Chanakya Vs Sun Tzu in Bihar
Is Bihar going to be Delhi Redux for Modi-Amit Shah duo? Suddenly, this question has gained currency after Round 2 of Bihar polls on October 16 - much of it in Maoist infested areas, where NDA was actually expected to do better. Some media stalwarts are going to the extent of predicting a ''total rout'' for BJP. I have been travelling widely across Bihar over the last few months - my work often taking me to villages in the interiors.
The general feedback from South east region was BJP’s showing was on expected lines barring areas like Bhagalpur where wrong choice of candidates or in-fighting has been problematic. To balance, BJP seemed to have done well in erstwhile Communist bastions like Samastipur. Depending on who was asked about the final outcome, the answer was either a comfortable majority for NDA or a “tight fight”.
But on October 17 the Social Media went viral with speculation about BJP's certain defeat. Inferences were drawn from cancellation of Modi's rallies with the hash-tag #ModiQuitsBiharBattle trending on Twitter. Newspapers published reports, quoting unnamed sources within the party, about BJP revising its strategy - bringing local leaders to the fore and the star duo of Modi-Shah taking a back-seat. News of Amit Shah summoning Manohar Lal Khattar, Mahesh Sharma and Sakshi Maharaj to reprimand them for their 'beef' remarks was played up as a sign of BJP leadership's nervousness. Shatrughan Sinha's sly tweets about inner party dissensions added fuel to the fire.
What has caused this dramatic change of mood? Are these genuine reports or rumour mongering by well-oiled anti-Modi propaganda machine? I for one wouldn't rule out the latter and I think it will still be a close call. This might well change and we may witness a landslide one way or the other. But it will require an exceptionally high order of clairvoyance to write off the NDA altogether at this early juncture with 3 more rounds of polling still to go. That so many journalists and Social Media pundits are staking reputations – despite going wrong in the past - to join the chorus, smacks of a pickled agenda.
Only the politically gullible would believe that a master strategist like Amit Shah could have underestimated the challenge or importance for winning Bihar for Modi and his own political survival. If he cracked UP & Bihar so phenomenally in 2014 - he can't be one to make simplistic assumptions about Bihar's complex caste arithmetic. Yet, that does not make him infallible.
There are many parameters on which Amit Shah's strategy may have been off the mark. First, over obsession with 'win-ability' of candidates can create disaffection within. Murmurs of this were heard in the early days from people like R K Singh. Secondly, not projecting local leaders and naming a CM candidate and instead relying on one star campaigner can always be a double-edged sword. The law of diminishing returns was also bound to catch up with Modi's popularity but to what extent declaration a Bihar special package could neutralise this is a matter of conjecture. Similarly, induction of Jiten Ram Manjhi was always a gamble.
However, the bigger variable was the transferability of votes between Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. There was never any doubt about the Muslim votes - but questions remain if they would split or be cast en-bloc in favour of the strongest non-NDA candidate. BJP clearly banked heavily on the positive Development and negative Jungle Raj plans.
BJP has been working on a 3 level top-down strategy. While Modi was supposed to set the agenda and create the ''wave'' at the state level - the message was expected to be carried forward by state and local leaders to the blocks and panchayats. Finally, "Booth Committees" were entrusted with the last mile mobilisation. Till a few days back - learned analysts argued how Modi had totally hijacked the discourse and Nitish was left defending his position. By all accounts, Modi's rallies were a huge draw compared to the modest crowds at Nitish' rally and at times, embarrassingly sparse gatherings of Lalu. The BJP state and local leadership were intensely campaigning in districts and blocks.
True that BJP's calculations may have gone awry. Firstly, there has been no dent in Nitish’ personal brand-equity and there is no real "anti-incumbency'' against him. Relatively, Lalu may have been discredited but for the Yadavs - Lalu may be a ''chara-chor'' but he's still one of us. ''Jungle Raj'' may be a big concern among the upper and more affluent classes - but not as much for the poor. For the overall improvement in law and order people credit Nitish. In contrast, while the impact of Mohan Bhagwat's remark, Dadri or Lalu's comment on beef eating practices is difficult to assess, these have the potential of snowballing into major factors.
A seasoned general always factors for a margin of error in strategy and is adept at doing mid-course corrections. It would be if Amit Shah doesn’t tweak his game-plan for the slog-overs. It indeed makes eminent sense not to exhaust Modi's fire-power so far ahead of the remaining 3 phases and hold the final salvos till the end - while allowing local leaders and cadres to do the ground work and build the tempo as it were. It would be prudent to do damage control and control irresponsible statements by sections within the party. But to read too much in this will be immature or motivated.
War-room managers of Nitish Kumar are entitled to deploy all legitimate means at their disposal to improve their prospects. It would indeed be a smart move if a few leaves have been taken from Sun Tzu's Book of War to spread panic among enemy ranks and outwitting the Chanakya or Amit Shah. Large sections of the mainstream media have to guard against becoming instruments of such strategy.