NEW DELHI: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffered a heavy defeat on Sunday in an election in Bihar, the country’s third most populous state, signalling the waning power of a leader who until recently had an unrivalled reputation as a vote winner.
Modi’s second straight regional election setback will galvanise opposition parties, embolden rivals in his own party and diminish his standing with foreign leaders amid concern that he may not win a second term as prime minister.
“This is a clear indication that Modi’s popularity may now have peaked,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation.
The loss in Bihar will also hamper Modi’s push to pass economic reforms, because he needs to win most state elections in the next three years to gain full control of parliament. Investors are already fretting over the speed of change in Modi’s India, and worries over an additional stumbling block will likely knock financial markets on Monday.
In the most significant vote since he won power 18 months ago, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost in Bihar after running a campaign that sought to polarise voters along caste and religious lines.
It was the most expensive state election ever fought by the BJP, with more than 90 top party figures addressing 600 rallies over the last six weeks, party officials said
“The Bihar election was a very important battle for us. We will have to analyse each and every aspect of the result,” said Ram Madhav, a BJP general secretary. “There are lessons to be learned.”
An anti-Modi alliance led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was ahead with 179 seats in the 243-seat regional assembly, an overwhelming majority, tallies compiled by the election commission showed. Modi’s BJP-led alliance was ahead in 58 seats where trends were clear.
Modi tweeted that he had called to congratulate Kumar, whose regional ‘grand alliance’ could now become a template for politicians seeking to prevent Modi’s march towards untrammelled power under India’s federal system.
The defeat could also dampen the mood as Modi heads to Britain for the first bilateral visit by an Indian leader since 2006. Modi is due to address a crowd next week at London’s Wembley stadium.
‘Govern, don’t campaign’
Some regional party leaders expressed bitterness over a campaign that thrust Modi into the spotlight – he addressed more than 30 rallies – turning the election into a referendum on his personal leadership. Analysts said an Indian prime minister has never before invested so much time in a state election.
“The role of the prime minister is to govern the country, and not become the lead campaigner in a state election,” one senior BJP state leader said, asking not to be named.
Modi’s campaign started with a message of economic development, then, as the race began to tighten, his party shifted to appealing to caste and religious alliances. The slaughter of cows, an animal revered by the majority Hindu population, became a major topic. Members of Modi’s party also expressed concern about the rising Muslim population.
Speaking at a news conference after the elections, Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal party was part of the anti-BJP alliance, lashed out at Modi’s ‘communal’ politics.
“Modi is nothing but an RSS pracharak (loyalist),”Yadav was quoted as saying by The Indian Express. “Efforts were made to communalise the society, but people of Bihar defeated that attempt. BJP had its eyes on Kolkata [the capital of West Bengal]… [but] Bihar stopped them in their tracks,” he said.
Yadav warned that “keeping the BJP government in Delhi will divide the nation into pieces.” He reiterated his intentions to start a public movement against the ruling party.
Meanwhile, Jyotiraditya Scindia, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said the BJP must end campaigning on issues that fracture the country along religious lines. “This is a decisive mandate against divisiveness in favour of development,” he said.
Bihar is one of its biggest electoral prizes and the most pressing challenges of India prevail there, including widespread poverty, corruption and poor infrastructure. If independent, its 104 million people would be the world’s 13th-largest nation, more populous than Germany.
This may have been Modi’s last chance to win a state election before the spring of 2017. He faces five elections next year in regions where his party has failed to make inroads.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2015.
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