Reading the Bihar verdict

In the new India, filial entitlement, once the norm, is now looked at askance

In Bihar, the NDA is back, though with lower numbers for Nitish Kumar’s party. He may have returned as the Chief Minister but his wings are clipped, for as the largest party in the coalition, the BJP may now be expected to call the shots. The main constituents of the Mahagathbandhan — the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress — finished with even fewer seats than in the last assembly. So it is a vote for the status quo in the State. This is surprising. Mr. Kumar has been in the saddle for 15 years. Despite claims made of high economic growth the State remains among the poorest in the India. Its people are forced to migrate long distances across the country to find work, live under precarious conditions when they reach their destination and walk all the way back home during an emergency. Mr. Kumar has provided an explanation for the economic condition of his State in its being land-locked, without access to ports. There are, however, States in India such as Punjab and Haryana which are among its richest despite being land-locked. We see television visuals of poor conditions in Bihar’s hospitals and the inability of the State government even to conduct fair school examinations. These are governance issues having little to do with economic capacity. So, why despite 15 lacklustre years have the people of Bihar voted back the government?

No credible challenge to the BJP

A kind of lazy theorising popular with sections of the commentariat would put the outcome down to the opiate of Hindutva politics offered by the BJP, but it would be without traction. The BJP was turned out of the assembly in the last election in Rajasthan despite having a strong and self-assured Chief Minister. This shows that there is nothing invincible about the BJP at the level of the States even when it is firmly entrenched at the Centre. As in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, now in Bihar, the verdict reflects only the Opposition’s inability to mount a credible challenge to the BJP. What would constitute such a challenge? It would be a comprehensive programme and evidence of substantial leadership capacity. As Mr. Kumar’s economic record is not remarkable, the outcome in Bihar boils down to how its electorate viewed the leadership promise of his opponents despite their promise of development. Surely, the electorate sees both Tejashwi Yadav and, especially, Rahul Gandhi as inexperienced scions of political families, who have not had to earn their mantles. In the new India, with a preponderance of youth, filial entitlement, once the norm, is now looked at askance.

Course correction

Recently, India’s democracy has been decidedly weakened by a state violating civil liberties and established parliamentary procedures. Moreover, the national economy is performing poorly for the majority. In both Bihar and at the Centre, the ruling dispensation has survived only because of a weak Opposition. India needs course correction in several spaces. As we have just seen in the U.S., this can be brought about by democratic means. However, of late, India’s democracy appears unable to course correct despite repeated elections. It is important to recognise that it was not always so. In a spectacular course correction, the Indian electorate had defeated Indira Gandhi after the Emergency in 1977. Unlike in Bihar this time, the Opposition then had included stalwarts of Indian politics such as Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Fernandes. They may have benefited from the tailwind of the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement but they were recognisable as politicians with long experience in public life.

A necessary element in the course correction Indian politics needs would be inner-party democracy within the Opposition parties. After all, democracy can be restored only through democracy. Inner-party democracy alone can ensure that parties promote the ablest and seek accountability from their leaders. A hopeful reading of the Bihar verdict would be that India’s democracy is maturing. The demos has shown its impatience with family rule.