By: John Elliott


Indian politics have on Nov. 8 were hit with the biggest disruption since last year’s general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffering an unexpectedly heavy defeat in the state of Bihar’s assembly polls.

A close result had been widely predicted, but that proved wrong and a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar, chief minister for the past 10 years, has won 178 seats in the 243-seat assembly, while Modi’s BJP-led group has only 58.

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The winners – Lalu Yadav (left) and Nitish Kumar

This is a personal defeat for Modi, who addressed about 30 election campaign meetings, far more than is usual for a prime minister in a state election, and was relying for victory on his personal charisma that won him last year’s general election. It is also a significant defeat for Amit Shah, Modi’s abrasive chief aide and president of the BJP, who exemplifies the Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim approach of many leaders both in the party and in the RSS, the ideology-driven parent organization.

It is also a serious setback for his government, which needed a victory in Bihar to begin to build up its minority position in parliament’s Rajya Sabha (upper house) where members are indirectly elected via the states.

Modi leaves in a few days for a visit to the UK where, next Friday November 13, he will address what was expected to be a celebratory assembly of some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s mammoth Wembley Stadium. He will no doubt still be cheered like a pop star, as he has been at similar spectaculars in other capitals over the past year (though there have been some reports of a backlash). It will be worth watching to see if he shows how he intends to recover his political authority in India.

Modi and Shah ran a divisive campaign that included trying to rally Bihar’s majority Hindu electorate with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The BJP claims it had a development-oriented agenda, but that did not emerge from most of the campaign speeches at a time when the national focus has been on extremists trying to ban beef eating and restrict freedom of speech.

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The losers – Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah

Nitish Kumar, leader of the Bihar-based Janata Dal United (JDU) party has won a remarkable victory, being voted in as chief minister for a third consecutive term.

The most surprising aspect of the result however is that Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister convicted of massive corruption, has won more seats than Kumar’s party – 80 compared with 71, going up by around 55 whereas Kumar has lost some 45. The Congress Party also did surprisingly well, winning 27 seats, up from just four in the last (2010) state assembly election.

Yadav is disqualified from standing for election or holding political office, but he is still his party’s leader and is lauded for leading a social revolution in the 1990s that empowered his backward Yadav caste. 

This indicates that the election result stemmed from a strong vote by Lalu Yadav’s large Yadav caste and other low castes and Muslims combined with recognition of Kumar’s development record, and concern about the Modi and Shah divisive approach.