Bihar’s Elections Will Be About Local Arithmetic

New Delhi: SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav with RJD president Lalu Prasad Yadav, JDU chief Sharad Yadav,JDS chief H D Deve Gowda and JDU leadr Nitish Kumar during the protest by Janta Parivar at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Monday.Credit: Atul Yadav/PTI

New Delhi: SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav with RJD president Lalu Prasad Yadav, JDU chief Sharad Yadav, JDS chief HD Deve Gowda and JDU leader Nitish Kumar during a protest by the Janata Parivar. Credit: PTI Photo

Narendra Modi is an intelligent politician and has often adjusted his electoral strategy after reading the mood of the people. In 2014, when his popularity was at its peak, he ran Indira Gandhi-like electoral campaigns in the Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand assembly polls. He was the face of the campaign, with no CM candidate declared in advance.

In the Delhi elections Modi changed his approach when he realized that the BJP didn’t have much of a chance though he began the campaign by saying “Delhi wants what the rest of India wants”. But Modi departed from his earlier approach and did end up projecting Kiran Bedi as the chief ministerial candidate of the party.

So it is easy to guess what Modi’s strategy will be in the crucial elections of Bihar where a formidable alliance has been struck between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav which completely tilts the electoral arithmetic against the BJP.

Reports from Bihar suggest there is no Modi effect in that state, even as a residue of the BJP’s stunning Lok Sabha win last year. On the contrary, there is some fall in the BJP’s popularity from its peak because of the huge gap between promise and performance. Bihar too has suffered from a bad agriculture year and there is anger among farmers over what is perceived as the Centre’s apathy to such issues. And, of course, the repeated promulgation of the land ordinance is not exactly acting as psychological balm for the farmers.

Referendum on Modi      

It is, therefore, interesting that the JD(U) spokesperson Pavan Varma  openly declared on a TV channel that the Bihar election will be a referendum on the Centre’s performance.  “It will be Nitish versus Modi”, he said. But the BJP will try to localize the election and talk about anti-incumbency against Nitish’s government. Of course the BJP too was part of that government for most of the years the JD(U) ruled Bihar.

Last year, Modi had sought to “nationalize” state elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand because he was selling a national dream to the people under his own brand of leadership. Now, with Modi having lost some of the sheen at the Centre, the BJP is returning to a more normal state of play in the assembly polls, raking up regional issues. This, by itself, has been a fascinating transformation. If the Bihar elections were held in August 2014, it would certainly have been a “Modi versus Nitish” contest. Now it will probably be Nitish versus the other Modi, Sushil, the former Deputy Chief Minister in the state.

So if the BJP itself wants an election based on regional/local issues it is tantamount to admitting that the elections will not be influenced by the Modi hype which existed last year. In that case electoral arithmetic will play a big role.

If one looks at the 2014 Lok Sabha configuration, when Modi’s popularity was at its peak, the BJP got a 30% vote share, JD(U) 16%, RJD 20%, Congress 9%, and LJP 6%.

Unbeatable numbers 

If one does a straight calculation,  the combination of JD(U), RJD and Congress adds up to 45% vote. This is unbeatable provided the three parties have a good seat understanding and do not split their votes. The BJP and LJP together got just 36% votes but they managed nearly 80% of the seats because their opposition was fragmented even though its vote share was very high.

Even during the 2010 assembly elections, when BJP and JD(U) were together, the vote shares of Nitish, Lalu and Congress added up to 49%. Lalu’s vote share, even in defeat, has averaged around 19%.  So the hope of the alliance would be to consolidate the votes Muslims and Yadavs who largely stay with Lalu with that of the extremely backward castes whom Nitish has nurtured over the past decade. The extremely backward castes — over two dozen small sub castes — together constitute about 30% of the votes in Bihar. In the Lok Sabha elections they got largely divided between the JD(U) and the BJP.

The BJP will try to hold on to its upper caste votes and use Modi’s appeal as a backward leader to splinter the Yadavs. It would depend on Ram Vilas Paswan to get its share of Dalit votes. How much of a factor will the ousted JD(U) CM Manjhi be is still unclear.

In short, it is back to basics — caste arithmetic — as the Modi factor relatively wanes in Indian politics.