For Bihar and America: Lessons in Elections

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As Bihar was counting the victims in its usual widespread lawlessness or bracing for demonetization of certain currencies on November the 8th, the Americans were electing their new president, Donald John Trump.

The world, including the Americans, was surprised at the result. A litany of comparison points with the elections in Bihar, concluded on November the 5th a year ago, came to mind. The US election was protracted for more than a year and a half that included the "primary" process; the Bihar Vidhan Sabha election was spread over roughly two months culminating in the counting exactly on November the 8th.

In both the places (on the opposite sides of the globe), the political actor most decried won decisively. Nitish Kumar in Bihar had played foul with the public confidence he enjoyed by aligning himself with his arch-enemy, Lalu Yadav. He was supposed to be the loser also because he was running for a third term and the Bihari voters were expected to have developed fatigue for him. But that didn't happen. Donald Trump, considered to be racist, bigot and misogynist, also won.

The US voters turned the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton down because they considered the Hillary's presidency as an extension of the Obama administration for the third term. And they wanted change. In any matured democracy, the voters flip their choice every five or ten years. In neighboring Canada, voters replaced Steven Harper of the Conservative Party by Justin Trudeau of the Liberals.

Moreover, Hillary was seen in the image of Rabri Devi who being the former first lady claimed entitlement to the White House. Her association with the past administration as Secretary of State and with the Clinton Foundation gave her all the appearance of a Washington insider Donald Trump was campaigning so vigorously against. In Bihar, Lalu's dominance was reinforced.

A strong similarity between the two election processes was the failure of the industry of poll predictions and political punditry. In Bihar almost all poll agencies, including the ones with the widest sampling, were checking off the BJP-led coalition as the winner in 2015; in the United States, likewise, almost every pollster gave Hillary Clinton a pass by a wide margin. The poll and prediction agencies in both the cases were proven wrong.

The pollsters or the polling industry which are decried now as imperfect, bankrupt, underfunded or biased were also not able to gauge accurately the public mood in England when the country was voting on whether to stay in the European Union (the Brexit).

The role of media both in the Bihar and the US elections confirmed that it had its own agenda. It tried to sway the public opinion to the side it favored. But in the process, it did a great disservice to the client it was trying to serve. In Bihar, the media kept beating up the drum of Narendra Modi's popularity and the unpopularity of Lalu Yadav or of the alliance Nitish Kumar had struck with him. In the USA, all major news channels were beholden to Hillary Clinton. They were feeding her campaign day-in and day-out the imaginary notion about the "temperamental" unsuitability of Donald to be the president of the USA. The New York Times, usually held in the highest regard for its objectivity, was giving Hillary 89% chances of victory.

Donald Trump won not essentially because of his superior number or strength, but because of the weaknesses or shortcomings of his opponent. Hillary couldn't tap into the frustration or anger of the non-College white voters. She counted on the educated white voters especially women. As it turned out, they also voted in majority for Donald.

Also in Bihar, the Lalu-Nitish team won because of the utter weakness of the opposition. The BJP, the challenger, was either incapable of or didn't take its campaign to the rural areas where the most voters are. The BJP-led campaign remained confined to the cities and expected its emphasis on communal rhetoric or urban issues would win the party the election. Likewise, Hillary's Democratic Party didn't make dent in the Republican stronghold of rural America. Its constant bashing of the rich (the one percent) didn't seem to work in an aspirational country.

Just as the caste factor played a decisive role in the elections of Bihar, the race element became overwhelming in the US elections. In Bihar, the Nitish-Lalu combine assured the Other Backward Castes of their continued hold on the government apparatus and warned that their political hegemony might be threatened by the upper caste supported BJP. Similarly, Donald's campaign was able to convince the majority whites that their power had slipped away during the two-term black presidency of Barack Obama.

Along expected lines, the social groups belonging to the Great Alliance pushed back the National Democratic Alliance in Bihar; in the USA, there was a "whitelash" to "Make America Great Again." This indicates that the caste and race elements would never disappear from the political processes of Bihar and the USA.

Security was another issue where a comparison can be made between the two elections. Voters psychologically get inclined toward the party or a leader that offers better security. Having lived under the Nitish government for ten years with relative security, people of Bihar (particularly women in rural areas) preferred to stay with Nitish. They didn't want to tinker with change of leadership. The majority of Americans, on the other hand, had a better feeling of security with Donald Trump as they thought Hillary was soft on Islamic extremism or terrorism, the major source of threat to their security.

Both the elections of Bihar and the USA re-confirmed that politics throw up unexpected and strange surprises. Once the constituents (the voters) have established their connection with a leader, they stick to him or her for some time. It's for this reason elections are not so much about the leaders as about the people who elect them.


Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.

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