The strategy of Tejashwi Yadav shows this election is more about the evolution of the social justice plank than its burial
Bihar’s Champaran farmlands served as the brewing fields for Gandhi’s ruminations and eventual journey to a Mahatma more than a century ago. Later, the State was quick to catch the sparks off Gujarat’s student revolt and lend the anti-Emergency movement the fury that was to become a prairie fire which consumed the invincible Indira Gandhi. Bihar is renowned for its intangible political energy, equations and trends that have gone on to shape India’s political firmament.
Throwbacks to the past
The final election results notwithstanding, not that the voters’ mandate is sacrosanct — consider Goa, Manipur, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh — the election campaign has provided important political takeaways. Like all elections in the last six years, including the municipal polls in the capital in 2017, Narendra Modi has campaigned with admirable energy and dedication in Bihar. The Prime Minister’s campaigning is an opportunity to peep into his vision and priorities for the people of the State and the country.
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A quick glance at his speeches shows that Mr. Modi’s refrain is Ayodhya’s Ram temple and Article 370 in Kashmir (Darbhanga on October 28 and Champaran on November 1), “Jungle Raj” spoken of often, a reference to the “double Yuvrajs” ostensibly of Tejashwi Yadav and Rahul Gandhi (Chhapra on November 1) struggling to “keep the simhasan/throne”, “BIMARU” Bihar, referring to an outdated acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh no longer used even in seminars. Almost all of the Prime Minister’s repeated references are jaded throwbacks to the past: Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid was brought down in 1992, ‘jungle raj’, referring to pejoratives for Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi’s time as Chief Minister is 15 years ago and the last time that either Tejashwi Yadav or Rahul Gandhi’s fathers held public office was several years ago — there is certainly no ‘simhasan’ for them to defend. It is a negative agenda of a campaign anchored selectively in the past.
No vision, invoking fear
Nitish Kumar has been in power in the State for the past 15 years, mostly with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and there is little in the achievement columns of his report card for Mr. Modi to seek votes on. Soliciting support for another five years of a jaded government is tough, and thus the argument seems to be that “we are bad but they are worse” — not the most inspiring political pitch. More surprising is the lack of vision for either Bihar or India from the Prime Minister. The selective recall of the 1990s is odd when at 57.2%, Bihar has the highest proportion of those below 25 years of age in the country (https://bit.ly/3eFNiTf). This is like the captain’s proverbial yearning for the safety of the shore when the boat is in choppy waters mid-ocean, when, instead, it needs a vision to navigate ahead.
The exponential rise of the BJP, now dominating the political scene with more than half of India’s States under its rule and having 302 Lok Sabha seats (as on October 1, 2020; https://bit.ly/32d2rpK), began by leveraging the upheaval of the 1990s as the polity was challenged by newly opened fissures of caste, religion and economic disparity. Social and cultural issues are an integral part of Indian electoral politics, but to invoke the divisive issues of the past at this time points to a poverty of vision for the future, of the missing destination the ship of governance is aiming for when at sea. Instead of taking matters to a higher level of ‘aspiration’, the country’s top leadership has chosen to invoke not hope but fear.
A lost opportunity and why
When India has gone from one of the fastest growing three economies in the world to among the slowest, with an unprecedented decline of 23.9% in the first quarter of 2020, the country would have benefited from learning of the Prime Minister’s plan to get the economy back in shape. The novel coronavirus pandemic also offered an opportunity to speak of public health as a sharp arrow in its quiver, and take his party’s campaign to another high level. Quite the contrary happened when a free vaccine was offered as an election sop, hitting another new low for the BJP in 2020. Public health, at a time of a rapidly growing infectious disease, has always been handled centrally and has been universal and free. The smallpox vaccine, BCG or even the tuberculosis programme has been centrally driven and unconnected with electoral cycles.
The appeal that proved invincible and lent a deathly blow to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2014 was a dream that Mr. Modi associated himself with. The ‘Gujarat model’, notwithstanding its merits, was about hope, about vikas, development (if not progress), and overall about improving lives of Indians, a formula that proved unbeatable. The promise, plastered on all available billboards was about ‘two crore jobs’ every year, ₹15 lakh in every bank account and the burnishing of an entrepreneurial spirit that would bring welfare and prosperity. Mr. Modi would make India great again and improve the conditions of its millions, who came out and voted for that dream. This appeal was developed on the campaign that Mr. Modi had carefully crafted around ‘Vibrant Gujarat,’ which had shut down his critics. It was Mr. Modi as the doer and the Vikas Purush that won accolades and eventually the seat of power in Delhi. The core Hindutva spirit that he stood for was just the backstory: Mr. Modi in 2014 worked, as he offered himself and much more.
The youth connect
Turning the tables on this, Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign in Bihar is frustrating the ruling party as it is using that very powerful appeal against a 15-year-old regime by citing the absence of bread and butter issues and taking the campaign out to the State’s youth. His primary emphasis during the election campaign has been on the high rate of unemployment, forming the backbone of his promise of providing 10 lakh new government jobs to the youth of Bihar. The BJP has been forced to play catch-up. After the results come in, there will be much to theorise on how caste politics has changed in north India. Enough has already been said about how this is the last of the Mandal elections (with Nitish Kumar on the backfoot, Lalu Prasad not campaigning and Ram Vilas Paswan no more); but on closer scrutiny, this is more about evolution of the social justice plank than its burial.
Tejashwi Yadav in 2020 is doing a Narendra Modi in 2014, by not making it overtly about social justice alone. The Mandal campaign of the 1990s in north India was particularly anxious to underscore that it was not economics but social oppression that rankled and needed urgent redress. By threading economic upliftment seamlessly into the idea of social justice, Tejashwi Yadav has confounded his opponents. He need not even loudly talk about backward caste or utter the phrase social justice, any more than Mr. Modi had to proclaim that he is a proud bearer of Hindutva.
In 2015 when Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad struck an alliance, they stumped the BJP by turning it into a ‘forward versus backward’ election. That was a case of political innovation in the face of the BJP juggernaut, at a time when the electoral machine of the BJP, with its freshness, was at its peak. But this time, what has annoyed Nitish Kumar and visibly frustrated the BJP is Tejashwi Yadav coming up from behind and smoothly introducing Social Justice 2.0 into the campaign in his own unique manner. The results of the elections will be known soon but if there is already a winner for political reimagination, it is Tejashwi Yadav against a weary Nitish Kumar and a rear-view mirror-gazing Narendra Modi.
Seema Chishti is a journalist based in New Delhi