New Delhi: Bihar began its third and final round of polling in 78 seats on Saturday morning, after a high-pitched campaign centred around the connected problems of unemployment and poor public education standards drew to a close.
While the ruling parties, Janata Dal (United) and Bharatiya Janata Party, targeted the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led opposition alliance, or the Mahagathbandhan, by invoking the alleged “Jungle Raj” during the previous tenures of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi through the last month or so, they changed tack for the final phase. However, the lack of coordination between chief minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders reflected in the final round of campaign even more starkly than before.
Keeping in mind the Muslim-majority Seemanchal region, Modi attacked the opposition as forces who either objected to or were uncomfortable with slogans like “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Jai Shri Ram”. Once the prime minister himself set the Hindutva tone, hardline party leader Adityanath later attempted to polarise the electorate further by talking about “infiltration” and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
“Modiji has found a solution for the infiltration issue. With the CAA, he ensured the safety of the tortured minorities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The Centre also said any infiltrator who tries to breach the security of the country will be thrown out. We will not tolerate anyone who messes with the country’s security and sovereignty,” the Uttar Pradesh chief minister said in one of his election speeches.
As the campaign ended, Nitish, who had enjoyed consistent support from EBC Muslims, was forced to intervene and take a different line. In a not-so-tacit dig at his UP counterpart, he said at a rally in Kishanganj, “Who does all this malicious campaigning? Who says all this faltu baat [nonsense]? Who will throw out people? No one dares do that. Everyone belongs to this country, everyone is Indian.”
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in fact, has looked divided through the campaign. Sensing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the chief minister, the BJP swiftly distanced itself from JD(U) in its campaign. Most JD(U) candidates did not find much active support from saffron party leaders. Towards the end of the elections, the BJP solely relied on Modi’s popularity while entirely wiping out Nitish’s face from its hoardings and other advertisements. In multiple assembly seats, The Wire found that BJP leaders portrayed themselves as highly critical of Nitish in order to secure their own candidatures. Given the fact that much of the anti-incumbency anger was directed against Nitish, BJP’s tactic was clearly to insulate itself from the damages that it would have faced because of its association with the JD(U).
Nitish, himself, wasn’t his composed self. Known for his stoicism and wily moves, the chief minister remained at the top for almost 15 years without a fixed vote bank in the state. However, the 2020 assembly poll campaign saw an uncharacteristic Nitish. He kept losing his cool amidst opposition from the crowds at rallies, focused more on Lalu’s regime instead of his own work during the last 15 years, and even stooped so low as to make allusions about Lalu’s “large” family in what was clearly a below-the-belt remark.
His decision to keep the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) out of the NDA at the last minute also appeared to backfire on him. Nitish underestimated resentment against him on the ground, and in a way forced the already-critical Chirag Paswan to open a much more aggressive front against him. That most rebel BJP leaders found a pad in LJP to contest elections only made matters worse for him.
Contrastingly, the RJD-led alliance came across as a united anti-BJP front. Tejashwi Yadav ran a spirited campaign. He drew upon the alliance’s common minimum agenda of ensuring “kamaai, dawai, padhai, aur sinchai (income, medicine, education and irrigation)” in Bihar if elected to power, and made these fundamental discussion points in the polls.
Unlike the NDA, the Mahagathbandhan consisting of the RJD, Congress and Left parties acted in unison not only as electoral allies but also as combined forces on the ground. What is believed to be the conventional vote bank of the NDA (upper caste groups, EBCs and Mahadalits) appeared scattered across the state, while that of the Mahagathbandhan (Yadavs, Muslims and a large section of the poor) came out to campaign aggressively for “badlaav (change)”.
The alliance’s promise of “10 lakh jobs in the first cabinet meeting” had a visible resonance among the electorate. Additionally, Tejashwi was also successful in projecting himself as a leader of the future. He emphasised the “youth vs old” binary to his advantage by frequently making the “Nitish ji thak chuke hai (Nitish ji is tired now)” remark while jogging his way from his helicopter to the stage at almost every rally that he addressed. Thirty-seven-year-old Chirag’s presence as one of the poles in the campaign made this contrast appear more prominent than it actually was.
The promise of jobs and quality education struck a chord with people, especially the youth who form around 57% of the state’s population. The opposition campaign touched upon more fundamental problems of Bihar, which is ranked as one of the poorest states in India. By speaking about “arthik nyay (economic justice)” in addition to “samajik nyay (social justice)”, it attempted to go beyond the usual caste arithmetic within a “backward versus forward” trope, and effectively expanded the scope of Mandal politics that is deeply-entrenched in the state’s political dynamics.
In contrast, the NDA banked solely on what senior journalist Seema Chishti qualified as “a negative agenda anchored selectively in the past”.
Much of this had a clear impact on Bihar’s deeply-rooted caste society. Interests of different, and often inimical, caste groups appeared to converge around issues like unemployment and material aspirations for a better quality of life.
However, a section of political observers believe that the traditional caste considerations could still be a bigger factor than these material issues at the end. In a way, the assembly polls in Bihar will be a test of whether issues of livelihood trump, or weaken, the strictly caste-based alignments during voting. To what extent the conventional voting patterns change or stay the same will eventually decide the outcome of the assembly polls.