View: Why Bihar matters - The end of regionalism

Everybody is talking about the big obvious takeaways, the rise of the women voter, Nitish’s silent voting bloc, the BJP ground game, PM rallies and how it changed the game etc. The fact that RJD has been unable to completely shake off fears about ...

PTI
A lot will be said and written about the impact of the just-concluded Bihar elections in the next few days. As elections, this one was a nail-biter, tough to call till the end with so many surprising twists and turns. The fact that the results were declared close to midnight after a harrowing, see-saw battle with the NDA just breasting the tap by a few shows the closeness and intensity of the fight on the ground.

Everybody is talking about the big obvious takeaways, the rise of the women voter, Nitish’s silent voting bloc, the BJP ground game, PM rallies and how it changed the game etc. The fact that RJD has been unable to completely shake off fears about the revival of thuggish behavior of its cadres and leaders could also have contributed to its defeat.

But there is a big picture issue that everybody is missing, and it is this. The Bihar elections is all about the decline and fall of India’s regional parties. RJD’s defeat and the JD (U)’s diminished status is the continuation of a trend we have been witnessing since 2014, the slow but steady erosion of support for the myriad regional parties that make up our political landscape. We saw this first with the Shiv Sena when it was dethroned as the principal party in the alliance with the BJP and came second-best in the October 2014 elections that followed the general election. We saw this again in Karnataka when the JD (S) lost out first in the 2018 assembly elections and then more spectacularly in the 2019 general polls. We are seeing this in Tamil Nadu as a weakened AIADMK struggles to capture the magic of the Jayalalithaa image and looks set to enter the 2016 election on the backfoot. We are seeing this trend play out every day in the country’s most populous and electorally most important state, Uttar Pradesh where the SP and the BSP have now been relegated to the shadows after once ruling the state. The BJD in Odisha and the TMC in West Bengal appear to be holding their own but even here the cracks are slowly getting bigger. The TMC will face the battle of its life in next year’s Bengal elections after being badly damaged by the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Telugu Desam and the TRS in Telangana are also having to contend with a resurgent BJP in their respective states.


It may sound a little odd to speak about the decline of regional parties a day after one regional party almost snatched power in Bihar. But that is the whole point. The RJD had the chance of a lifetime in Bihar of ousting a three-term incumbent and capturing power in a dramatic manner. The elections were fought in the shadow of a pandemic, a massive migrant crisis that only worsened the status of the poor, and rising resentment over bad state of Bihar’s economy, the lack of jobs and poor infrastructure.

But the RJD failed and failed quite badly. It not only underperformed expectations but allowed the weakened incumbent another shot at power, strengthened the powerful BJP in the process. The RJD will probably never get another chance like this and its defeat reflects badly on the ability of India’s regional parties to take advantage of favourable ground conditions.

Now, what does all this mean for the two bigger national parties? If we are living in an era where regional parties are getting weaker and fragmented, how do national parties like the BJP and the Congress take advantage of all this. Here one must get a little historical perspective. The Congress and the BJP have had similar but also different experience with regional parties. The Congress was destroyed in many states by the rise of regional parties, especially UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. The BJP benefitted from this fragmentation but around the turn of the century, both parties were on similar ground. They were both ousted from formidable position of power in UP and Bihar and were looking to recapture lost ground. The Congress with a go-it-alone strategy in UP and the BJP by tying up with an alliance partner in Bihar. But except for a brief glimpse of lost glory in 2009 elections when it won 21 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress strategy never succeeded. In Bihar, the Congress went with Lalu and the results have been disastrous ever since. The BJP slumbered away in UP till PM Modi and Amit Shah came on the scene in 2013 and revitalized the party network and organization in the heartland. Since then the BJP has been building up its organization network and cadre in almost all major or minor Indian states with a view to capturing a bigger share of the vote and the strategy is succeeding. In Bihar and Maharashtra, they are now a bigger party than their alliance partner (former alliance partner in the case of Maharashtra). In Bengal, they have relegated the Congress and the Left to the shadows and could easily capture power next year. They are a strong opposition and No 2 in Odisha and are getting there in Telangana. They are further behind in AP and TN, but a lot of work is going on in the ground to become a bigger player.
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The Congress on the other hand has not started doing any of these things. It is not also clear whether they are seeing an opportunity in the weakened position that many regional parties are in. Their sole objective since PM Modi captured power in 2014 has been to somehow to whittle down the BJP numbers and capture power through coalition partners. This strategy made sense in the 1990s and the 2000s, but its utility is diminishing. The party’s weakness in several states like Bihar and TN means that it has little to offer its alliance partner. It is also much weaker like we saw in Bihar and we could even see the alliance partners questioning the need for tie-ups with the Congress if more such Bihar-like results come. The DMK has already started doing this.

Like the BJP, the Congress needs to start work on national plan to revitalize its party and organization. It needs to identify, poach leaders from other parties if need be, those who can carry the message and campaign for the party. But what we are seeing from the Congress is exactly the opposite. Lethargy, lack of focus, muddled messaging, poor campaigning and weak and ineffectual presence on the ground. If you are a Congress supporter, you should be worried, very worried at what is unfolding in front of you. The decline of regional parties should be a huge advantage for national parties, but the BJP appears to be running away with the game now. If you are a Congress supporter, your worst nightmare would be PM Modi and the BJP leaders making regular victory speeches like they made on Wednesday night to supporters after Bengal 2021, UP 2022 and the general elections of 2024. Unfortunately, that nightmare scenario is already becoming a reality.
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