New Delhi: Vote count was on in Bihar Tuesday evening, 12 hours after it started, with a tantalising see-saw battle between the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Tejashwi Yadav-led opposition alliance.
With around 20 per cent of the votes yet to be counted, the NDA’s tally hovered around the majority figure of 122 in the 243-member assembly but the opposition was very close behind. Given that around one-and-a-half dozen seats were oscillating between the two sides after every round, there remained many a bump in Nitish Kumar’s road to the Raj Bhavan to be sworn in as Chief Minister for the seventh time.
So, what do these poll results/trends suggest? There are broadly five takeaways from this election, no matter which way it eventually goes when the vote count is over.
First, don’t discount the ‘Modi factor’ even in assembly elections. Since the BJP’s loss in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in November-December 2018 — or rather since the May 2018 Karnataka polls — there was a growing consensus in political circles that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity wasn’t good enough to beat ‘local factors’ in assembly elections, or to make up for the omissions and commissions of incumbent BJP CMs or CM candidates. Elections in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi only buttressed such perceptions.
The Bihar poll results suggest otherwise. Modi’s popularity, built as much on his individual persona as on his government’s welfare schemes, is the single biggest factor responsible in strengthening the NDA tally.
Second, Nitish Kumar might have lost a bit of sheen as ‘Sushahan Kumar’ or the man who ended Lalu Prasad’s ‘jungle raj’ and brought Bihar back to the development path, but people still don’t see any alternative. His ‘silent voters’ — women, extremely backward classes (EBCs) and non-Paswan Scheduled Castes — largely remain loyal to him.
The proliferation of illicit liquor trade after prohibition, and lack of employment opportunities and economic distress might have alienated a chunk of this silent votebank, but the erosion in Kumar’s votebank didn’t seem significant enough. If the JD(U)’s tally looks set to come down drastically in the next assembly, it’s because of the damage caused by Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), who was on a defeat-Nitish mission and fielded candidates against all JD(U) candidates, according to an analysis of the results/trends by ThePrint.
Third, Union Home Minister and the BJP’s chief strategist Amit Shah has proved his mettle yet again. He had received a lot of flak for the BJP’s electoral reverses in the assembly elections over the past couple of years, especially in Delhi, where he was the chief campaigner-cum-strategist.
In Bihar, though, he was the invisible Chanakya, working behind the scenes. JD(U) sources told ThePrint that it was Shah who had advised Nitish Kumar to bring in Mukesh Sahani of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) and Jitan Ram Majhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) in the NDA to woo Mallahs and Dalits. It was at Shah’s insistence that Kumar agreed to allot seven seats to the HAM from the JD(U) quota of 122, while the BJP gave away 11 seats to the VIP from its own quota of 121 seats.
Shah’s advice to Nitish Kumar puzzled many JD(U) leaders who seemed convinced that the BJP had propped up Chirag Paswan against the Chief Minister to bring the JD(U) tally lower than the saffron party’s. As the results and trends showed Tuesday, the BJP is set to relegate the JD(U) to the second position and emerge as the senior partner in the alliance, which would mean Shah has delivered a masterstroke for the BJP: Pushing the JD(U)’s tally below the BJP’s will open up the option of installing a BJP CM sooner or later. The BJP’s Chirag gambit was extremely risky but, if the trends hold and the NDA manages to get a majority, Shah will have eaten the cake and had it too.
The fourth takeaway from the Bihar election result is Tejashwi Yadav’s arrival as a leader. Not many gave the opposition a chance in Bihar, given how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was in complete disarray, with Lalu Prasad lodged in Ranchi jail and senior party leaders quitting it in frustration.
It was this state of affairs in the opposition camp that emboldened the BJP to prop up Chirag Paswan. Tejashwi, however, sprang a surprise, showing sharp political acumen in forming alliances — like roping in the CPI(ML) and Left parties — and building a narrative around unemployment and economic distress that put the ruling NDA on the back foot. He also sought to enlarge the party’s vote bank beyond Muslims and Yadavs by abandoning his father’s caste-centric rhetoric and projecting a more inclusive face.
He even left out his father’s pictures from the party’s posters to neutralise the rival’s ‘jungle raj’ jibe. The final poll outcome may or may not reflect the sharpness of his well-crafted electoral strategy but his valiant show has certainly indicated his arrival on Bihar’s political centre-stage.
The fifth message of the Bihar poll verdict is another validation of the Congress becoming a liability of its allies in assembly elections. The party managed to secure 70 seats from Tejashwi Yadav but ended up dragging down the opposition’s tally. The Congress was leading on only 20 of these 70 seats in Bihar Tuesday evening. The Congress has been a drag on its alliance partner in many other states in the past — for the Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP in 2017, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand in 2019, to cite a few instances.