In the words of a former prime minister, when a big tree falls the earth shakes a little. And Bihar strongman Lalu Prasad Yadav' ringing defeat at the hands of his former associate Nitish Kumar will surely reverberate through Indian polity.
In scale it is no less resounding than the 1977 verdict against Indira Gandhi. In significance it ranks on par with Devi Lal's in Haryana in 1987. The latter win represented the first crack in then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's citadel which at that time seemed invincible. The government of Manmohan Singh, in contrast, stands with its vulnerable points visible to all. Lalu's electoral debacle is bound to lead to a realignment of forces within the framework, which in turn could alter the pressure points it is subject to.
Suddenly, the post-poll arrangement of May 2004 with the Congress as the fulcrum, that seemed secure for five years, appears not so sure. With important state level elections like in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu staring it in the face -- states where the Congress needs to demonstrate more than a token presence -- the message from the voters cannot be starker for the centrist party.
To call it a junior partner in Bihar's Secular Democratic Front headed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal would be a misnomer; it was at best a hanger-on in a state it dominated till not so long ago. In state after state it is a similar tale. In states like Tamil Nadu, it was a conscious decision to withdraw -- to accommodate regional aspirations. In others like Maharashtra, it was a simple bankruptcy of ideas and leadership that led the Congress to its present state.
Maharashtra, in fact, demonstrates the party's paucity. On one hand it is forced to sup with the politician who set out to destroy it, Sharad Pawar. On the other hand it is bringing in renegades who spent their entire political career working against its ideology. The motive: checkmating the Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray, sure, but Pawar as well. At this rate, it can outsource its political base from its foe turned mascot, Narayan Rane.
The message from voters is always two-fold. The apparent and the subtle. Bihar's voters have apparently voted for change, which is nothing new. Since the 2004 general elections we have known that the freed genie of economic liberalisation has fanned aspiration levels, which has skewed voter expectations. Satellite television has become the great leveller, equating remote outposts with the megapolis. Thus Ranchi wants to be the new Patna, which wants to be the new Kolkata, which wants to be the new Mumbai, which wants to be the new New York, and so the expectations keep rising. The outsourcing boom, in which minor towns are major players, is another factor fuelling this surge for better life.
Bihar was the last man standing in this mad rush, Lalu Yadav and his homespun politics the final barrier. But it was a battle he would have lost anyway. The vote against him is widespread in the state, but look at the vengeance in which the Patna metropolitan region has acted. In the February election the Rashtriya Janata Dal won 11 out of 43 here; now its tally there has plummeted to 6.
It is on a scale in which the cities voted against the National Democratic Alliance in 2004. They are the first to taste economic freedom, and they want more, and the countryside wants the same as their urban counterpart. This is an endless cycle, one that no politician seems able to withstand.
Will Mulayam Yadav be able to stem this march in UP? Or Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu?
Once upon a time, the Congress was a harbinger of change; today it stands consumed by the very change it wrought in 1991, when Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, opened the doors to the economy. The hidden message from Bihar is for all politicians: to deliver. For the Congress, it is a message of doom.
The federal government it leads in New Delhi is built on negatives. As the periodical outbursts from the Left parties show, there is nothing in common between it and the major blocs that support it, never mind the Common Minimum Programme. What the CMP has done, or the present political arrangement has done, is to confine the Congress party to a small area of influence, while its 'allies' have the run of the nation. To grow to its potential, it must confront its support parties, take over the political space occupied by them; to do so would be to invite certain death of its government.
To not do so would be to die a slow death, as in Bihar. Or, despite the win in Konkan, as in Maharashtra.
The key to the Congress's existential dilemma, as always, lies in Uttar Pradesh, whose strongman Mulayam Singh is not part of the United Progressive Alliance despite having more members of Parliament with him than Lalu Yadav. It is here that the Congress's decline began; it is here that the Bharatiya Janata Party's ascent began. It is here that the final battle for India's political supremacy will be fought.
But before taking him on the Congress will have to get its hands dirty in states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, states where it has little chance of making headway, as things stand.
But Mulayam is nothing if not shrewd. Despite not being part of the Congress set-up in New Delhi, he has kept his lines to the Left intact, as evidenced by their joint call against India's moves on Iran. Will the communists sacrifice him, when he is such a critical part of their plans to contain the Congress's sphere of influence?
When things come to a shove, the Congress will do well to remember the message from Bihar. It can either play second fiddle in the states and remain stunted, or go it alone and try to grow. Party president Sonia Gandhi will soon have to start earning her salary.
Can the Congress do it? Share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org