AS THE STATE of Bihar went to the polls at the end of October, its 125m citizens were contending with both the pandemic and the associated economic slump. Would they punish the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the prime minister, Narendra Modi? Exit polls suggested they might.
But when the results were released on November 11th, they showed the BJP and its local ally, the Janata Dal (United) (JDU), winning roughly the same share of the vote as their biggest challengers, a coalition of the local Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), leftist parties and Congress, a much enfeebled party that nonetheless remains the only nationwide rival to the BJP. In terms of seats in the state assembly, the BJP’s alliance actually won a narrow majority. And within the alliance it was the BJP that performed best, winning most of the seats it contested. The JDU, whose leader, Nitish Kumar, has served three near-consecutive terms as Bihar’s chief minister, floundered.
“The BJP has achieved exactly what it wanted in Bihar, which is to have a government but to cut Nitish Kumar down to size,” says Pavan Varma, a former adviser to Mr Kumar. To make things sweeter for the BJP, Congress won only a meagre 19 of the 70 seats it fought. Better yet for Mr Modi, the Election Commission declared his party the winner in dozens of local by-elections that were held simultaneously in 11 other states. Most significantly it strengthened its hold on the pivotal state of Madhya Pradesh, returning under its banner a clutch of deputies whose defection from Congress last year gave the BJP a narrow majority in the state assembly.
Given that India’s economy has shrunk perhaps by 10% since covid-19 hit and that more than 128,000 people have died from the disease, this was a stellar performance. Six years into office and 18 months after winning a landslide national election, Mr Modi has not only kept his own sheen bright but has also expanded his party’s influence. The serial humiliation of Congress, now widely blamed for dragging down the opposition’s “grand alliance” in Bihar, will further shrink its bargaining power in other states where it needs allies to challenge the BJP. And by outshining his own ally in Bihar, Mr Modi has again shown the effectiveness of a tactic that has transformed the BJP from a regional party to the dominant political force across India. In state after state it has gained power with the help of a local partner, only to eclipse it gradually with the help of its vastly greater financial resources and the disciplined ground troops provided by Hindu-nationalist groups allied to the party.
To be fair, the BJP’s narrow victory in Bihar owes as much to the fragmenting of its opponents in a first-past-the-post system as to its own potency. Congress’s ally, the RJD, a local party led by the 31-year-old scion of a political dynasty, won 75 seats, one more than the BJP. With a slightly broader coalition it might have carried the day.
Four more states are due to elect new assemblies in the first half of next year. Several of the contests promise to be big and brutal. The BJP has vowed to seize West Bengal in particular. If Mr Modi had begun to worry that he was losing his famous hawa, or tailwind, he will be resting easier now. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Against daunting odds”