Analysing an election in a short article invariably creates a dilemma whether to focus on the contesting parties, issues, electorate response or electioneering. In recent times, the study of electioneering has acquired significance, particularly with the rise of populist politics. Here, I would focus on electioneering (henceforth referred to as election technology)—tools, techniques, art and craft of fighting an election. Election technology includes strategic alliance-building, selecting candidates and star campaigners, keeping in mind social configurations, sloganeering, messaging, posturing, creating hawa (atmosphere), using/managing media, including social media, social engineering, utilising various faultlines in society, recruiting cadres, using election research, using digital technology to manage, even manipulate public mood and decision-making by creating fear, frenzy or by selling dreams. They also bank on creating a real-time feedback mechanism, flexibility in changing gears, and micro-management up to the booth level. A party can ignore the power of election technology at its own peril. In recent times, those having mastery over the technology—election pundits and ‘Chanakya’ leaders—have gained remarkable stature in electoral politics as they have time and again exhibited the capacity to delink a party’s performance from people’s perception about it. They show the potential of manipulating people’s anger, dissatisfaction or expectations. It is not without nothing that elections can be fought on the past while anaesthetising the electorate of the present. Scholars have hinted at highly sophisticated ways of tinkering with the electoral system as part of ever developing election technology.
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The electoral victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) is a classic example of the above. To appreciate the role of election technology, let us first look at the immediate backdrop in which the elections were held. First, the continuing Covid pandemic, which has infected more than 2.2 lakh people and so far claimed over 6,000 lives in Bihar. The state’s management of the pandemic in terms of providing adequate health care has proved abysmal. Second, even before the pandemic happened, the country witnessed the highest unemployment rates. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown only worsened the unemployment situation, creating tens of millions of newly unemployed. Third, over two million migrant workers returned to the state after the announcement of the lockdown, facing immense hardships, from undertaking the return journey in perilous conditions to economic distress in their villages and towns. The BJP government at the Centre and the state government could have done much better had they been sensitive to the plight of migrants. With meagre state support during and after, their anguish has been palpable. Fourth, a part of the state suffered from severe floods to which the state’s relief response was highly unsatisfactory. Above all, there was a significant, visible anti-incumbency factor against the government, run by the JD(U) and BJP combine. If elections are a simple exercise of people’s will, one would expect the loss of seats of both partners of the ruling alliance and their unseating from power. What, then, explains the victory of the alliance and the irony of the situation where one partner gains significantly more seats, but the other suffer losses?
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The experiment of complex alliance-building by the BJP gives a clue to this change in the internal composition of the winning alliance. Its tacit understanding with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) must be noted, wherein the LJP fought mainly against the JD(U) and marred its chances in not less than 30 seats. However, the main objective of projecting an independent status of the LJP outside the NDA was to prevent a total alignment of Dalits with the RJD, Congress and the left parties. Alliance with clear caste identity-based parties like Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) served the same purpose. An alliance of upper castes and sections of OBCs, EBCs and Dalits within and outside the NDA worked well to achieve the twin objectives of the BJP—belittling the stature of the JD(U) and causing considerable harm to the MGB. LJP’s relentless tirade against Nitish Kumar helped deflect anti-incumbency against the chief minister and his party. The posturing of the BJP during campaigning was uniquely devised to ensure minimum identification with the chief minister and his party. This risky but carefully calibrated strategy worked as it ensured the victory of the NDA but marginalised the JD(U), which will have serious implications for the future polity in the state.
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The election campaign became a battle of perceptions. On one hand, the RJD, under the energetic leadership of Tejashwi Yadav and a spirited Left, raised the issue of day-to-day material issues of the poor masses—padai, dawai, sinchai aur kamai (education, healthcare, irrigation and jobs), with emphasis on jobs; on the other, NDA leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, spoke about Ram Mandir, Article 370, Jai Shri Ram, Muslim infiltrators and 15 years of ‘jungle raj’ of the Lalu-Rabri regime. The MGB issues were inclusive, directly related to the present and promising ‘real’ development. The NDA issues were partisan, related to a timescale spanning 15 to 30 years in the past, and rested on a claim of having achieved ‘development’ to counter new claim-making. How did masses perceive these issues—which were ‘real’ and which were manufactured? The role of controlled (also called ‘godi’) media, local Youtube channels, and bombardment of messages through other media was crucial in countering real issues. Unsurprisingly, observers on the ground wrote about a lack of anger against the Centre despite joblessness, mismanagement of the pandemic response, migrant crisis, flood response and rising prices of essential goods. The real issues worked with a section of the youth, but they were largely neutralised. In the European and American context, literature is abundant on this subject, known as populism. However, there is thin literature on its specific characteristics in the Indian context. The Centrist and Left parties will have to pay equal attention to the election technology, to use it in their own ways, according to their own ideologies.
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The Bihar elections point to a disturbing time ahead. The marginalisation of the JD(U) in the ruling coalition will embolden the BJP to play its Hindu nationalist agenda brazenly. The election saw three worrying trends—the rise of the BJP with its clear agenda; the rise of AIMIM, which openly aroused Islamic sentiments and mainly targeted the centre-left combine of the MGB and the efforts of the caste and religion-based coalitions of the BSP, RLSP, AIMIM and another caste-based coalition of Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) and Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan’s Bhim Army. The AIMIM tried to pit Muslims against Yadavs, thus puncturing the Muslim-Yadav combination of the RJD. The Dalit parties tried to pit Dalits against the Yadavs. These parties and their coalitions not only made a decisive dent in the votebank of the MGB in the Kosi region, they also weakened the possibility of a non-caste coalition of the marginalised masses. The rise of the AIMIM is not only music to the ears of BJP, but it is likely to polarise Hindu and Muslim communities in an increasingly communalised political environment in the densely Muslim populated districts in northeast Bihar. With the dominance of BJP in the ruling coalition, its divisive politics is likely to occupy centrestage. We will increasaingly see mobilisation around CAA, NRC and Muslim infiltration.
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The Bihar elections have seen the rise of the Hindu-Muslim and casteist forces on the one hand, and the Left forces on the other. The state will increasingly see a battle between real and manufactured issues. The thin margin of victory of the NDA shows that it will not be easy to pursue its agenda. Much will depend on whether like the Left parties other constituents of the MGB—RJD and Congress—will show readiness to go beyond an electoral alliance and become part of the struggle for peace and development in Bihar.
(Pushpendra is professor and chairperson, TISS Patna Centre. Views are personal)