There’s nothing like an electoral victory to subdue critics and win accolades. Populist leaders, from Indira Gandhi then to Narendra Modi now, have always understood this.
So, today, with his government buffeted by storms of criticism for an unplanned lockdown, a rising COVID graph, plunging growth figures, increasing unemployment and the sheer misery unleashed on the poor because of government mismanagement, it’s not surprising that Modi is pinning his hopes on the upcoming assembly election in Bihar to shut down the attack.
What Modi ‘Proved’ Through Demonetisation
It may seem odd that a state poll can work to bail out a prime minister. But as Modi proved with demonetisation and the UP polls, any popular verdict in today’s personality-driven politics can become a stamp of approval and used to validate policies, good and bad.
The BJP’s stunning win in the 2017 UP assembly election silenced all opprobrium over Modi’s shock decision six months earlier to demonetise 83 percent of the country’s currency.
The move killed more than 100 people as they stood in queues outside banks to exchange their worthless notes, stripped lakhs of wage-earners of jobs, drove farmers to penury and forced thousands of small enterprises to go out of business. All was forgotten after the BJP won a historic three-fourths majority in UP. Some awe-struck commentators went so far as to hail demonetisation as a political master stroke. A pulverised Opposition went into a shell to lick its wounds.
Bihar Elections: Putting Amit Shah in Pole Position Is a Big Move
Judging by the alacrity with which the BJP has rebooted political activity after two-and-a-half months of COVID-induced hibernation, it seems to be preparing for the Bihar election with new and unexpected urgency. Bihar is no longer just another state poll. It could be the Modi government’s magic potion to win the post-COVID perception battle just as the UP victory proved to be a much-needed shot-in-the-arm after demonetisation.
Two significant announcements are evidence of the manner in which the BJP has scaled-up its politics to prep for Bihar. It happened almost overnight as Lockdown 4.0 moved into Unlock 1.0. One was the appointment of new chiefs for Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Manipur. These are not ‘big’ or ‘important’ states, but the decision signalled the BJP’s determination to put politics back on track.
More crucial was the announcement that Amit Shah would kickstart the BJP’s election campaign in Bihar with a virtual rally on 9 June.
Polls are not due till October this year. Dates are yet to be finalised amid speculation that the coronavirus pandemic may force a postponement of the election. But the BJP is clearly not taking chances and intends to be first off the block even as Opposition parties and leaders fumble to get their act together.
The decision to put Shah in pole position for Bihar is a big move. One, it marks the end of Shah’s time on the back bench. He was the face of Modi 2.0 till COVID pushed him into the wings. Now that political activity has resumed with the battle for Bihar becoming a top priority project, Shah has returned as Modi’s helmsman for the election.
Where Does Nitish Stand In Modi-Shah’s Plans For Bihar?
Two, it signals the tone and tenor of the campaign being planned by the BJP. Shah has become the hardline Hindutva face of the party. He runs an aggressive, polarising campaign. He did so five years ago in the 2015 Bihar election. He can be expected to repeat the performance this time, perhaps push it up several notches higher by raking up the controversial amended citizenship law, reviving attempts to communalise the virus, harping on the construction of the Ram Temple which is currently underway, and bringing in other issues to consolidate a Hindu vote for the BJP.
It’s not quite clear where chief minister and NDA ally Nitish Kumar stands in the Modi-Shah duo’s plans for Bihar.
All indications from the BJP camp suggest a determined bid to weaponise the state poll to silence critics of the government’s management of the pandemic and the economy. If the party proceeds with this line of action, it will have to field Modi, not Nitish Kumar, to lead the campaign, as it did in UP in 2017. The victory, if it comes, must be seen as Modi’s achievement, not Nitish’s.
Will the BJP Do Away With Nitish Kumar?
There are multiple rumours that the BJP may dump the JD(U) on election-eve and choose to go alone although the party’s official stand is that Nitish Kumar will be the face of the NDA campaign.
However, as we well know, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
The fact is that relations between the two allies have been strained for some time and have only worsened as COVID and the consequent lockdown introduced fresh tensions.
Nitish has been particularly obdurate on the issue of returning migrants. For some unknown reason, he showed extreme reluctance to take back Bihari workers and students stranded in other states during the lockdown. He differed with the BJP on repatriating students from Kota. He argued against the Centre’s proposal to run special trains for migrants. When a heartbreaking video went viral, of a toddler trying to awaken his dead mother on the railway platform in Muzaffarpur after getting off a migrant special, Nitish showed little sympathy. And he has continued to remain cold to the plight of returning workers who are now being blamed by his government for bringing COVID to Bihar.
There is a sizeable section in the BJP which feels that Nitish stands diminished today and the party would be better off without him. While the final decision rests with Modi and Shah, it is increasingly clear that the Bihar polls have acquired an importance that goes beyond the borders of the state.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)