Reading various “experts” — many of whom start their missives with the phrase “I am no expert in electoral matters, but…” — one is reminded of the Bihari saying, “thhor kailan Tulsidas, bahut kailan kabita.” This effectively means that the poet said little, but the commentators said a lot more.
There is no such thing as “objectivity” in such political criticism. Each commentator obviously writes from his or her own perspective and is full of advice depending upon one’s own mindset. Many even lose sight of the overall picture and stoop to petty fault-finding. Well, for what it is worth, let me, too add my perspective to this cacophony. I will start with a very critical point that most commentators have got wrong. They blame the RSS for BJP’s poor performance in Bihar. Many of these critics term the RSS as a “fascist” organisation. Some geniuses have even equated it to the Islamic State. One “respected” commentator mentions, “no one likes them anyway” and that the RSS is arrogant. None of them have more than a surface acquaintance with this 90-year-old, world’s largest voluntary organisation.
I am not here to defend or blame the RSS. This is because, in the context of the Bihar election, I believe that the RSS had very little to do with the failure of BJP to win more votes. Those who put the blame on it are merely using this as an opportunity to air their pent-up angst against the organisation. This vitiates their analysis and makes their comments virtually useless for anyone wanting to seriously understand the real reasons why more Bihari voters voted for Mahagathbandhan than for the BJP. Very few commentators have identified the real ground level-reasons why BJP lost because most are on their high perches, from where all they can see is coloured by their ideological lenses. If they were to take off these glasses and deign to come down to the ground level, they will find that the mistakes BJP made were simple, yet critical, and these do not include RSS, cow, beef, secularism or any other such low-hanging punching bags.
1. Biharis voted for Biharis in Bihar: BJP did not realise that Biharis want other Biharis asking for their votes in a Bihar election. A large number of senior central BJP leaders from other states camping there may have worked negatively by obscuring the local leadership. Had there been a Bihari face spearheading the BJP campaign, it could have been a different story.
This central onslaught also resulted in the lack of local, ground-level involvement in candidate selection.
2. Turning a state election into proxy Central one: This point is linked to the first one. Here was one state going to the polls. Why did BJP turn it into a proxy Central election, with the prestige of its senior-most leaders at stake? They had done the same thing in Delhi and, despite the presence of the entire leadership there, lost in a clean sweep by AAP.
This should be a lesson for future state elections. Nurture a strong leadership in the state, give it time to get established, select candidates locally and train volunteers in time. These are some of the elements for winning state elections with an added advantage — win or lose, the party centre remains largely unscathed. Unfortunately, none of this was implemented in Bihar, or in Delhi for that matter.
BJP must remember that what might have worked in a Parliamentary election, where the focus is towards Delhi does not work in Assembly elections, where the focus is towards Patna or Lucknow.
3. Wrong partners: The BJP was not clever in selecting its partners. This resulted in giving away many seats to Jitan Manjhi and Ram Vilas Paswan, hardly any of which were won. Not surprisingly, the same partners are now targeting BJP and RSS for their loss. It is a reflection of their self-delusion that they are not able to recognise the failure as their own.
4. Effective ground level work and well-motivated volunteers missing: The BJP did not learn from their experience in Delhi where AAP won 67 out of 70 seats. Here was a less than a two-year old party, defeating the combined might of BJP and Congress. Surely, other parties should have analysed how they managed this. Sadly, they didn’t, even when the cause of AAP win was staring them in the face and emulating it could have won Bihar.
Of the four ways of winning elections — constructive work and enthusiastic volunteers, caste-equations, coercion a la communist parties and vote rigging, the first one trumps all. This was ably demonstrated by AAP in Delhi. Their volunteers were an enthusiastic lot. I observed their rigorous training under Gopal Rai and saw how energised they were. They were present in each lane of Delhi. Manifestos were made separately for each ward, addressing micro-problems, which really matter to the voter. Each voter was visited twice or thrice. Volunteers worked over a period of time to remove local irritants such as blocked drains, dry water taps, etc. And, this resulted in a clean sweep for this David against long-established Congress and BJP. All this was missing in Bihar. BJP’s Bihar cadre, if it had one, was divided and not as well-trained as it could have been. To add to this, hardly any BJP sitting MLAs or MPs had done enough work in their constituencies to be held up as a role model. We never heard praises for the work of these elected representatives in BJP leaders’ speeches.
5. Factionalism: The BJP did not manage its dissenting leaders such as Shatrughan Sinha well. This led to the loss of some votes.
6. Ineffectiveness of huge rallies: The BJP relied on large rallies as an important part of its campaign. Large rallies do not help except to give a temporary boost to the egos of those organising them. In fact, huge rallies by central leaders in a state election distract the local leadership who spend a lot of time and funds making arrangements for the rally. This time and money would be better spent in making ground level contact.
7. Being too serious: BJP leaders need to realise that humour works better than allegations and name-calling. If one needs proof, one merely has to hear Lalu Yadav’s sound-bites. One does not have to be a joker like him, but BJP leaders hardly ever evoked even a chuckle. Most of the time was spent in denouncing local leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav. This did not sit well with those who have pride in their state. BJP campaigners need to lighten up the discourse instead of making it virulent. No one likes to see angry faces or hear angry words all the time, least of all the voter.
Very few commentators have identified the real ground level-reasons why BJP lost because most are sitting on their high perches.
8. Underestimating Nitish: Nitish Kumar is frequently under-estimated because of his low-key style of functioning. However, he is not inefficient. His initiatives in the area of electricity and other infrastructure, obviously struck a chord in the minds of voters. A picture of ever smiling down-to-earth, three-day bearded, humble-looking Nitish Kumar may evoke a sneer amongst the Lutyens’ crowd but it certainly echoed more favourably in the minds of voters who identified with him more than with BJP’s better turned out Central leaders.
9. Misreading caste equations: Nitish and Lalu are both experts at caste equations. In Bihar, this expertise is crucial. BJP needed someone of the calibre of Yogendra Yadav to analyse these and suggest an effective strategy, at least a year ahead of the elections. I do not think this was done. In the absence of effective groundwork and well-motivated volunteers, lack of in-depth caste equation assessment worked against the BJP.
10. Better media management: Nitish Kumar’s media-management under a professional team was good. Both the AAP volunteers in Ghaziabad who were helping Nitish and his media strategists in Patna were obviously more effective than BJP’s.
The BJP also had to contend with negative reports on TV, based on the comments of some fringe elements, which were not dealt with effectively. A mere rap on the knuckles of such elements was seen as too little to have any impact. While the substance of the TV reports — many based on a misinterpretation of what was said — may have been immaterial to the Bihar voter, the almost non-stop constant accusative tone of the anchors showed BJP in a negative light. This was not countered effectively.
I started with a Bihari proverb. Let me end with two others. The first is: hakim haarey muh mein maarey. Even if the powerful man loses, he still strikes you in the face. We hope that senior BJP leaders will refrain from doing this to critics of all hues in their party and outside it, including even those misguided critics who cannot see beyond RSS, beef and secularism. They must see all, hear all, digest all and, in the spirit of wisdom, arrive at decisions that will make the party stronger for the future. Not doing so will hit the party where it hurts most. As the Biharis say, hukal chot nehai par — the missing stroke hits the anvil.
Kishore Asthana, an alumnus of IIMA, is the President of Mensa India Delhi. He writes on diverse topics.