Modi's Bihar loss a triumph for secular India

CELEBRATORY MOOD: Indian Janata Dal United supporters celebrate after a victory by an alliance, led by their party, in New Delhi on Sunday in the Bihar state assembly elections. Mr Modi, who fronted a no-holds barred campaign, conceded defeat on Sunday in a key election in Bihar, one of India's poorest and largest states


    Nov 13, 2015

    Modi's Bihar loss a triumph for secular India

    THE electorate in Bihar, one of the most populous states in India, has delivered a resounding defeat to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had painted Bihar in saffron and plastered billboards with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's photographs.

    The BJP was not expecting a defeat of such proportions and the party is struggling to explain the outcome.

    Meanwhile, the liberals in India and the Indian diaspora are cheering these electoral results. But, while most liberals in the diaspora are pleased with the outcome, some are not convinced that the winning coalition is any better.

    Professor Sumeet Gulati at the University of British Columbia, for instance, is concerned that a victorious coalition in Bihar, which also includes Lalu Prasad Yadav, the influential former railways minister, might not be that different from the BJP.

    Many would recall the lawlessness in Bihar during the 1990s when Mr Yadav served as its chief minister. Still, Prof Gulati considers the BJP defeat a preferred outcome.

    Bihar is among the economically struggling states in India where the BJP machinery trumpeted its economic success in Gujarat under the leadership of then chief minister, Mr Modi. The BJP asked the voters in Bihar to vote for the BJP to replicate Gujarat's economic model in Bihar.

    Voters in Bihar, however, were not convinced by BJP's doctrine of economic success. The BJP, suspecting defeat in the elections, suddenly shifted the discourse from a better economic model to the politics of fear, trying to divide the electorate along religious lines.

    The Biharis still did not fall for it.


    Here, the real questions to ask are:

    What made the Bihari electorate say no to the BJP's divisive communal politics?

    Were there any differences in the economic models presented by the incumbent chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, and the one offered by the BJP?

    Is there any truth to the claim that the economic gains and prosperity in Gujarat were a result of Mr Modi's leadership as its former chief minister?

    Has Gujarat under Mr Modi developed at a faster rate than Bihar did under Mr Kumar?

    I turned to reports that compared the relative growth rates between Gujarat and other states to seek answers to these questions.

    Many Indian political analysts believe Mr Modi's economic model is that of crony capitalism where business conglomerates, closely aligned with the government, disproportionately benefit from economic growth.

    They think that Mr Modi's brand of economics is exclusive, big business, capital intensive, social sector neglect and hence, without experience of the welfare state by the people.

    The upper classes under such regimes generate undue profits and support the regime in return because the regime promotes wealth generation, while ignoring its distributional responsibilities.


    Empirical evidence suggests that Mr Kumar's brand of economics is more low-key, delivering on the promise of the welfare state to the lowest of the castes in Bihar.

    This is a slow progression where women were acknowledged and given benefits for the first time in Bihar, through 50 per cent reservation for women in the local bodies and a cycle to the school-going girl.

    Even from a lower, base level of economic development, Bihar has registered a growth rate comparable to that of Gujarat. There is, however, a big difference between the two models. The Bihar model included a welfare state that was missing from Mr Modi's Gujarat.

    In an op-ed in April 2014, Professor Ashok Kotwal of the University of British Columbia in Canada explained that while Gujarat had been one of the top-performing states in economic output growth, the same has not translated into meaningful development in the state.

    Prof Kotwal compares Gujarat's economic productivity and human development against other states and concludes that Gujarat has done so much better in terms of growth and so much worse in terms of development than other states.

    Professors Maitreesh Ghatak of the London School of Economics and Sanchari Roy of the University of Warwick are also interested in the comparative growth and development in the 16 large Indian states. In an online essay last year, they reported that Bihar had "improved the most during the 2000s".

    As for Gujarat, their analysis revealed that Gujarat's "performance in the 2000s does not seem to justify the wild euphoria and exuberant optimism about Mr Modi's economic leadership. In particular, there is no evidence of any significant growth acceleration in Gujarat in the 2000s".


    When the BJP bosses saw the impending defeat in Bihar, they tried to make beef and cows the focus of the elections. The BJP ran advertisements showing young girls hugging cows. Indian political observers recalled BJP ministers fuelling fires by telling Hindu voters that BJP's defeat would mean that vegetarian Hindus would be forced to eat beef.

    Pakistan had undergone a similar radicalisation under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The similarities between Mr Modi's India and Gen Zia's Pakistan are not lost on me: Mr Modi to India is what General Zia was to Pakistan.

    Even in India, writers and artists have been alarmed at the way the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are trying to radicalise the Indian society. Almost 400 performers, writers and scientists have returned their awards to the state-sponsored institutions in protest.

    Recently, the legendary poet, Gulzar, was dismayed by the radicalised rhetoric in India including BJP's claims that it would return India to the benevolence of the mythical Ram Raj.

    Arun Shourie is a former World Bank economist and one-time Modi loyalist. He no longer supports the BJP. He thinks that India should be thankful to the people of Bihar for stopping the country from following divisive and abusive politics. "The principal result of this election has been that the direction in which this country was being hurled, that has been blocked by the people of Bihar."

    I believe the most significant result of the Bihar election is that it has given hope to the Indian liberals that the rising tide of Hindutva can be checked.

    Yogendra Yadav, India's foremost political scientist, believes that Bihar has shattered BJP's myth of invincibility.

    "The monopoly of the NDA in the country's politics, the monopoly of the BJP over NDA and the monopoly of Modi in the BJP, all three are bound to be seriously questioned now," Mr Yadav said in a recent NDTV broadcast.

    A secular India and a moderate Pakistan are essential for peace and prosperity in South Asia. Gen Zia's Pakistan and Mr Modi's India are hardly the models to follow.

    Biharis have finally rejected Mr Modi's radicalism. I hope Pakistanis will continue to reject Gen Zia's extremism.