Bihar is the first Indian state going to polls in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are two big unknowns in these elections. The first is the question of voter turnout. Will the pandemic’s fear cause a big drop? Will the drop be bigger still among the relatively well-off, who are known to overwhelmingly support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? The second is the question of a lockdown-driven anti-incumbency, especially among the social underclass. The answer to these questions will only be known after November 7.
Even in the absence of these factors, the 2020 Bihar polls would have been an interesting case study in India’s post-2019 polity. Bihar is the only state with a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by a non-BJP chief minister. Barring a brief gap of nine months, when he voluntarily handed over the chief minister’s post to Jitan Ram Manjhi, Nitish Kumar has been the chief minister of the state since October 2005. If this brief hiatus were to be ignored, Kumar is currently the second longest serving chief minister in any major Indian state after Naveen Patnaik, who has been chief minister of Odisha since 2000.
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Unlike Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), however, Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), has never been able to capture power on its own. In 2009 Patnaik dumped the BJP as an ally, contested elections on his own, and won a majority. He repeated this feat in 2014 and 2019. Kumar’s experiment at trying to do a BJD backfired badly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when he could manage just two Lok Sabha seats with a 15% vote share. Kumar allied with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress in the 2015 assembly elections, and went back to being a part of the NDA in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. His party rejoined the NDA in the state in 2017.
By shifting his allegiance to the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Kumar also benefited from the now established pattern of the BJP doing better in Lok Sabha polls than state elections.
This might not be the case in the forthcoming assembly elections. If post-2014 election statistics are to be believed, non-BJP parties do better in state elections even though they have suffered a rout in the Lok Sabha. Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand have shown that this pattern has persisted even after 2019, when the BJP again swept the national elections. To be sure, there’s no certainty that this will happen all the time.
That Kumar has now been a chief minister for three terms and things are not exactly right within the NDA in Bihar – the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has fielded candidates against the NDA; mostly JD (U), without formally walking out (or being kicked out) of the NDA at the Centre – might generate additional headwinds for the incumbent alliance.
As is often the case with Bihar, commentators are trying to make sense of the current confusion by looking at the caste arithmetic. While caste has always mattered in Bihar’s politics, it will be a mistake to assume that it is the only factor. Governance, or Sushasan, has been an important plank of Nitish Kumar’s politics in the state. When the RJD agreed to contest with Kumar as the chief ministerial face in the 2015 elections, it was seen as an endorsement of Kumar’s governance track record by his arch-rival Lalu Prasad. Kumar’s break with the RJD and return to the NDA in 2017 was also justified in the name of ensuring governance after the then deputy chief minister and Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi Yadav was named in a corruption case by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
These claims are backed by findings from election surveys conducted by CSDS-Lokniti. Between 2005 and 2010 the share of voters who had a favourable assessment of development in Bihar jumped by 42 percentage points. This number was almost the same in 2015.
This is where the LJP’s moves might have hurt the JD (U), and therefore the NDA most. By continuously attacking Nitish Kumar as the cause of all of Bihar’s problems and repeatedly emphasizing that there is a governance deficit, the LJP has rendered the NDA’s most potent charge of poor governance, or jungle raj as it is popularly referred to n the state, against the RJD ineffective. It is not a mere coincidence that the RJD is contesting these elections without its usual shrill caste rhetoric. This is unlike 2015, when elections were converted into a referendum on reservations.
The RJD’s decline in Bihar politics has been the result of steady erosion in its lower caste support base, which is now beginning to show even among Yadavs, its core support base. Data from the CSDS-Lokniti surveys show that support for the RJD among Yadavs has been declining steadily since 2005. It dropped from 83% in the 2005 February assembly elections to 55% in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Whether or not the RJD led alliance will be able to defeat the NDA in these elections is not the main question. The forthcoming political contest in Bihar is taking place in a context where all three major parties, the BJP, the JD (U) and the RJD, face serious, albeit different, challenges.
The BJP does not want to be seen as a pan-India dominant force which is unwilling to respect its coalition partners. It will also be worried about any surprise setback in yet another state election before the crucial contest in West Bengal next year.
The JD (U) is facing the sharpest criticism it has ever faced on its governance record, which has won it three consecutive terms in power. The fact that the LJP has been openly talking about a post-poll arrangement with the BJP will also make the party insecure about its future prospects.
The RJD is trying to regain its mojo as a party of the socio-economic underclass rather than a Muslim-Yadav club. The fact that it has allied with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, an erstwhile underground left group, and the most popular among the three communist parties in Bihar (it had never done business with the RJD until an informal arrangement in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls) underscores this point.
By punching well above its weight, and irrespective of what happens on November 10, the LJP has made the Bihar elections an interesting and perhaps a watershed moment in the state’s political history.