Over the last five weeks, voters in the northern Indian state of Bihar went to the polls to elect a new government. In India’s boisterous democracy, it is hard to get too worked up over a single regional election. But Bihar, which would be the world’s thirteenth-largest country in population terms and which holds a large chunk of federal power, is something of an exception.
The election was a hotly contested showdown between two coalitions. In one corner stood Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a host of smaller local allies. Since coming to power in the May 2014 general election, the BJP has quickly became the central pole of Indian politics, and it is looking to expand its electoral footprint. In the other corner was the “Grand Alliance,” a motley collection of largely regional concerns looking to halt Modi’s electoral juggernaut. This alliance comprised three strange bedfellows: the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, his onetime enemy (and former chief minister) Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the remains of the once-dominant Indian National Congress party.
The contest was replete with dramatic twists and turns, capped by inconclusive exit polls and—in a scene out of the Twilight Zone—totally different reported vote counts depending on the media outlet. On Sunday, when the state’s nearly 40 million ballots finally were tallied, the result was a stunning victory for the anti-BJP front, which bagged nearly three-quarters of seats in the state assembly.
How does one make sense of the triumph of the anti-BJP collective over the seemingly unstoppable Modi? The easiest explanation is this: The Grand Alliance pulled a BJP on the BJP. That party’s historic 2014 general election romp was built on three pillars: presidential-style leadership, the nationalization of the election, and the projection of sober economic stewardship. These, too, were the keys to the Grand Alliance’s success.
During the BJP’s national campaign, the most visible character was Modi, whose constant presence effectively Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar” (This time, Modi’s government) became a defining motif of the campaign. This was a departure from past practice; historically, the Hindu nationalist BJP has functioned as a cadre-based outfit, often emphasizing its stable of local, regional, and national leaders.
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