Defeat in Bihar: Has Modi Lost His Appeal?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Bettiah, Bihar

The BJP’s political future looks bleak. After a major defeat in Delhi earlier this year, BJP leader Narendra Modi had hoped that his image as a reformer in Gujarat would sway the Indian province of Bihar in the BJP’s favour. Instead, the Hindu nationalist party were soundly defeated, winning just 53 of 243 possible seats. What caused this stunning reversal of fortune? The adoption of an increasingly intolerant brand of politics.

The BJP led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) coalition had contested the elections with its allies: the Janshakti party, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) and the Hindustani Awam Morcha.

The NDA’s main opponent in this election was the secular "Grand Alliance," consisting of the ruling Janata Dal (United) party (JDU) which is allied with the Rashtriya Janata Dal Party (RJD) party and Congress Party.

Modi campaigned extensively for the NDA’s candidate, former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Sushil Modi, as it was hoped that his image as Prime Minister would help Sushil’s electoral performance. This was not the case, and the defeat suggests that the political influence Modi had last year, when he achieved a landslide victory for the BJP, is no longer quite as potent.

After riding a surge of popularity to power in the national elections in May 2014, Modi and the BJP had promised economic development and growth in India after inheriting an economy wracked by slowing growth and inflation. Instead, the BJP found itself embroiled in new controversies, ranging from efforts to ban the consumption of beef to a growing intolerance for political critics.

Critics of the BJP have warned that little had been done to control growing intolerance towards religious minorities and political critics. The party, along with its affiliate the RSS, had been accused of inciting communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.

The most notorious case of communal violence was the Gujarat riot in 2002, in which Modi—then the Chief Minister of the BJP and a former RSS member—was accused of fomenting. Because of his role in the violence, Modi was refused a visa to travel to the United States. Since coming to power as Prime Minister of India, he has been condemned for his silence on the growing intolerance of the BJP and RSS towards India’s minorities and political critics.

The BJP’s efforts to ban beef is part of a larger campaign to expand its power to state assemblies across India in order to help realise the RSS’ dream of turning India into a Hindu state. The BJP has used religious rhetoric to justify the ban of beef consumption, citing the Hindu deity Krishna’s affection for cows.

A massive political scandal erupted in September 2014 when the BJP’s anti-beef crusade influenced Vishal Rana, the son of a local BJP leader in the small village of Dadri, Uttar Pradesh to incite a riot, which has been blamed for the killing of Muhammad Akhlaq Saifi. Saifi was alleged to have possessed beef in his home, which was used to justify his lynching by BJP supporters. A later forensic report revealed that the meat in question was mutton, which is legal in Hindu scriptures.

With the Bihar elections coming only a month after the Dadri incident, the unpopularity of the BJP’s anti-beef platform contributed to their defeat there as well. The BJP declared that if they won, they would ban all beef consumption in Bihar. They issued a political advertisement demanding an explanation for pro-beef consumption remarks made by the RJD party, who had claimed that Hindus were religiously justified to consume beef products. The advertisement was ultimately removed, indicating that the BJP’s anti-meat platform had less support than they anticipated.

Comments from the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat questioning the role of reservations for minorities in India were another clear example of the BJP’s growing intolerant stance. Reservations provide a quota for placements at universities and government ministries to OBC’s (Other Backward Classes) and religious minorities. Long significant in Indian politics, reservations have provided votes from OBC’s and religious minorities for political parties through what has been termed "vote bank politics".

This made Modi’s anti-Muslim comments particularly ominous, suggesting that a victory for the Grand Alliance would threaten reservation quotas for OBCs in favour of another community. The fact that this was interpreted as targeting Muslims contributed to the BJP’s defeat.

The BJP’s defeat in Bihar demonstrates a rejection of its divisive rhetoric. Bihar’s population of 99 million is made up of a significant proportion of OBC’s, as well as a large Muslim Minority, both of which denied the BJP an electoral victory. If the BJP continues to rely on their nationalist brand of intolerance, more defeats will surely follow.

India needs a ruling party that will unite its people, not divide them along religious lines.

Azeem Ali

Azeem studied History at the University of Cambridge, Modern India at King's College London, and Politics and IR the University of Kent. He has also worked for Chatham House and LBC radio in London.

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