I can’t get myself excited about the assembly election in Bihar where polling began today. This is a strange feeling for an election junkie like myself who has spent more than three decades tracking elections professionally, politically, and passionately.
It is not just fatigue. Nor is it because, initially, the outcome seemed predetermined; I can’t get myself excited even after the race has evidently got closer. I do realise that this election is not bereft of consequence. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) forming the government in Bihar, or failing to do so in this first post-Covid election, could make a difference to how the Narendra Modi government at the Centre conducts itself for some time. I am curious about the outcome but not so invested in the process.
Here is why. This assembly election in Bihar matters less than ever before on three counts. First, as compared to the recent past, Bihar matters less to our national life. Second, state politics matters less to national politics. And third, mere conducting of elections, victories, and losses matter less to the fate of our democracy.
Bihar is no longer the epicentre
Bihar has occupied a unique position among the states in the ‘Hindi heartland’. The only state in this belt to have a distinct cultural, linguistic and political identity, Bihar has been seen as the epicentre of north Indian politics. Ever since the days of the JP movement, Biharis have prided themselves on being the initiators of any transformative movement. Bihar elections anticipated much of what happened in the rest of the Hindi heartland. Assembly elections in 1990 and 1995 foreshadowed the rise of Mandal politics in the country. Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar’s victories in 2005 and 2010 signalled fatigue with the promise of social justice minus governance, and heralded the coming of the “Bijli, Sadak, Pani” phase of electoral politics.
For the last ten years, Bihar is not leading, but catching up with the ‘Hindutva’ wave in the rest of north India. The social coalition of upper castes with some ‘lower’ OBCs (Other Backward Classes) is a formula first tried by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh. Old-style Mandal politics has faded away, without a coherent replacement. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s attempt, this time, to staple some upper caste voters to its Muslim-Yadav combine does not appear to be a new and viable model.
Will unemployment become the key electoral issue this time? Will this be replicated in other states? Unless that happens, I must disappoint my Bihari friends and conclude that Bihar is no longer the pioneer in north Indian politics. This election would tell us something about Bihar, not much outside.
State politics no longer the principal arena
The second reason is more general and applies to all state elections these days. I am sure TV news discussions and debates will hype it up by reading the ‘mood of the nation’ in whatever verdict comes up in Bihar. But that is because our language of political analysis is anchored in old reality. For about quarter of a century, from 1990 till 2013, politics at the state level was the key to understanding national politics. The outcome of the national election was nothing but a sum-total of state-level verdicts. In sharp contrast to the politics of 1970s and 1980s, when people voted in state elections as if they were electing their Prime Minister, they later began voting in Lok Sabha elections as if they were choosing their Chief Minister. Professor Suhas Palshikar and I characterised it as the rise of state as the “principal arena” of politics.
All that changed with 2014. Since then, the trends and patterns of state elections are no guide to what could happen in a national election. We are in an era of “ticket-splitting”, where the same voter can vote differently for different levels of elections, even when voting for both on the same day. In 2019, voters in Odisha favoured the BJP in the Lok Sabha election, while reposing their confidence in the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the assembly election on the very same day. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was comprehensively rejected in the Lok Sabha election, only to be voted back to power with a thumping majority in Delhi a few months later.
The same applies to Bihar. If the BJP does well, there would be loud claims about endorsement for PM Modi, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy (and who knows, the Chinese occupation as well!). Expect the reverse if the BJP fares poorly. But much of that is empty rhetoric. This election might tell us something about the mood of the Bihari voter at the state level, but not much about their preference at the national level, which is what really matters.
Also read: ‘Nitish hatao’ chorus grows louder in Bihar
Elections no longer the happening site
The third reason is perhaps the most painful to record. Elections, at the state or national level, are no longer pivotal to our political life. In the life of our democracy, elections have played a more important role than most other countries. Since our public institutions have been generally very weak, elections have remained almost the sole bridge that connects people with power. That is why elections were the most happening site in our democracy, the moment for occasional but real exercise of popular sovereignty.
Recall the dramatic elections of 1977, 1980 and 1984. Or the political upheaval of the 1990s where state and national governments lost power regularly. Elections settled the fate not just of political leaders, parties and governments, but also determined social hierarchies as well as local relations. The carnival-like character of Indian elections showed that this ritual was over-burdened. Hence, the national obsession with counting day TV programmes.
This began changing after 2004. Elections became more of a routine exercise, which mattered immensely to the candidates and parties, but did not reflect deeper trends. Gradually, elections were more about money, media, and management than about masses. People’s perception of the government and of its main leader continues to matter, but that is all there is to elections.
This trend has intensified since 2014. As the BJP became more and more focused on winning elections at all costs, elections were emptied out of their larger significance. It’s now all about the election machine and media management. Today, elections tell you as much about the deeper current of public opinion and attitudes as the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) exam tells you about the innate intelligence and learning ability of a student.
More importantly, elections are no longer the registers of resistance to the powers-that-be. It is increasingly unlikely that a serious counter to the hegemony of the BJP will come through elections. Just as Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian streak after 1971 was challenged by the Gujarat and Bihar movement, the growing authoritarian tendency today is similarly unlikely to be challenged in the electoral arena. We must look to street protests and movements for any signs of resistance. And it may not begin with Bihar this time.
Assembly elections in Bihar used to be a barometer of Indian democracy. It reflected the democratic upsurge of the socially disadvantaged. The Bihar 2020 election is just about “kaun banega CM (who will be the CM)”. Unless you are overly invested in this question, you could just wait for the afternoon of 10 November for the final tally. That’s what I plan to do.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.