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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.


Also read: Has Nitish done enough? Bihar’s women, unhappy about jobs & alcohol, set to answer key question


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.


Also read: BJP-JDU will surely win Bihar election, but something did change in past 3 months


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.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, there is no reason for excitement for many,not only for individual. Kanihya kumar is out of frame, congress is at 5th place, govt is controlling naxals and Maoist well, use of EVM has stopped booth capturing and bundled voting etc etc. To accept other factors like (i)not much incumbency against ruling party and(ii,) no support for hopeless opposition and their immature and childish leadership, requires lot of guts and understanding. Such acceptance may put ones secular and progressive credentials in danger. So such lethargy towards the election is quite obvious.

  2. आभारी हूँ योगेंद्र. बताही दिया आखिर कौन जीत रहा है.तो अनुत्साहीत होना तो लाजमी है.गेट वेल सून

  3. Yadav used to be so logical and clinical earlier before he became obsessed with his brand of politics, which has not worked neither with AAP or on his own. Is it sour grapes now? What the Galawan incident did for Bihar’s reputation as fighters under the most demanding circumstance, none has been able to do it for decades and decades. They have it in them to succeed, what they need is an able leader who can look beyond the same ghisa pita narrative of last four decades. But Yadav wants to stall it all by street protests and movements! I think he has passed his sell by date.

  4. The Bihar election is a foregone conclusion for those who know that the cast politics and divisions in opposition will be effected by Pakistan, China security issues with the Ramanandir dispute outcome. If that would not be sufficient, then voting fiddle of some form will ensure, known to be the last wild card used every time will leave the King into the thrown as usual. Buying elected few would adjust the final result. So it is less attractive. The media is making sure the focus remains on the King no matter what so the opposition is a young lad with virtually no high standard education and the CM protected bu proxie power. The promise of 2024 and 2040 India becoming the third economic power is enough for the King’s supporters to get the unemployed and farmers and failed businesses that all is not only well but better days to come yet.

  5. YY doesn’t believe in elections.
    YY is suggesting that the only means left is taking to streets.
    He thinks voters is stupid and influenced by media.
    He liked the anarchy on 1990s, when the CM of those days is convicted by Supreme Court of india.
    He likes dynasties to continue coz he was the chief mentor of a dynast called Pappu.
    Conclusion:
    Don’t vote, hit the streets and if you vote get Lallu dynasty in again.
    Or get the Naxalites to run the state.

  6. The article is grossly personified and ricochets rigid beliefs. On three counts it is off the mark. One. It ignores the fact that more and more people participate in the elections by casting their votes. They do it because they believe that their vote matters and it does. Despite the dire COVID-19 conditions the voting percentages are encouraging and reassuring the peoples faith in the process. Two. That people vote differently in various elections is another great boost for the whole politics of it. Nothing can now be taken for granted. There is a deliberate evaluation by the voter and divergence in the pattern brings out the emergence of the new Indian voter. Three. If castes and religion were the sole binders of the alliances then the electoral conclusions would have been constant. It is not. .Even if there are caste equations they must get an approval of a winnability appeal.
    I feel that YY has attempted to oversimplify the matters related to the Indian Voter. The voter can not be compelled to see from the prism of perspective of the so called intelligent. Nor is the voters view and opinion in anyway inferior to that of YY. In fact it is this over intellectualizing and attitude of condescend that has lead to the incongruent alignment of the political outcome and what is written. Indian democracy is thriving and robust even if the outcomes are not to ones liking or excitement. Respect the VOTER and his vote.

  7. कोई हार रहा है ईससे जादा कोई जीत रहा है
    ईससे भयभीत है आप.हम समझ चुके है कौन जीत रहा है.बताने के लिए धन्यवाद .पाखंड पंछी

  8. Greatbong says – ‘Yogendra Yadav is the Kim Kardiashan of India’. No one knows what he does. And why he does what he does!

  9. It is said that the proof of the pudding is in eating. Dishing out recipes is not the same as serving the dishes. Recipes are yet essential for the uninitiated and unaccomplished. A democratic society needs a diverse media with the omnipresent “experts” to churn out the recipes. . It does not matter that a political correspondent can seldom win an election nor an economic correspondent can handle the matters of the Central Bank at it helm. They are part of the unshackled democratic dance performing to the music of freedom of speech and right to know.

    So don’t fret and fume when these part custodians of democracy express their views and often offer pieces of advice. Take it in you stride and move on.

  10. Hey wake up you leftist, champagne pseudo-secular zhola wallah.
    Nobody gives a damm anymore what you think – that’s why these elections don’t excite you.
    You are irrelevant pal, get lost.

  11. Already given up? Funny how elections don’t matter when your side loses and are paragon of democracy when it wins. Hypocrisy anyone? And no , your election mathematics was just a con trick

  12. The comments appearing here under are disappointing. One may not agree with Mr. Yadav; I too don’t on many counts. But this is no reason to denigrate an honest thinker and analyst in this disgusting way. Now about the view that political process of choosing a government through elections becoming irrelevant to the welfare of the country has some element of truth. In the final analysis, all politicians are the same, not only in a India but elsewhere too. Yet, some countries are prospering while India is a poor laggard. No matter who wins the elections, this ground reality doesn’t change. I agree with this view point and yet I don’t think that democracy in India has been become irrelevant. Indian voters are shrewd and intelligent but unfortunately don’t have good options. They are, therefore, constrained to choose a lesser evil. Yet on many occasions they have severely punished non-performers. Electoral upheavals have taken place. There is no need to lose heart, Mr. Yadav.

    • The author being an honest thinker is a matter of debate. Just as he has the right to express his opinions in any forum, as long as they do not cause harm to others, his critics too enjoy the same right. As for Indian voters being shrewd and intelligent, even if true it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect. India continues to be an economic laggard with abysmal standards of living and human development indices. For whatever reason voters seem to make no demands on bread and butter issues like healthcare, education, law & order, administrative reforms etc. As voters they seem to be more easily swayed by emotive issues and identity markers rather then practical day to day issues. Even our political commentators, like the author, seem to obsess more over esoteric philosophies and ideologies and grand visions etc rather than that which enables the common person to lead a decent life.

  13. After a long rime,a Yogendra Yadav article which captures the mood correctly.
    There is now enough evidence to suggest that people are voting differently as they rightly should.
    The media ecosystem is going ga ga on Tejaswi Yadav and how Nitish will be humbled and indirectly hoping the BIP is defeated.
    They forget how 2013 state results were different from 2014 Lok sabha and how subsequent state elections were different from the 2019 lok sabha .
    Nitish’s defeat will have no bearing on Modi and how people vote for Modi in 2024 will have nothing to do with any state election before or after .
    The indian voter now is thinking ,hope they continue to get themselves aware ,think and vote

  14. Amazing !!!! An election junkie who has spent more than three decades tracking elections professionally, politically and passionately is unable to digest an election which is not rigged, by money and musclemen producing CHARA EATING LEADERS.
    When having an efficient election machine and media management is construed as unfair/corrupt practice, there cannot be bigger insult to the voter.
    Now without ear to the ground the business of result prediction is not possible with access journalism of FIVE STAR coffee sessions.
    The voter, when has a choice knows what to do, and the professionals political commentators claiming to know the voters mind are obviously out of business hence the absence of excitement is natural.

  15. Looks like author liked 1990 elections which were khicdi sarkars, unstable govts with no purpose other than to fight among them self and manage and save their own govt with no intention or passion to do any good for country…The commies and pseudo intellectuals want anarchy and since we have a stable govt from 2014 they hate it.

  16. Just as Bihar elections do not excite Yogendra Yadav, what makes him think that his opinion matters to people at large? Bihar is marginalized according to him. He is even more so. A man with only one prejudice to offer is not a man we can take seriously.

    • And yet you read his articles and care to comment. The irony of your comment seems lost on you. He is on TV and in columns and will continue to be and you will continue to read him and watch him. Some things are easy to predict.

  17. Yogendra ji seems to obfuscate the point that the battle for narratives is so lopsided that combined opposition seems to have given up. 1st and foremost, opp crows about subversion of democracy by bjp, but keeps loosing in the ultimate democratic contests – elections. Of all people political scientist like yadavji, would be clued on for the seismic social changes being effected by bjp govt by fundamental policy initiative s. Everything can’t be brushed aside , and fake narratives can’t be foisted on junta which knows…Bjp or rather anyone can’t fool people, people as a collective grp always know. Ascribing sequential poll wins by bjp to jumlas and nationalism is very naive , and misses the pt completely. People are fedup with fake or engineered narratives, which shows in polls after polls.

  18. But who is asking you man. Some lefties are still in their wonderland and they think their opinion matter to people.

  19. What yy ji is indirectly trying to say is “people i don’t like might win so elections don’t matter”. This is a subtle and an intellectually sounding article that seeks to rob the legitimacy of indian democracy and the electoral mandate. While there has always been a case for more substantive democracy beyond the contours of elections, it can’t be the case that elections don’t matter. The Bihar election in question is being hotly contested with both sides doing all they can.

    YY ji also is sad about reducing election to “kaun banega cm”. I think only “intellectuals” can pull this off. “kaun banega cm” is the logical conclusion of any election and that is what election’s end result is. And the quest for social justice remains alive… otherwise the parties wouldn’t be banging their heads against the well to keep caste equations favorable to them.

    I am disappointed that yy ji has become so lazy. Lazy because he no longer wants to do the laborious task of looking into the election because the trends do point to an NDA victory (not a cake walk though). Democracy is about people’s collective choice. Whether that choice is as per our liking shouldn’t do away with our respect for the democratic process itself. Those who do think in that way are coming close to being communists and fascists.

    • The left is intelectually bankcrupt and they know it… in the past they were ablt to control the public narrative through an education system set up by a man born in Saudi Arabia and control of the media… With the growth of internet the left has lost control of the narrative and is not able to stand their ground in the marketplace of ideas. Every time a lefty cries the way Mr YY does it brings a big smile to my face.

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