Coming into the Bihar election, most analysts predicted a one-sided victory for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). While the exit polls predicting an NDA loss turned out to be wrong, the NDA’s razor-thin victory proved a surprise. We have now heard all of the narratives about the weak performance of the NDA. Chief minister Nitish Kumar was facing “anti-incumbency.” Rebels from Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) ate into an otherwise comfortable victory. Tejashwi Yadav struck a chord with the electorate.
These are all, at some level, accurate portrayals of what happened in Bihar, but they are also excessively local explanations. An over-reliance on these sorts of explanations masks the changes we are seeing across the Indian electoral system. In the 2019 national election, the NDA won 53% of Bihar’s vote. In the recently-concluded state election, the NDA (admittedly minus the LJP) won around 37% of the vote. This continues a trend of the NDA performing at least 15 percentage points worse in state elections as compared to the 2019 national election — something witnessed in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, where elections have happened either before or after the national polls.
What explains this disjuncture? Why are voters increasingly choosing opposing parties in state and national elections (what political scientists call “split ticket voting”)?
In a recent article written with my Centre for Policy Research colleague Yamini Aiyar, we have analysed the reasons for split-ticket voting. We boil it down to two conditions. One, voters must be able to separate what is given by the Centre and what is given by the state. And two, voters must distinguish between regional and national preferences. This is what allows a voter to support Narendra Modi at the Centre while supporting his political rival at the state level.
While these are characteristics describing when split-ticket voting occurs, we need a theoretical model to understand why this has suddenly happened in India. In another article, I have argued that we need to understand the appeal of Prime Minister Modi through the prism of “vishwas” (trust/belief). There are three elements to this argument. First, voters have become increasingly frustrated with federal “accommodation” along multiple axes — whether it be between castes, between Hindus and Muslims, or between states — generating a demand for greater centralisation. Second, to bypass the institutional procedures of compromise, voters must place their faith in a leader (Modi in this case) to “represent” or make decisions for the nation as a whole. And, third, the political machinery, through advertising around central schemes and innovative use of media, must build a direct connection between Modi and the voter.
Indeed, as Rajeshwari Deshpande, Louise Tillin, and KK Kailash have argued, voters have increasingly attributed welfare schemes to Modi and not their state leaders (as has often been the case). This phenomenon is perhaps best explained by the fact that welfare under the NDA is certainly louder than the United Progressive Alliance and this has kept the bureaucracy more alert.
How does this hurt state-level leaders aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? As attribution for welfare schemes have increasingly been given to Modi, the political appeal of state leaders and their welfare delivery has all but disappeared — leaving voters to stew about corruption and joblessness. Indeed, a quick look at recent elections shows that chief ministers such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar — all aligned with the BJP, directly or in alliance, who built their reputations on broad-based welfare schemes — have been hit hard by “anti-incumbency” and voter anger. These are all CMs who no longer command much of an “independent” base of support beyond Modi, with one key exception being Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in “coronavirus politics”. In principle, India’s crippling lockdown should have hurt both the ruling party at the Centre, BJP, and the ruling parties in Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and BJP. But the BJP’s immense popularity stayed largely intact with 67% strike rate in these elections by campaigning on the personage of Modi, while the JD(U) had a paltry 37% strike rate. We have a data point here. As a Hindustan Times analysis piece showed, districts in which Modi addressed a rally had a strike rate of four to 12 percentage points higher in the final two phases of the Bihar election. In short, voters approved of Modi for his ability to protect Indians, and punished Nitish Kumar for his failure to protect them. The strike rate for the JD(U) dropped to 27% in constituencies in districts with higher proportions of male migrants.
The sheer popularity of Modi, and the “vishwas” that voters have placed in him, has changed the way the state-level leaders must do politics. No longer can they simply rely on state funds to curry favour with voters by using high social and development expenditure. In a strange twist of fate, no one is feeling the pinch more than state leaders allied with the BJP and Modi.
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal