With the third phase of voting, the Bihar elections – the most-awaited and discussed electoral event of this year after the Delhi election – comes to an end. Now, the wait is on until November 10, when the EVMs will be opened and counted to decide who forms the government and who will sit in the opposition for the next five years. The election was one of the largest electoral exercises to take place after the outbreak of COVID-19, which has halted the entire world.
When India imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, Bihar was in the headlines for the insensitivity of its incumbent chief minister, Nitish Kumar. The Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] chief contemplated shutting down the state’s borders to prevent the migrant workers – who were walking back to their homes – from entering the state. This, he thought, would be the best way to fight the virus.
In the later stages of the lockdown, news of Shramik trains losing their way and ending up at the wrong destination, people dying on trains without food and water, made headlines. But the chief minister decided to isolate himself at his residence for a long time. Floods, which have become an annual affair in Bihar, multiplied the woes of the people.
After a long hiatus, Tejaswhi Yadav became active and began helping the migrants. He also started raising these issues in the press. The political posturing of Chirag Paswan, who at the time was in the NDA, and Jitan Ram Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha, then with the grand alliance, were very different from what they are now.
In a state with minimal, almost non-existent health infrastructure, elections were scheduled using the guise of a contested recovery rate.
Initially, the elections did not evoke much enthusiasm. A comparatively well-organised NDA was trying to control Chirag Paswan’s ambitions, but the Mahagathbandhan was yet to initiate any seat-sharing among its constituents, the RJD, Congress, RLSP, VIP and HAM. The Left parties were yet to be a part of the picture. Analysts believed it would be an easy sail for the NDA in the polls, predicting there would be a dip in the turnout figures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the apparent lack of enthusiasm.
Since then, what we have seen is a complete turnaround of the election scenario. The NDA lost the LJP as an ally and added HAM and VIP. While the Mahagathbandhan let go of the Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP and later the Mukesh Sahani-led VIP, it added the three Left parties [CPI (ML), CPI and CPI (M)] to its fold.
The vikas rhetoric
The election began to be centred around issues such as unemployment, which struck a chord with the large young population of the state. The anti-incumbency sentiment against Nitish Kumar resonated with all castes, classes and genders. Women have voted for Nitish Kumar in huge numbers for many elections, but it was not to be this time. Prohibition has failed as a policy and the illegal sale of liquor has financed and supported the criminal-politician nexus in the state.
The Saat Nischay poll promises made during the last state assembly polls have made a lot of noise but have not improved the lives of people. Multiple reports present testimony to the fact that the Nal Jal Yojana has resulted in no jal but only nal in villages. Jal, Jivan Hariyali, the flagship scheme of Nitish Kumar, has faced accusations of irregularities time and again.
As the narrative of development faded away, Nitish Kumar, the self-styled “Vikas purush” had no ‘Vikas’ to show to the people. None of the schemes reached the beneficiaries without somebody taking a cut, or they did not work properly. Some of the roads which were built in his first term between 2005-10 are either in bad shape or have become completely unusable.
Without any achievements in the past five years to boast about while fighting the Tejashwi Yadav-led Mahagathbandhan, he banked upon the age-old plank of “jungle raj” to try and reduce his opposition’s popularity. The term has lost its relevance because it has been overused in the past few elections. For youngsters and first-time voters – a large demographic of the electorate in Bihar, this term has no meaning at all.
While the JD(U)-BJP attempted to centre the issues around ‘jungle raj’ and Lalu Prasad Yadav, a generational shift had already taken place in the RJD. Tejashwi Yadav, the chief ministerial candidate, was the face of the RJD in its rallies, posters, banners and hoardings to appeal to the youth. The presence of Lalu, who is in jail, was minimal and his images were not used in the campaign.
A new generation of politicians
This election also marked the departure of a generation of politicians and signalled a change, which is reflected in the politics of the state. It was after many years that state elections in Bihar did not involved Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Raghuvansh Prasad. On the last day of the campaign, Nitish Kumar announced that this would be his last election. This statement was denied later by a few of his party leaders. In any case, when the next assembly rolls around – in 2025 in the natural course of things – he will be 74. It remains to be seen how the young voters of Bihar will look at him them.
A total of 71 constituencies went to poll in the first phase on October 28, 94 constituencies in the second phase on November 3 and the remaining 78 constituencies in the third phase on November 7. For the NDA to be in a position to achieve the numbers to form the government, it is important for the JD(U) to perform well in the five districts known to be its citadel – Nalanda, Khagaria, Saharsa, Madhepura and Supaul. These districts went to the polls during the second and third phases of the election.
The JD(U) bastion and the home district of Nitish Kumar, Nalanda, has seven constituencies, of which the JD(U) bagged five, the BJP and RJD won one each in 2015. Out of the 17 constituencies in the four other districts, the JD(U) won 11. The weak link in the NDA remains the JD(U) and the performance in these five districts will decide its fate in these elections.
The Mahagathbandhan has kept its traditional votes by and large intact. It will also bank on the support of other communities due to its campaign focusing on issues such as unemployment and anti-incumbency. With the addition of the Left parties, the RJD and Congress will broaden their social umbrella. The impact of these additions and how well the issues highlighted in the campaign resonate with the people and will decide the fortunes of the alliance.
With the era of leaders from the JP movement in decline and the politics of Mandal coming to a halt, this election will be the start of a new kind of politics. This politics is an alliance of caste and class, bundled with the aspirations of the youth, who want better education facilities and employment opportunities. It is also evident that leaders across parties who make rhetorical promises are facing a backlash from the voters, indicating that the people are ready to demand more accountability from their representatives.
Neel Madhav is an independent journalist, currently based in Khagaria, Bihar. He tweets as @NeelMadhav_.