‘Indian, Liberal & Anxious’ By Mukul Kasavan

NEW DELHI — Earlier this month in the state of Bihar, India’s ruling coalition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, was routed by a provincial “grand alliance” that won nearly three-fourths of the seats in the state legislative assembly. Given that most published exit polls had predicted a close race, this was a massive defeat for the party.

More pointedly, it was a humiliating personal defeat for Prime MinisterNarendra Modi and Amit Shah, Mr. Modi’s consigliere from his home state of Gujarat. Since Mr. Modi became prime minister in May 2014, Mr. Shah, the president of the BJP, has run the party’s state election campaigns as though they were presidential contests between the prime minister on the one hand and Antagonist X on the other. After some initial successes, this strategy has failed spectacularly — first in the Delhi elections earlier this year (in which the BJP won just three seats out of 70) and now in Bihar, one of the most important states in the country’s Gangetic heartland.

Several economic reasons contributed to the BJP’s defeat: the high price of pulses, for example, and the government’s failure to fulfill a promise to fund newly opened bank accounts for the poor. But since the party ran in Bihar the most explicitly communal election campaign in India’s recent history, the most obvious lesson to draw from its defeat is that the state’s electorate rejected the BJP’s majoritarian bigotry.

This conclusion should have lifted the liberal gloom that set in after the BJP’s victory in the 2014 general election. Yet it hasn’t. Why aren’t those who have fretted that Hindu nationalism would swamp the pluralist common sense of the Republic now reading the grand alliance’s victory in Bihar as a sign that the Republic has struck back? Indian liberals, keenly aware of their privileged lives in a poor country, seem haunted by the anxiety that they are too quick to read their ideals into the workings of pragmatic grass-roots politics.

Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, leader of the grand alliance and heir to an indigenous socialist tradition, joined forces with Lalu Prasad Yadav, a notoriously corrupt populist, because Mr. Yadav commands the allegiance of one of the state’s largest caste communities. The influential political scientist Yogendra Yadav (no relation) said a month before the election that it offered only a “tragic choice” between “naked majoritarianism” and “a completely defocused caste coalition” that “includes one of the most corrupt political forces this country has ever seen.” The historian Ramachandra Guha, citing the lawlessness that defines Lalu Prasad Yadav’s politics, echoed Yogendra Yadav’s pessimism: “Whoever wins, the people of Bihar have already lost.”

Both academics were questioning the alliance’s credentials: Is invoking caste loyalties progressive or backward-looking? In the context of the Bihar election, the answer should be clear. Any political coalition that brings together peasants, marginal farmers, landless laborers and artisans in a mainly rural state to oppose a Hindu majoritarian party dominated by urban upper castes must be a virtuous coalition.

 

Majoritarian politicians have managed to put some Indian liberals on the defensive by claiming that the so-called secularism of the Bihar grand alliance amounted to buying Muslims’ vote by playing on their insecurities. In fact, when confronted by a party that systematically trolled Muslims during its campaign, voting en masse for the other side was an act of political rationality, not the reflex of a hive mind.

After the election, Yogendra Yadav again sounded a note of caution, arguing that in a truly secular state beleaguered minorities would not have needed to rally behind parties that promised them security. This is true, but it is beside the point. There is no question that Muslims in India are at a disadvantage by any socioeconomic measure — they are frequently discriminated against in matters of housing, for instance, and make up a disproportionately large part of India’s prison population. The BJP’s defeat in the Bihar election isn’t going to improve the condition of Muslims, but to the extent that it prevents a majoritarian party from running the state, it will keep matters from getting worse.

Consider Mr. Modi’s stump speeches. He accused his opponents of scheming to shift opportunities reserved for dalits and other plebeian castes to members of “a particular community.” The BJP’s most important provincial leader in Bihar, Sushil Modi (who is not related to the prime minister), made the same allegation on Twitter, specifying that the beneficiaries of this stolen largesse were Muslims and Christians.

This wasn’t the first time Mr. Modi dog-whistled while campaigning. He did it during the general election last year, referring to the beef trade controlled by Muslims and the infiltration of Muslim migrants into eastern India. But now he is the prime minister of India. And he is a prime minister who, by insinuating that the poor Hindus of Bihar are being robbed for the benefit of poor Muslims, is playing zero-sum games with the poorest communities in a very poor state.

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