Just eight months after electing a hung assembly, the people of Bihar have delivered a clear verdict, without ifs or buts, against the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress ruling alliance.
The result is unusual for five reasons.
First, the vote got sharply polarised in an amazingly short time. The social and political realignments that normally take years to unfold in most states were compressed into months.
Second, the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party won a convincing and decisive victory, claiming 60 per cent of the assembly seats. This hasn't happened in Bihar -- or Uttar Pradesh -- for a quarter-century. Victors there have had to be content with marginal or incremental gains. The RJD's greatest-ever victory -- 167 out of the then 324 seats -- in 1995 pales beside the latest result.
Third, the JD-U's sweep has come on a remarkably low voter turnout -- 46 per cent, or 17 percentage-points less than the past 15 years' average. Usually, such sweeps occur with high turnouts. The low turnout is partly the result of overzealous Election Commission officials like K J Rao, who seem to have had a dampening effect on OBC (other backward caste), Dalit and Muslim voters. This is no cause for celebration.
A fourth feature is the rapid shrinking of the space held by Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party, owing to his negative, dog-in-the-manger role in February/March in not supporting either the RJD or the JD-U alliances in forming a government.
As many as 74 per cent of the voters polled in a post-election survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies blamed Paswan for this; and 52 per cent for the imposition of President's rule.
Paswan earned the disapproval of 80 per cent of all electors -- including 63 per cent of LJP voters -- for insisting that a Muslim should become chief minister. The demand was seen as blatantly opportunistic.
Finally, the role played by Governor Buta Singh turned many uncommitted voters against the RJD-Congress. Singh was widely seen as partisan in summarily rejecting the JD(U)-BJP's claim to form a government -- although the RJD-Congress palpably lacked the strength to do so.
His recommendation of President's rule was seen as devious. This was confirmed by a Supreme Court judgment in October. Matters worsened with reports of Singh's sons interfering with the running of government.
In retrospect, the United Progressive Alliance made a big mistake in not giving Nitish Kumar a chance to form a government in February. It's not clear that he could have gathered the necessary numbers -- even after splitting half of the LJP's 29 MLAs by dubious means. But fairness demanded that he not be precluded.
In any case, his government would have been shaky and potentially unviable. Anti-incumbency would probably have created a decent chance for the UPA to return to power honourably. Instead, it sought a shortcut -- and paid for it. This only suggests that respecting norms of democratic decency pays even in politics -- not Machiavellian tactics.
What are the social dynamics underlying the Bihar mandate? What do the results signify for politics in the Gangetic heartland? And what lessons should political parties draw from them?
First and foremost, the electoral verdict is a forceful mandate for ending the 15-year rule of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi. It's a positive vote only secondarily. The electorate's growing disappointment with the personalised Lalu-Rabri Raj has been reflected in the erosion of the RJD's vote-share from 33 per cent in 2000 to 31 per cent in 2004 and 25 per cent in February. It has now fallen to 23 per cent.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the RJD has never depended upon the Muslim-Yadav vote alone. It was always a broad coalition of the poor, and would attract sizable Dalit and MBC (most backward classes) votes.
But there have been clear indications of an erosion of the RJD's Muslim and even Yadav vote (the latter from 88 per cent in 1995 to 78 per cent). Even more grave is the halving of its Dalit vote over 10 years. This time, the greatest erosion probably happened in its MBC and Muslim votes (the Pasmanda, or backward Muslim group led by Ali Anwar, backed the LJP).
By March, a majority of Yadavs alone wanted to give the RJD another chance in government -- only 17 per cent did not. Sixty-four per cent of all voters said 'no' to it, as did 85 per cent of Kurmis, 63 per cent of Dalits, and 56 per cent of Muslims. Only 13 per cent felt the Lalu-Rabri regime was 'good all the way'. Thirty-five per cent felt it was 'bad all the way' and 37 per cent said it began well, but deteriorated.
The Bihar government became the worst-rated regime among 11 recently polled states, with 47 per cent of people dissatisfied with it two-and-a-half times the average for the other states.
The Lalu-Rabri Raj symbolised bad governance and collapse of public services in health, education, roads and other infrastructure. The development agenda -- which 60 per cent of Biharis identify as the 'biggest' issue, as compared to 24 and 22 per cent in Haryana and Jharkhand -- took a beating. Corruption became rampant. Bihar retrogressed in social indices. Its public finances worsened. Insecurity grew as jobs vanished and disorder spread.
Lalu's greatest virtue -- and attraction for the poor -- lay in giving them 'a voice', or dignity and empowerment. Here he concentrated the best features of the politics of 'social justice' -- recognition for the underprivileged -- which dominates UP and Bihar.
He uniquely communicated with and mobilised vast numbers of subalterns. But Lalu never translated 'social justice' slogans into programmes and policies. 'Social justice' became an empty shell.
His appeal started eroding rapidly after 2000. By early 2005, defeat stared Lalu in the face, its imminence barely masked by the spectacular performance of the RJD-led front in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress, with its limited upper caste-based strength, couldn't reverse the trend. Nitish Kumar campaigned well and won over significant numbers of MBCs and Muslims. Many of his gains came from the smaller parties. He led what might be called a 'coalition of extremes', its core based on the OBC Kurmis and upper castes.
He instilled confidence among the MBCs -- especially the Sahus, Telis, Kewats, Mallahs, etc -- and other marginal groups and formed a united, if temporary, coalition of diverse social forces.
The election result is emphatically not a victory of the BJP or Hindutva. The BJP's ideology wasn't a factor in it. Nor did Uma Bharti & Co appeal to Hindutva. The battle was fought along caste lines.
What triumphed was the very same politics that Lalu represents: of 'social justice', under another leader. Nitish is as deeply rooted in the 'self-respect' politics of the subaltern classes as any other successful politician of the Gangetic plains, which are in the grip of the dual phenomena of OBC self-assertion and Dalit self-empowerment.
The Bihar result will disappoint all those who loathed Lalu precisely because he represented 'populist' politics and barely hid his contempt for elitist, rightwing, neo-liberal ideas.
Nitish belongs to the same political current as Lalu -- the Lohia/Karpoori Thakur Socialists who were drawn into the JP movement. They are both children of Mandal politics. Nitish has a purely expedient relationship with the BJP. He is not communal and recently made overtures to secular parties, although he was silent on the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The National Democratic Alliance will celebrate the Bihar results as its triumph. But it would be gravely mistaken to regard them as signifying its revival.
There are no electoral battles around the corner that the NDA can win. The next elections are in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where the NDA doesn't count. However, intra-NDA equations will definitely change after Bihar.
Nitish's personal triumph will marginalize Mr George Fernandes within the JD-U. Nitish is the only NDA leader besides Navin Patnaik who can lead a non-BJP party to victory. If the NDA continues to flounder and fray at the margins, and the BJP's crisis worsens, as is likely, Nitish could well look to forming a 'Third Force' front. Over time, he may well be able to shake off his dependence on the BJP in Bihar.
The results are a setback for the UPA, although not a grave one. Its national-level stability isn't in danger so long as the Left backs it -- as it will probably do after the reconciliation of its differences over Iran.
However, the Congress must learn a lesson. It cannot revive itself in UP or Bihar unless it relates to OBC-Dalit self-assertion, in particular the new self-assertion of the MBCs, who are a relatively leaderless but very restive constituency.
The Congress has a golden opportunity here. Its best chance to grow in the Gangetic heartland lies in 'social justice' politics based on marginalized groups and a revival of Indira Gandhi's pro-poor 'populist' model of 1967-1971.
This entails that it change its economic and social policies and stop banking on multi-caste, multi-class coalitions in which the upper castes dominate. It's far from clear that the Congress will draw the right lesson and therefore transform itself.
If it doesn't, it could again find itself in decline.