As the political campaigning for Bihar’s assembly polls concluded on Thursday, the state offered a reminder of how campaigns have the potential to alter the course of elections. They reveal the key messages being pushed out by the parties in the fray; they highlight the strengths — and the weaknesses — of leaders; they can introduce to voters a new agenda for governance; they become a key mechanism through which citizens are able to articulate their grievances and aspirations, and provide feedback to candidates and leaders about priorities; and they offer a glimpse into changing social relations between wider caste and religious groups. Bihar’s election campaign did all of the above. And it is even more remarkable that this happened in the middle of the pandemic when campaigning was not easy.
So what is it that, irrespective of the outcome, the nature of the Bihar campaign suggests? One, it has brought to the centre the salience of the employment question — throwing open the possibility of a closer link between political and economic performance. The next elected government in Bihar will realise that unless it can deliver on job creation for the millions of citizens who otherwise have to flee the state in desperate circumstances, its own political survival will be at stake. Two, the campaign has also shown the efforts of political parties not just to retain their base but to expand this base beyond conventional support groups. This is reflected both in ticket distribution and the vocabulary employed in the rallies. This is a good sign for it shows that instead of speaking only for narrow segments, and putting castes against each other in what often ends up becoming a zero sum game, both society and politics is evolving to a point where wider, inclusive platforms are necessary.
Third, the campaign has also opened up the question of generational transition in heartland politics. In Uttar Pradesh, this process had commenced with the elevation of Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister (CM) in 2012 and the emergence of Yogi Adityanath in 2017, but in Bihar, it is the leaders who got socialised in the 1960s and 1970s who remain dominant. Once again, irrespective of who becomes CM, it is clear that a new generation is now ready to take over. And finally, the campaign has revealed that voters are keeping a close eye and past record is no substitute for consistent performance, for all governments seeking a renewed term.