All elections are inevitably extended narratives; and each poll, a soap opera with its fair share of theatrical twists, turns and dramatic pauses. A fortnight since the assembly elections in Bihar first began, the state seems to have shaken off the strain of the intermissions. After a forced interval for the past few days due to Navaratri, Durga Puja and Muharram, the campaigns have been revived in earnest. In ordinary circumstances, such a break in the middle of an enactment like this one would serve as the perfect opportunity for the political players involved to take stock of their position and evaluate their strategies. However, it is not possible to analyse the remedial measures taken by the two adversaries—the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance that is facing the Grand Alliance comprising the Janata Dal(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress—without taking a look at the campaign machinery that has provided the backdrop for these elections so far.
After polling for the second phase ended on 16 October 2015, a consensus emerged, among even sections of the NDA, that the BJP’s campaign is stuttering. Unless the party is able to make a significant change to its chal, chehra, charitra aur chintan (behaviour, character, face and ideology)—as it had attempted to in the 1990’s under the aegis of KN Govindacharya, who went on to become the party’s general secretary—the BJP’s prospects in the three phases that remain do not look very bright. More than two decades ago, when Govindacharya first furthered this cause, the BJP was looking to socially engineer itself as it tried to expand its electorate base to backward castes. This time, however, the party appears to have abandoned any attempts at introspection. It has chosen instead, to limit its relationship with the electorate to hollow sales pitches.
After the BJP’s streak of victory in elections across the country last year, arrogance was institutionalised at all levels in the party. A prevailing sense of superiority prevented the BJP from seeing that ground realities have changed—and drastically so. The party’s leaders supplemented this myopic approach by focussing all of their energies on hyping Jitin Ram Manjhi, Nitish Kumar’s erstwhile protégé, while ignoring allies such as Lok Janshakti Party President Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. This modus operandi resulted in an internal strife between Paswan and Manjhi over who represents the interests of state’s Dalits better. Tussles such as this have hampered the ability of the BJP to put up a united front, leading to a disjointed partnership in which allies are not working for each other. A senior functionary from the BJP told me that the NDA has not been able to pool its resources together, and that the BJP’s allies are “left fending for themselves.” In the Lok Sabha polls, cohesion was one of the biggest strengths of the BJP-led grouping. During these elections, the party’s inability to prevent the fragmentation of its camp has been one of its biggest shortcomings.
The third miscalculation made by the BJP leadership was its belief that the alliance forged by Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav would eventually result, either in a fall-out or an ineffective front. While the Grand Alliance was an admittedly difficult proposition, the BJP’s folly was that it let this assumption serve as the underlying premise for its course of action.
There are two features in an electoral campaign that can cement or destroy a political bid. The first is political strategy, and the second, a campaign to leverage this strategy. The Grand Alliance secured a head start on both counts. The three parties determined a seat distribution formula and subsequent seat allocation on 12 August, much before the BJP and its allies did on 14 September. The Grand Alliance’s campaign managed to maintain its vigour through constant metamorphosis. Its tactic of adding new elements to the campaign every few days was reminiscent of the technique Modi used in 2014. This is probably because Prashant Kishor, one of Modi’s campaign managers in the Lok Sabha election, is now working with Kumar. On the other hand, the BJP maintained a flat and even pitch. It faltered by sticking to the same script: A big Modi rally followed by little else. Although some of the NDA’s local leaders addressed a few gatherings, these were lacklustre as the hype that surrounded Modi’s blitzkrieg rendered the apparatus both exhausted and overwhelmed