The Bihar elections have thrown up a simple, yet complex, outcome. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is set to return to power with Nitish Kumar as chief minister — but the terms of the relationship between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (United) have changed in favour of the former. The Mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) of Opposition parties, will remain in the Opposition — but Tejashwi Yadav has put up a credible performance. And other forces have primarily played the role of weaning away votes from both major alliances.
There are five key messages from the results. One, despite the distress caused by the lockdown, which led to hundreds of thousands of Bihari migrants returning home, there is a fundamental trust that a large segment of citizens have in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Make no mistake — if Mr Modi had not been the face of the alliance, it would have been difficult for the NDA to retain its base and offset the resentment against Nitish Kumar. The fact that the BJP has emerged the senior partner in Bihar, and has also won a majority of by-polls across the country, including in Madhya Pradesh, also indicates that voters are not holding the party responsible for the economic and humanitarian crises caused by Covid-19. The BJP’s hegemony remains intact.
Second, social identities matter. There is an evolution in caste-based identity politics, but it is clear from the contours of the outcome that Muslims and Yadavs largely consolidated behind the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). Both polls and media reports captured this energy and enthusiasm of the Opposition’s base. But given the often adversarial and conflictual relationship between caste groups on the ground, if there is consolidation on one hand, there is a counter-consolidation on the other. And there was a silent surge of sections of upper castes, extremely backward classes and Dalits behind the NDA — for they feared a return of their rivals to the power structure — supplemented by women voters across castes who reposed faith in Nitish Kumar for his gender-sensitive politics.
Third, economic distress is on the popular agenda. The RJD may have failed to oust the NDA — but Tejashwi Yadav, in his father Lalu Prasad’s absence, ran an energetic campaign focused on “economic justice” and has emerged a key leader in his own right. The fact that the promise of government jobs became an agenda of competitive politics is a reflection of how young voters in Bihar are now seeking reforms that can generate employment within the state — this is what is being seen, including by the NDA voters, as the incumbent government’s weakness so far. But while this triggered disillusionment and voters wanted change, the nature of that change was equally important. And this is where Mr Yadav failed to reassure the electorate that his tenure will be different from his father’s or provide a firm road map of how he would control the anarchy that often marked the RJD’s rule in the past. Unconvinced of the nature of change, voters stuck to the status quo.
Four, ideological categories have limits in explaining outcomes. In the same election where the BJP, representing what is defined as the Right in the Indian political lexicon, has performed well, the Left forces — of all shades, including the radical variants — have also done remarkably well; in the same election where the RJD has seen Muslim consolidation in large measure, the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen has put up a respectable performance based on the Muslim vote; and in the same election where economic distress was salient, caste remained a dominant factor.
Finally, the 2020 outcome marks the beginning of the transition to the next generation of leaders and newer forces in Bihar. Despite Nitish Kumar’s return, politics in the state will now revolve around preparing for a post-Nitish Kumar landscape. This will generate tensions within the NDA as the BJP asserts itself; it will lead to political experiments, including possible emergence of new forces; it will make Tejashwi Yadav a man to watch out for; and it will keep Chirag Paswan in the mix for he damaged Mr Kumar even if he failed to achieve much on his own. A churn is underway, within the larger backdrop of seeming continuity.