Strange are the vagaries of India’s electoral system. An actual increase in the voter percentage of a party can result in a dramatic decrease in the number of Assembly/Parliamentary seats in the setting of a shrewd alliance of its opponents. That is the overarching message from the recently held Bihar elections for the BJP; a conundrum that it needs to address post-haste if the gains of its spectacular Lok Sabha victory in the 2014 elections are not to be whittled away and if Narendra Modi’s magnetic charisma and ambitious developmental agenda are not to become grounded in murky waters.
It is extremely tempting in the current hyped anti-BJP climate in the country, engendered by its ideological adversaries, to over read and misinterpret the BJP defeat in Bihar as a categorical and decisive rejection of the party and its policies. Also, it would be a tad facetious if one were to read in this outcome a message against an intolerance that never was. So please, hold your horses.
Just look at the vote share. The BJP on its own won an extremely impressive 24.1% of the vote and emerged as the single largest party in terms of vote percentage. What makes this figure even more impressive in light of the crushing defeat is a whopping 7.64% increase over its 2010 Assembly vote share. Adding insult to the injury is the fact that it was the only party that registered an increase in its vote share compared to the 2010 elections. The JD(U), RJD and Congress all suffered erosions in its vote share by 5.81%, 0.44% and 1.68%, respectively. Bluntly speaking, this was an arithmetical equation that produced exponential gains beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
However, this cannot be an excuse for the overwhelming defeat of the BJP. Our elections are based on a winner takes all premise and must be respected. Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to ignore the vote share as an indicator.
The BJP’s detractors must resist from going to town with this BJP defeat. On its part, the BJP must view this is as a call for a change in electoral strategy, with the corollary that coming first is still not enough to garner the spoils. Strategic alliances are vital.
The BJP would be committing political hara-kiri if it goes into a fratricidal mode with finger pointing and disciplinary action against some of its recalcitrant members as it did after the 2004 Lok Sabha defeat. The internal party bickering and anti-party activities by some of its own during the Bihar campaign certainly merit censure. The BJP must desist from such action; it would be better off if it analyses this defeat against the broad perspective of its long term national agenda. This is a time for regrouping and a strategy rethink in lieu of cantankerous recrimination.
This is also a time to put its house in better order. The Bihar campaign was needlessly made a prestige issue by the BJP and Narendra Modi. While the decision to build the election campaign around Modi may have worked at the national level, these results as well as the Delhi elections indicate that it is a dicey proposition in state elections. Overexposure of Modi and overutilisation of his charisma may lead to a staling effect with unexpected outcomes and denting of his image on the national and international stage; a falling out that it cannot afford.
As for party matters, there is a need for change as well. The Modi/Amit Shah duo must move away from its perceived or real two-man-show image. A picture of greater inclusiveness must appear that co-opts marginalised party leaders and veterans who still have a lot to contribute. But there is a caveat in this for these leaders as well: this is not the time to say I told you so.
Modi’s verve is not a spent force; but it needs to channelise intelligently for the greater good of the party and the nation. Both Modi and his party must understand this. Bihar is a bump on the road that can be overcome by greater party cohesiveness, a muzzle on motor mouths and strategic alliances.
Vivek Gumaste is a US based academic and political commentator.