Bihar is an East Indian state with a population of more than 100 million, making it the third most populous state of India with an area equivalent to Indiana. Bihar has a literacy rate of 63.4 percent, the lowest in India. The state is well known for lagging behind the rest of India in socioeconomic indicators, and is a major source of migrant workers in other Indian states. Biharis have often been the victims of oppression and state-based nationalism by political parties such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Bihar is known for its caste polarization; here, people don’t cast their votes, they vote their caste.
During October and November, a five-phase election was held for the Bihar state legislative assembly. The election saw one of the greatest and most aggressive contests in any Indian state – even Prime Minister Narendra Modi descended onto the field of battle. The results, released on November 8, saw Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trounced by the Mahagathbandhan (grand coalition), an alliance of three political parties: Indian National Congress (INC), Janata Dal United (JDU) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The Mahagathbandhan won a total of 178 out of 243 seats, ensuring the re-election of the new rising star of Indian politics, Nitish Kumar of the JDU as chief minister, even though former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party (the RJD) won 80 seats, making it the largest single party in the Bihar assembly. This victory has reaffirmed the role of Lalu Prasad Yadav as the great kingmaker of India, despite his corruption convictions by the Supreme Court of India.
Thus, the setback for the BJP became a comeback for Lalu, renowned locally for his political resilience. But the election is likely to have repercussions that extend well beyond Bihar.
Secularism vs. Communalism
It is important to understand that there are two ideas of India. The first is that of its founding fathers, and is reflected in the preamble of the Indian Constitution which establishes that India is a democratic secular republic. This camp holds the view that India is a state with no official religion and every religion is equal in the eyes of the establishment.
The second school of thought – which is the view of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP & Hindutva right-wing forces – holds that since the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan based on the idea of the religious incompatibility of Hindus and Muslims arising from Quid-E-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s two nation theory, Pakistan became an Islamic republic so what is left should be a Hindu Rashtriya (nation) in which Muslims and other minorities are only tenants and must live under Hindu rule. Adherents to this second idea of India often tell those Muslims asking for their rights to go to Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath, a BJP parliamentarian, recently said as much to Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. As a result, Muslims in India often joke that the acronym “BJP” spells out as Bhaijaan jaiya Pakistan (“Brother go to Pakistan”).
The Bihar election was seen as a huge victory for the secular Mahagathbandhan over the communal parties, and reflects the robust support in Bihar for democracy and secularism.
Recent months have witnessed a wave of intolerance and communal tensions in India. At the end of August, M. M. Kalburgi, a recipient of the prestigious National Sahitya Akademi literary award known for his work critical of idolatry in Hinduism, was shot dead in Karnataka. The murder prompted many writers to return their awards as a protest of the intolerance and the failure to condemn the killing. In another incident, at a book launch by former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni was assaulted by Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena party workers, who threw ink on his face for inviting Kasuri. Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Raut called the attack a democratic protest, while Shiv Sena youth wing leader Aaditya Thackeray termed it a non-violent protest.
Then, in October, a Hindu priest in Uttar Pradesh accused a local Muslim family of consuming beef. A mob stormed the home of 50-year-old Muslim man named Mohammad Akhlaq, and beat him to death using bricks and stones after finding what the mob alleged to be beef in his refrigerator. The beef issue became an election issue in Bihar – with some sharp exchanges between Yadav and Modi. Ultimately, though, the young and largely progressive population in Bihar made clear that it does not like being told by the state what they can and cannot eat.
On November 9, when the market opened after the Bihar election results were announced, the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) Sensex plummeted as much as 600 points, or close to 2 percent. The Indian rupee also dropped 1 percent against the U.S. dollar, crossing the psychologically significant 66.00 barrier.
Clearly, the Bihar election has implications not just for the state alone, but for all of India. The Indian parliament is a bicameral legislature comprising the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Currently the BJP enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, but the party and its allies are in the minority in the Rajya Sabha. To pass crucial reforms, the BJP will need to gain seats in the Rajya Sabha, and to do that it will have to win state elections as Rajya Sabha members are nominated by state governments. As the third most populous state in India, Bihar is allocated a total of 16 seats in the Rajya Sabha. Given that Modi won on an agenda for growth and economic development, this major setback for the BJP has profound repercussions for India’s economy. This in turn will influence investor confidence, and could slow the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI).
Looking at India’s electoral map, the outcome of the Bihar elections is one the BJP government needs to take very seriously. During the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the BJP won a total of 22 out of 40 seats in Bihar. It also won all 7 Lok Sabha seats in the union territory of Delhi. The BJP also won a whopping 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh (UP), of which 61 seats were fresh gains. Since then, the BJP has suffered major losses in the state elections of Delhi and Bihar. This rise of an anti-BJP front in Northern India topped with the anti-incumbency sentiment prevalent in Indian politics could cause the BJP to lose as many as 100 seats in the next Lok Sabha elections, crippling the Modi government.
The Modi government has indeed made significant progress on the economic front, with India the world’s top destination for FDI in 2015. Investors would doubtless prefer a stable BJP government, given that it has been aggressively driving India’s economic growth. They may not wait until the outcome of the next Lok Sabha outcome – if signs continue to point to trouble for the Modi government, such as defeats in state elections, investors could slowly begin to withdraw from India, leading to capital outflow, especially for long-term projects where political stability is a critical component of risk assessment.
To ensure his government stays in power and India continues to grow, Modi will have to fulfill his promise of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (“together with all, development for all”) and end divisive politics, while uniting Indians against extremism. The government will also have to be firm and fast in condemning the actions of extremist groups as well as outrageous comments by MPs and ministers, or else give the electorate the impression that it endorses them.
Anish Mishra is an Indian economist.