Predicting elections is a mug’s game. Nonetheless, I predict that the BJP will lose in Bihar. Killing beef-eaters does not win elections.
Journalists have long accused the BJP of trying to win Bihar by stoking communal passions with stunts like throwing calf heads or meat near temples. This is not conclusively proven. But BJP governments in many states have banned meat and beef sales, imposing stringent controls on cattle movement that strangle the cattle and leather trade, and make the possession or eating of beef very risky. The BJP views this as a vote-winner.
The clincher is the refusal of BJP leaders to condemn outright the lynching by a Hindu mob of a Muslim in Dadri for supposedly eating beef — which is entirely legal. BJP apologists have performed verbal acrobatics to somehow avoid condemning this murder. This terrifies Muslims and millions of Hindus (notably Dalits and tribals) who have long eaten beef.
Apart from being morally outrageous, this is also poor politics. On Thursday Modi finally broke his silence on Dadri, saying people should follow President Pranab Mukherjee’s call for tolerance and unity, ignoring all other voices (including BJP voices). Yet that very day, his colleagues in Kashmir beat up a Muslim politician holding a beef party. Modi’s ploy seemed to evade the beef thuggery question via insincere homilies. He wants to appear non-communal without categorically condemning his colleagues or the Dadri murder. This will not wash.
Some analysts call this a turning point. Many who gave Modi the benefit of doubt on social harmony are now outright critics. Modi came to power on a platform of development, not Hindutva (despite his RSS background). His appeal to the aspirational classes for better livelihoods and governance struck a chord with voters, and won him the general election.
Instead of sticking to that platform, Modi has shifted to communal polarization. No longer does he follow the policy of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’. Muslims, dalits, tribals and beef-eating Hindus have been dumped from his ‘sabka saath’ agenda. He thinks that this loss of support will be made good by anti-cow-slaughter fanatics. But the fanatics were always with him. He won last time only by attracting others in the political centre. If he now loses the centrists, and banks on extremists alone, he will surely suffer.
The Dadri murder is not just a moral but economic issue. Fear of RSS goons has forced many shopkeepers to stop selling even buffalo meat. Transporters of cattle are fearful of arrest and worse. India has a huge leather and footwear industry employing millions of workers (including many Dalits). All these now face shortages of hides and rising prices that make them uncompetitive in exports.
Farmers have always sold aged cows, oxen and buffalos to abattoirs. Indeed, this has enabled India to become the biggest beef exporter in the world. Suddenly this large industry, a major employer, has become very risky, and may become extinct in some states. The price of aged cattle has crashed or gone to zero, diminishing the wealth of millions of cattle owners. In states like Bihar, most farmers own oxen for ploughing and transport, apart from cows for milk. All of them face wealth erosion. So, Modi’s promise to increase jobs and income is turning sour.
BJP theorists will claim that the cultural popularity and mobilizing power of the anti-cow-slaughter movement will eclipse any economic side-effects. I disagree, but let us wait and see. Even if the economic side-effects cost Modi no more than 2-3% of the vote, that could be electorally lethal. Many Indian elections are lost on thinner margins.
Besides, the beef incident will surely intensify “strategic voting” against the BJP. Muslims and others opposed to Modi will vote not for their favorite candidate, but for the candidate in their constituency most likely to beat the BJP. The Nitish-Lalu alliance has always looked very opportunistic and unlikely to stick, given that the two sides have castigated one another for a decade. Some Nitish supporters might prefer the BJP to Lalu. Yet the advantage the BJP hoped to gain from this will be diminished by the communal polarization (and hence strategic voting) it has now created.
In every recent state election, the BJP has won fewer votes than in the general election. In 2014, the BJP and allies won 38% of the Bihar vote. They need to take it to at least 43% to win what is mostly a straight fight. So, they need to woo a big chunk of additional voters in the centre. Killing beef-eaters will not accomplish that. Nor will their vague echoing of Pranab Mukherjee’s line atone for the Dadri murder.