The Bihar assembly election result has deflated the balloon around Tejashwi Yadav. Even if you agree with his Rashtriya Janata Dal’s claims that some seats were lost to counting malpractices or downright rigging, even if you take into account the seats lost by slim margins to ‘vote-cutters’, it is clear that the election lacked a pro-Tejashwi sentiment even as it had an anti-Nitish sentiment.
Put simply, Tejashwi Yadav failed to successfully exploit the massive anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar.
A senior Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader had told me during the campaign that he expected the Congress to win 20 seats. The Left, they calculated, would win another 10-12 seats. The RJD, they expected, would win 90 seats. That’s how they would touch the majority mark of 122, they hoped.
The result shows us that the Congress almost matched this expectation, the Left parties exceeded it, but the under-performer was the RJD.
Why, then, was the Congress given 70 seats to contest? Actually, the Congress was seriously fighting in only 45 seats. The remaining 25 seats were considered un-winnable by any alliance partner. Many of these were BJP strongholds. The Congress thinks it should contest as many seats as possible to be able to expand the party in the long run. The Congress logic is always to win the next election and not the current one. So, the party bullied the RJD into giving it all these 25 seats, a senior RJD leader told me, and then did a terrible job of candidate selection.
But the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan knew all of this and had factored in the state of the Congress. It is the RJD that won 15 less seats than it expected. The responsibility for the Mahagathbandhan’s loss has to be taken ultimately by the senior partner that led the alliance, namely the RJD, and its face Tejashwi Yadav.
The RJD had won 80 of the 100 seats it had contested in the 2015 assembly election, when it was in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). This time, it won 75 of 144. The RJD has actually reduced its tally of seats and worsened its strike rate. These numbers don’t lie: there was no Tejashwi wave.
The JD(U) lost a lot of seats with slim margins because the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) cut into its votes. It is safe to assume that without the LJP queering the pitch, the JD(U) would have performed a lot better — again, indicating the absence of a pro-Tejashwi wave.
Yes, the caste arithmetic was loaded in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Heavily. Yes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cadres scared people about the possibility of Jungle Raj 2.0 if the RJD came to power. All of this was already known. Tejashwi could still have won this election.
Slow and steady wins the race
There’s something common about the three parties that have done stupendously well in the 2020 Bihar assembly election — the BJP, the CPI(ML) and the AIMIM. These are all parties that believe in working hard on the ground all five years, election or no election.
Asaduddin Owaisi, the MP from Hyderabad and the chief of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), has cultivated the Muslim vote in Seemanchal for years. When the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement was going on, his party was active among the people. The RJD leadership was muted. When Priyanka Gandhi was hailing the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Owaisi’s party was telling Muslims in Seemanchal about it.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation, or CPI(ML), has worked with the poor in parts of Bihar for decades now. Win or lose, they’re fighting the daily battles for the people of Bihar. They are not big enough to win, but give them an alliance and they win big.
Similarly, the BJP cadres work round the year spreading the party’s message. Hence, it reaps the rewards. The BJP is so obsessed with making its campaign reach the last voter that party workers in Bihar were using their smartphones to make non-smartphone users listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches live.
The leadership of these parties is often on the ground, visible and campaigning. They are not known to hide in their bungalows for weeks as Nitish Kumar did. And they are not known to disappear into Delhi or elsewhere for weeks as Tejashwi Yadav does. The result is that both the JD(U) and the RJD, in their own ways, have done poorly.
The JD(U), for the first time, has become junior partner to the BJP in Bihar. It will be easy to blame Chirag Pawan’s LJP for cutting into JD(U)’s votes. But it could do so only because Nitish Kumar had become extremely unpopular. And his party is weakest on the ground. Be it floods or Covid or economic crisis, Nitish Kumar became a leader who spent time in his bungalow rather than among the people. He came across as arrogant, and entitled to the chief minister’s chair.
One can understand Nitish Kumar becoming arrogant after being chief minister for 15 years. But what explains Tejashwi Yadav’s entitlement that the 31-year-old thought he could campaign for less than two months and win the state? Those 19 rallies a day don’t make up for not being with the people when they were drowning in floods.
An election for the taking
There was such extreme anger against Nitish Kumar that this Bihar election was for the taking. The NDA alliance was in a bad shape with Chirag Paswan causing a lot of confusion. There was a general sentiment to get rid of Nitish Kumar. This sentiment had reflected itself in surveys for some time — except people said they didn’t have an alternative.
Tejashwi Yadav had to become that alternative. He had to take the ‘Nitish Hatao’ (remove Nitish) sentiment and convert it into ‘Tejashwi Lao’ (bring Tejashwi) sentiment. As journalist Vandita Mishra of The Indian Express astutely observed on the ground in Bihar: “Across castes, including in the Yadavs, you hear an anti-Nitish argument that still doesn’t quite sound pro-Tejashwi.”
The RJD leader would have won the Bihar election if he had merely walked home with migrant labourers from Delhi to Patna, and he would have won it handsomely if the Modi government had made the mistake of stopping him. Instead, he was at home in Delhi.
Tejashwi Yadav could have won this election with a landslide if he had been around with the people of Bihar, sharing their grief and anger and sorrow all these months. This was a dream election for any opposition leader. What does a challenger want other than an unpopular incumbent? This election was for the taking, but Tejashwi Yadav turned out to be that student who thinks he can pass the exam by studying just for two months.
Yes, he did do a fairly good job when he began. His message was pitch perfect. He did make one blunder, but Nitish Kumar and the NDA made many more. His message was on point. He did capture the imagination of the youth, across caste lines. He attacked the biggest issue — unemployment — which resonated with people. His campaign has won the approval of liberal commentators and opposition supporters only because he was not Rahul Gandhi. Had Rahul Gandhi been in Tejashwi’s place, he would have attacked Nitish Kumar on corruption for the Srijan scam rather than doing a positive campaign of promising jobs.
Don’t be Rahul Gandhi
It’s a low bar, to look better than Rahul Gandhi. Yet it wasn’t enough that Tejashwi Yadav knows how to speak and what to speak. He remains Rahul Gandhi-like in one crucial aspect: not being a 24x7x365 politician. The entitled dynasts of the opposition can’t keep themselves aloof from the masses like absentee landlords and just turn up to collect votes before an election. The Bihar polls should have been a Tejashwi wave. It would have been one if he had started earlier.
We see this in election after election. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy won against a formidable Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh with a two-year-long yatra. Hemant Soren began a ‘Badlav Yatra’ in Jharkhand in August 2019 to win an election in December. Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign in New Delhi began at least six months earlier. The minimum it takes is six months.
Another leader who continues to make this mistake is Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. We live in the era of permanent campaigning. If you are not occupying the voter’s mind every day, you are not going to be able to defeat a formidable opponent like the BJP.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.