November 08, 2015

[Bihar] State election in India delivers a significant blow to Modi’s popularity (Rama Laxmi in WAPO)

The Washington Post
State election in India delivers a significant blow to Modi’s popularity

Supporters of the opposition to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate as early results of Bihar state elections. (Aftab Alam Siddiqui/AP)

by Rama Lakshmi (November 8, 2005)

NEW DELHI — India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party suffered a crushing blow in a key state election Sunday, an outcome that analysts say may embolden Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents and shrink his political space for bold economic measures.

The result of the five-phase vote conducted over three weeks in the impoverished northern state of Bihar does not affect Modi’s business-friendly government nationally, but many here view it as a sign of voter disenchantment with his 17-month-old rule and a wake-up call for the prime minister.

A coalition led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 58 of the 243 seats in the Bihar legislative assembly. A rival alliance of parties led by Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister of the state, won 178 seats.

The BJP’s election campaign relied almost entirely on Modi’s image, making little room for local leaders. Modi addressed 30 large public meetings in the state and renewed his pledge to bring development, a promise that propelled him to power last year.

But in a complex election campaign dominated by issues of caste, cow slaughter and chronic underdevelopment, Modi was pitted against two formidable local leaders in Bihar.

“Today’s election verdict has given a body blow to Modi’s invincibility,” said Sankarshan Thakur, author of “The Brothers Bihari,” which profiles the two local leaders. “It will energize the political opposition nationally and perhaps even impede economic reforms. Bihar’s election verdict has robustly demonstrated that the BJP’s divisive politics of invoking issues like beef and Pakistan cannot take you far.”

Kumar returns to power for the third time in Bihar, leading a group that includes corruption-tainted Laloo Prasad Yadav, an old foe. Together, the men mounted an aggressive campaign by appealing to lower-caste communities and Muslims.

The defeat in Bihar is the second major setback this year for Modi’s party, which suffered a crippling loss in Delhi state elections.

“We accept the verdict with a lot of humility. We hope Nitish Kumar will work toward Bihar’s progress with honesty,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister for communication and information technology in Modi’s government.

Analysts said that Modi has failed to deliver on the grand promise of “good days” that he had made during his high-pitched campaign last year and that the euphoria surrounding him has faded.

“People across all the caste groups and youths have voted for us. We will create a Bihar of their aspirations,”Yadav said during a news conference in the state’s capital, Patna. “This result will have far-reaching consequences. We will now mount a people’s movement against the national BJP government and not let the country break into pieces.”

The result in Bihar may encourage fragmented opposition parties in Parliament to unite against Modi’s economic policies.

Although his government enjoys a majority in the lower house of Parliament, several of his key economic-reform measures stalled because he lacks the numbers in the upper house to pass new laws.

But Modi’s pro-business government has changed global perception about the Indian economy. India has moved up from 134 to 130 this year in the World Bank’s annual global ranking for ease of doing business, and the World Economic Forum said India’s future is positioned more favorably than China’s.

In recent months, though, Modi has come under widespread attack for not reining in members of his government and party who have made inflammatory statements after a Hindu mob killed a Muslim man over false rumors that he had consumed beef. To many Hindus, cows are sacred, and eating beef is taboo.

Moody’s Analytics said in a recent report that Modi may lose his “domestic and global credibility” if he fails to curb the strident Hindu rhetoric of his party members and that the divisive political atmosphere may present a bigger challenge for his government and turn national attention away from economic policies.

“Modi’s emphasis on building bullet trains, smart cities and bringing foreign investment have not resonated with the voters of Bihar, who are largely rural,” said Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist. “He needs to tackle rural poverty and agricultural despair more directly. He was hoping to gain a free hand in the upper house of Parliament with an election win in Bihar. But now his hands are tied even more.”