, although it still needs to catch with the pan-India average…”
Unsurprisingly, pre-election polls and surveys, though they fluffed the final results, uniformly reported high appreciation for Kumar who was also most people’s choice for Chief Minister. Modi of course failed completely to see which way the wind was blowing. A November 10, 2015 report based on post-poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and featured in The Indian Express captured this failure 4 . Headlined “Voters had better image of Bihar than Modi painted,” the report attributed the MGB’s victory to a combination of development delivery, Kumar’s image and chemistry among the MGB allies. The report said Modi continued to be popular in Bihar but “… the outcome has been in spite of Modi’s popularity and that could happen only because Nitish and his GA met Modi halfway through on Modi’s own turf — governance and development.”
“Modi did everything initially to project BJP as a party of promise and hope. That line did not work much. Both in subjective terms — voter perceptions — and in terms of a more formal economic and performance-related data, the 10 years of Nitish government were years of performance fuelling more expectations. To the question whether their household economic condition has improved or deteriorated during last five years, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said it had improved while less than one in every ten said it had deteriorated (with another one-fourth saying that it remained the same). This positive assessment is further underscored by the fact that against one in every ten respondents who said that there was “no development at all” in last five years, one in every four felt that there was a “lot of development.”
“And then there is the perception also that Bihar is doing well. In 2014, much was said about aspirations. Generating aspirations and an expectation that those aspirations would be fulfilled is an important part of the politics of development. How does Nitish fare on this aspect? Asked to place Bihar on a ladder of 1 to 10 where 10 represents least developed States and 1 represents most developed States, a large number of Bihar’s voters saw Bihar moving clearly towards the category of developed States — a large number of respondents saw Bihar either on fifth step or above that.”
In other words, Modi got it completely wrong when he sold himself as a man of `development’ as against the MGB which he said remained stuck on caste and communal issues. From a Bihar perspective, the vikas purush (development man) was Nitish Kumar.
If anyone consciously brought caste and communalism into the campaign, it was Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat asked for a review of affirmative action to sharp reaction from Kumar and Lalu Prasad. It was the most impolitic thing to say in the middle of elections and at that about a State that needed affirmative action for uplift. Modi attempted to neutralise Bhagwat by communalising quota benefits. He accused Kumar of wanting to slice off reservation from Dalits and OBCs and hand it over to minorities. “ Nitishji, Laluji Jawab do, jawab do ,” (Nitish and Lalu answer me) he said.
When this failed, he brought cow and beef into the campaign. Speaking in Begusarai on October 8, he said that in Gujarat people worshipped the cow and that is how it had become India’s top State in milk production. But in Bihar, Lalu Yadav had insulted his own people, the Yadhuvanshis (Lord Krishna is believed to have been a Yadhuvanshi or Yadav) by suggesting that they ate “something” distasteful to them. “ Woh kya khaate hain? (what do they eat?), Laluji mere Yadhuvanshiyon ka aisa apmaan mat karo ” ( Laluji don’t insult my Yadhuvanshis).
Anything Modi said worked inversely to the MGB’s advantage. Addressing a rally in Purnea on November 2, he surveyed the crowds and said they had come in such large numbers from a district which until recently had been “naxal-affected”. It obviously did not strike the Prime Minister that he was suggesting an improvement in the “naxal” situation which was actually a compliment to Kumar.
Modi’s taunts and assumptions backfired on him. In forbesganj, he predicted that voters would punish those seen as 'Arrogant': " Bhaiyion Aur Bahnon, Bihar Ke Log Ahankaar Sahan Nahi Karte " (My Brothers and Sisters, the people of Bihar do not tolerate arrogance).
Well, the people of Bihar did punish those they saw as arrogant.
In the Purnea rally, he declared that this time Bihar would celebrate a double Diwali. One on November 8, the day of results, and another three days later on actual Diwali day.
“Will you celebrate two Diwalis or not?’ he asked. It was indeed a double Diwali but for the MGB.
2. ^ Institute for Human Development. 2012. Social and Economic Change in Rural Bihar and the Emerging Policy Framework - Summary of Main Findings . Last Accessed November 21, 2015.
3. ^ Shastri, Sandeep, Suhas Palshikar, and Sanjay Kumar. 2015. Bihar post-poll survey: Voters had better image of Bihar than PM Modi painted . November 10. Last Accessed November 21, 2015.