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India’s ruling party suffers setback in key state poll

It is quite rare that a state or regional election attracts so much attention.

State elections happen all year round in India. But this election in the central state of Bihar did become a significant event, possibly even an outlier, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party upping the ante.

Modi attended about 30 election rallies, significantly higher than any prime minister has ever done before.

Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of the state of Bihar, left the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) when Modi was chosen to lead the general election campaign and was declared the party’s nominee for the prime minister’s post in 2014.

Kumar cited Modi’s “communal” credentials as his reason of departure from the then-ruling alliance in Bihar.

He subsequently allied with his long-time rival Lalu Prasad Yadav to prevent the government from losing its majority in the local assembly.

An “aggressive” campaign

After a resounding win in the general elections of 2014, BJP did lose the Delhi state elections to the new Common Man Party, AAP.

But Delhi is a small state and does not boast national electoral import despite being the capital city.

Meanwhile, subsequent wins in state elections of Haryana and Maharashtra, which took place soon after the national elections, enforced Modi’s authority on Indian politics.

Against this backdrop, Bihar assumed significant importance – this was an election which took place after almost 18 months of the central government in place.

It is the third largest state in India with a population of more than 100 million.

After the resounding victory on Sunday, Kumar referred to the aakramak (aggressive) campaign.

“Unity has won today… This was an election watched closely by the whole country. The win today has national implications. People across India want an alternative and strong opposition,” Kumar told journalists.

Development dream dying

Campaigning during the election in Bihar was littered with various controversies like the Beef Ban, the killing of rationalists in other states of India allegedly by Hindu groups, and the resultant protests by writers and intellectuals to return their national awards.

There were also some controversial statements from a top official of BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS, that signalled a rethink on India’s reservation policy for lower castes in government jobs and education.

The general sense of growing intolerance in the country, and the fact that it was not being countered by the powers-that-be with an emphatic thumbs-down, seemed like a tactical encouragement between the hatemongers and the ruling administration.

Even the most ardent BJP supporters admitted that Modi, who successfully sold a development dream to the country in 2014, is embroiled in the current communal discord.

The economic agenda was getting hazy and the required climate for development and reforms were getting lost in the cacophony of the “holy cow”, “Pakistan”, “rationalism” and “reservation”.

Meanwhile, Modi critic Kumar has positioned himself as a development man.

After all, he had in the past dislodged Lalu Yadav – a leader with many charges of corruption during his 10 years of rule in the state.

Kumar was widely considered a pro-development administrator but after he quit the BJP alliance, he also became a champion of the secular agenda.

In fact, he undertook a tactical gamble by putting more emphasis on fighting communalism by agreeing for the Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan), which included Lalu Yadav and the Congress Party, both of which have been tarred by allegations of corruption.

The “Bihari Brothers”, as the book title of journalist Sankarshan Thakur refers to the Nitish-Lalu force, finally proved their mettle on Sunday by sending out a clear message: Development? Yes. Secularism? Yes please.

Anmol Saxena

Source: Al Jazeera

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