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Across the aisle: Win or lose, Mr Modi will be on test in Bihar polls

When you read this column on the morning of 8th November, the air will be thick with suspense.

Who will win the elections in Bihar is the question uppermost on everyone’s mind. There are two principal formations: the NDA led by Mr Narendra Modi and the Grand Alliance led by Mr Nitish Kumar. I think one of the formations will get an absolute majority and will be able to form the government. That, in itself, is good. After a bitter, divisive and corrosive campaign, the people of Bihar deserve a stable government.

Which formation wins the Bihar elections will matter not only to the people of Bihar but to all the people of India. The announcement of the final result will be a defining moment in the political history of the country.

Prime Minister or Prachar Mantri?

The result of the Bihar elections will matter most to one person — Mr Narendra Modi. No Prime Minister before him has campaigned so extensively — and aggressively — in a state election. Mr Modi addressed 26 rallies, some even in block headquarters that had never before witnessed a Prime Minister addressing a gathering. No wonder that, towards the end of the campaign, the people started referring to Mr Modi as Prachar Mantri.

That, Mr Modi is. He is an unequalled pracharak. He loves to campaign. He loves to hold forth to the people from a high and distant stage because that suits his style of communication — one way, no questions, no interruptions and the front rows packed with ardent supporters. Mr Modi also presumably believes that it is his campaign that won the elections for the BJP in 2014 and subsequently in several states.

Mr Modi threw everything in his armoury into the Bihar elections. He threw in money, human resources, advertisements, invectives and innuendos on a scale that was unprecedented. Nothing was out of bounds.

The BJP brought in reservation, the cow and finally Pakistan into the debate. The name of the game was polarisation. Everyone who protested against the rising intolerance — from writers to scientists to historians to artistes — was mocked and abused. At the end of the campaign, India must have appeared to the world as more divided and chaotic than ever before.

The casualty was development. Mr Modi claims to have a huge stake in the development agenda. That is the plank on which he had won a historic mandate and that is the promise on which he has delivered so little — especially jobs, infrastructure and prices.

Mr Modi also has a huge stake in keeping his flock together — the BJP, the few allies, the RSS and the Sangh Parivar. He has made no secret of his desire to complete his term and win another term in 2019.

Mr Modi has two choices. He can return to being a whole-time Prime Minister and devote the whole of his time and energy to advance the development agenda. Alternatively, he can be the Prachar Mantri and devote practically the whole of his time to winning elections for the BJP as several states, including Uttar Pradesh, will go to elections in the next 18 months.

What will be good for the country? A victory or defeat for the BJP in Bihar?

If the BJP wins

A win in Bihar could propel the party in either direction. Win and continue with the winning formula of polarisation is just as likely as win and return to the development agenda. The choice is Mr Modi’s. So far Mr Modi has not revealed why he has not reined in the louts and loudmouths. The question is, can’t he or won’t he? If the truth is he cannot, because of the omnipresence of the RSS, it will be a calamity. If the truth is he will not, because he is a dedicated swayamsevak, it will be a catastrophe. I fear that a win in Bihar will encourage the BJP to embrace more tightly the agenda of polarisation.

If the BJP loses

On the other hand, a loss in Bihar could also push the BJP in either direction. Again, the choice is Mr Modi’s. He could pause, take stock, pull back and steer the party on the path of good governance and development. Alternatively, he could come under pressure to throw off all restraints and adopt the core agenda of Hindutva — enforce a uniform civil code, repeal Article 370, build the Ram temple at Ayodhya, ban altogether the slaughter of cows and sale of beef, rewrite history and textbooks and so on. My view — and this is an optimistic view — is that a defeat in Bihar will have a sobering effect on Mr Modi and the BJP.

If that analysis leaves you in uncertainty and despair, I am sorry. My conclusion is that the result of the Bihar elections will not matter as much as Mr Narendra Modi’s fundamental beliefs. He has, alternately, portrayed himself as Hindu Hriday Samrat and as Vikas Purush. Who is the real Mr Modi will be known when he takes his first decisive political step after the Bihar elections — the Cabinet reshuffle.

The Cabinet reshuffle will be a pointer to the direction that Mr Modi intends to take. Win or lose in Bihar, Mr Narendra Modi will be on test.

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