As Bihar goes into the country’s first election after the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, unexpected political manoeuvres have made the polls seem more complicated than ever. But scratch the surface and you will realise the election is simpler than what the various speculations would suggest.
Where do parties stand?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on strong footing. Quite expectedly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s work ethics and a well-executed deliverance of government schemes enables the party to go into the election with confidence. On the flip side, the BJP’s alliance partner Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) — which is contesting on 11 seats — is largely untested. The main ally Janata Dal (United) is also seen struggling in places. What makes the situation peculiar is that the BJP and the JD(U) are seen as very distinct in the eyes of the voter. So, the BJP is not only unaffected by the anti-incumbency factor, but there is also a marginal pro-incumbency working in its favour.
The JD(U) is riding on chief minister Nitish Kumar’s track record as a seasoned ‘vikas purush (development man)’. But the CM’s understated low-profile working style has made him vulnerable to criticism from impatient young voters. In any case, after three terms in office, the fatigue (read anti-incumbency) factor is natural.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is seen as gaining traction from a much stunted position. Tejashwi Yadav’s focus on unemployment and migrant labourers’ woes has helped his campaign gain momentum. However, due to his own limited experience, besides the baggage of Lalu Yadav’s ‘jungle raj‘, the impact of RJD’s repositioned campaign will be limited.
The Congress, just like in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, is aiming for a back-door entry into the government, where it enjoys power without responsibility. However, considering that the party has not been in power in Bihar for over three decades, it hardly has any ground presence.
Now, let us consider the dynamics that might alter this standing.
Also read: ‘Nitish hatao’ chorus grows louder in Bihar
The Chirag Paswan factor
Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has a single-point agenda — to unseat Nitish Kumar. And to those unaware, there is a history to it.
In 2005, LJP founder Ram Vilas Paswan had squandered a golden chance to be Bihar’s CM and leave behind a legacy much grander than the one he finally did. There was a point in the run-up to the February 2005 election when Nitish Kumar had floated the idea of a grand alliance of BJP-JD(U)-LJP to take on the RJD, with Paswan being the alliance’s CM candidate.
But Ram Vilas Paswan, then a minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, did not want to join hands with a ‘communal’ BJP, a party whose government he had quit in 2002. Lalu’s RJD, though past its prime then, still enjoyed enormous clout over its core constituents. A Dalit CM candidate of a grand alliance fighting 15 years of Lalu’s misrule would indeed have been a great choice in that situation.
Paswan’s LJP won 29 seats in that election. He could still have negotiated and become CM as there was a hung verdict. Alas, Paswan chickened out. Seven months later, by the time election was held again, 22 of his 29 MLAs had been poached by Nitish Kumar. This was a blow from which Paswan’s LJP never really recovered, until 2014, when spurred on by his son Chirag, Ram Vilas Paswan decided to join hands with the BJP once again. Hence, at the core of Chirag’s campaign lies the single agenda of seeing Nitish leave the CMO.
So, will Chirag succeed?
That seems quite unlikely. On the contrary, he might end up helping Nitish. It is a fact that the JD(U)’s position appears a tad shaky. The CM’s understated style of working is being seen as a weakness. There is voter fatigue against Nitish Kumar. In this situation, that voter who is already disillusioned with the CM and is meaning to vote for Tejashwi, now has an extra option in Chirag. So, it is Tejashwi’s vote that Chirag will cut. Moreover, despite his good intentions and articulation, there is no overarching factor that would get Chirag substantial votes, beyond the LJP’s age-old limited bases.
That, however, should not deflect from the psychological damage that Chirag has done to the JD(U) and to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). With his concerted campaign against the Bihar CM, Chirag has touched a raw nerve of the voters and hammered home a point possibly felt by a large number of people as well — that Bihar could have done better under a BJP-led CM.
NDA’s work vs RJD’s baggage
Like Chirag, Tejashwi Yadav too has aimed all his ammunition at Nitish Kumar. And that begs the question: has the NDA in Bihar under-performed?
A simple look at basic statistics dispels this theory.
The average annual GDP growth of Bihar in the last three years has been over 10 per cent — way above the national average. Today, the state is well connected with an excellent network of highways. Even Seemanchal, which has been traditionally backward, has seen improved connectivity, with an ambitious Narenpur-Purnia four-lane highway set to be completed in the next two years.
Moreover, after the initial glitches, in the past six months, the Bihar government has done an excellent job in combating the Covid-19 crisis. Considering that Bihar’s density of population is among the highest in the country and the returning migrant workforce made the state most vulnerable, it took a herculean effort from the state government to check the spread of the disease in rural areas. As of today, Bihar’s positivity rate as well as mortality rate are among the lowest in the country.
Having said that, mass migration of students and labourers from Bihar has continued unabated. One can argue that that has become habitual and perhaps will take more years to come down. The NDA govt’s track record thus, has been fairly satisfactory, if not exceptional.
On the other hand, people know that the RJD’s poll promises can’t be taken at face value. The 15 years (1990-2005) of government-backed lawlessness is still fresh in people’s mind. Having grown up in Jamshedpur, which was part of undivided Bihar, I am privy to several instances of extortion or vehicle snatching, where the culprit enjoyed political protection. It was a nightmare to step out of your house after dark, especially in north Bihar. That Tejaswai Yadav has done away with Lalu on the posters in the campaign is the biggest confession of the RJD’s guilt and what it stood for all along. A hastily re-branded RJD will have limited takers for now.
The numbers game
As of today, considering the strengths and limitations of all the key players, this is what a likely outcome of the Bihar election could be.
In a best case scenario, the BJP is expected to win up to 75 per cent of the 121 seats it is contesting, along with the VIP. In a worst case scenario, the JD(U) is expected to win at least one-third of the 122 seats it is contesting, along with Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM).
Similarly, the RJD could win 60 per cent of the 144 seats it is contesting and its alliance partner, the Congress, could win 20 per cent of the 70 seats it is contesting. Chirag Paswan is unlikely to cross five seats.
These numbers tell the larger story.
There is a high likelihood that on the voting day, people will choose tested, steady performance instead of risking the corruption and lawlessness that the RJD is synonymous with. There is a higher likelihood of BJP voters shifting to the JD(U) than of RJD voters shifting to the Congress, given the Congress’ virtual non-existence in Bihar.
The sense on the ground is that despite all attempts to project otherwise, the BJP-JD(U) combine is safe. The difference is that unlike three months ago, when the NDA was aiming for 175-plus seats, now it will be more than happy with 140.
Tuhin Sinha @tuhins is a writer and a member of the BJP. Views are personal.