From being widely seen as a straightforward contest, where the victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the return of Nitish Kumar as chief minister (CM) were but certain, the Bihar election has become a far more complex, and an open contest. This is because of a range of factors — the diminished popularity of the CM, a churn in the existing social equations, uncertainty about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the possible emergence of a younger leader, and possible rifts within the ruling alliance.
Any prediction would be unwise, but based on the available information, here is what we know. One, voters are angry with Kumar. After 15 years in power, with a nine- month break in 2014-15, there is a sense of fatigue in the electorate. But if it were just fatigue, Kumar would have been able to offset it. There appears to be palpable discontent. Voters believe that Kumar did a remarkable job in his first term; he improved the law and order situation, infrastructure, and promoted girls’ education. But he has been rewarded for it already — in the 2010 and 2015 elections. His indifferent performance in the third term, political U-turns, and the mismanagement of the pandemic and the distress of migrant workers appear to have tilted the mood.
Two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains highly popular across caste lines. His appeal in the state helped the NDA win a staggering 39 out of the 40 seats in the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar in 2019. Despite the public health crisis and the economic costs of the lockdown, both anecdotal reports and surveys suggest that voters remain satisfied with Modi, believe he has done his best within existing constraints, and if there has been any mismanagement, it is the fault of the state — not the central — government.
Three, there is a trust deficit between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (United). Kumar is the declared CM candidate, but he isn’t quite sure whether the BJP is committed to supporting him after the elections, or has deliberately weakened him — by encouraging the anti-incumbency against him or letting the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) contest against JD(U) candidates. The BJP has not forgotten Kumar’s decision to walk out of the NDA over Modi’s prime ministerial candidature in 2013 and does not fully trust the CM; its state leaders are unhappy at not getting enough share of power under the current dispensation in Bihar; and there is a sense in the party that this is the best opportunity for the BJP to decisively become the dominant player in the state. And that is why despite the categorical assurance by the PM that Bihar will see an NDA government under Kumar, both forces are wary of each other’s intentions and capabilities.
And four, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) remains a formidable force in Bihar. Even though Lalu Prasad is officially out of action, Patna’s political corridors have little doubt that he is wielding control over both his family and the party. But the key public role has been assumed by Tejashwi Yadav, whose rallies have drawn impressive crowds; who is speaking the language of jobs, development and governance; and who is, learning from successful anti-BJP political strands in other states, sticking to attacking the local leader (in this case Kumar) rather than Modi. It appears that RJD’s traditional base of Muslims and Yadavs is firmly intact with the mahagatbandhan.
Here is, however, what we do not know.
One, while Kumar has become more unpopular, it is not clear whether the anger is deep enough for the traditional voters of the NDA — upper castes, extreme backward classes (EBCs), and Mahadalits — to desert the ship and vote for RJD candidates. Their voting behaviour will be particularly interesting in seats where the JD(U) is pitted against the RJD. This will depend on a battle of memory — if the memories of the wounds from the Lalu Prasad regime (which Modi did his bit to ignite) persist, they will vote for JD(U) and if the memory of the more recent distress under Kumar is overwhelming, they will give RJD under Tejashwi Yadav an opportunity.
A related point is whether Modi’s appeal will be enough to offset the anger. Recent elections have shown that voters now make a clear distinction between national and state polls, and if this happens, the NDA’s trump card may not be as effective.
Two, while the size of the RJD crowds is impressive, the composition of the crowd is unclear — and this is symbolic of the uncertainty over its social coalition. Is it largely dominated by its traditionally loyal social groups? Or has the RJD succeeded in knitting back the original Mandal coalition of all other backward classes, including the more marginalised among them? If the RJD gets back both a segment of EBCs and Mahadalit vote, its prospects brighten up considerably. And if it just has its older base of Muslims and Yadavs, it will be a strong Opposition but won’t win enough seats to oust the regime.
Three, the impact of the pandemic is not known in two distinct respects. How will it affect voter turnout — will the upper castes, more traditionally loyal to the NDA, stay home and turn more apathetic or will it be social segments loyal to other parties who turn indifferent? And how will the economic dislocation brought about by the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic affect voting patterns? This is especially relevant in a state such as Bihar, which witnesses a high rate of migration. There is an acute unemployment crisis, which is why there is now political competitiveness over who can create more jobs. But once again, it isn’t known whether young people will vote across caste lines, motivated by these issues; whether they think one or the other force is actually capable of generating more employment; or whether they will turn to identity-based voting considerations.
And finally, the impact of the third pole in a range of seats is unknown. The LJP, for instance, is hoping to thrive around the ambiguity of its ties with the BJP. Does this mean that the BJP voters in seats where the LJP is pitted against the JD(U) will shift to the former and will this result in a split in the NDA votes to the benefit of the RJD? Or is the LJP too insignificant a force to matter in the big picture? A similar dynamic will playout for the Opposition in Seemanchal, where Upendra Kushwaha-Asaduddin Owaisi-Mayawati have teamed up. Will they split the anti-NDA votes, particularly of Muslims, harming the RJD? Or will they not matter?
As the late Pranab Mukherjee once said, elections can only be understood once they are over. Bihar will give its answer on the nature of this election on November 10.