The defeat must be especially painful since he lost to a former BJP ally in the state, Nitish Kumar, who broke up the cooperation with BJP because he strongly opposed Modi being named the prime minister candidate before the 2014 general elections.
After losing the state elections in Delhi by a large margin (again after the landslide victory in Delhi in the general elections), a victory in Bihar was the least that Modi could have hoped for. Delhi could be dismissed as only the capital territory, but in Bihar, as the third largest state in the country, the defeat cannot be discounted so lightly.
What happened and what will this mean?
The Bihar election results are yet another proof of the maturity of the Indian voter. When Modi won big in the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar, it was a reflection of the voter’s wish to see him as the leader for the country. This did not mean that they would vote for him or his party when it came to choosing a leader for the state. Modi and his strategist, Amit Shah, made the same mistake as they did in Delhi. They made the same mistake as Rahul Gandhi did in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. They believed they could win a state election by their popularity in the central government. The Indian voter was quick to correct them, also this time. The outcome indicated that the electorate wanted a leader for their state, not an outsider who only came to Bihar to hold rallies before the elections.
At the same time, the results could be a reflection and reaction of what some people see as Modi becoming overconfident, coupled with the increasing perception that he is failing to counter the actions of some BJP activists which many see as leading to intolerance and spreading of communal sentiments.
After the overwhelming victory in the Lok Sabha elections last year, many people close to Modi explained that the focus now would be to make a strategy how to win the 2024 elections. The 2019 elections were seen as already in Modi´s pocket, as an easy walk in the park. After Bihar, this belief will probably no longer hold true. The Delhi and Bihar elections have shown that Modi is not invincible. And that the Indian voter expects results.
More not less of reforms
As the smart politician that Modi is, he has no doubt concluded that he has to be bolder and less cautious on reform then during his first 18 months in office. This will now be a question of survival for him. He was elected on a platform to carry out change. People expect him to make the economy grow quickly and to provide jobs and opportunities for growth. Modi himself has created the expectation that he would carry this out. The perception among many Indians today is that Modi has yet to fulfil his election promises and that time is ticking away quickly. Given that reforms are tough in the beginning and that benefits will come only after some time. Modi will have to kick into high gear on reforms. He has only three and a half years to 2019 to show results, he cannot wait to see results till 2025 as he might have thought before. And he might have Nitish Kumar hot on his heels.
Lars-Olof Lindgren is Senior Advisor to CEO, Saab Group