New Delhi: Contrary to what the exit polls concluded, the Bihar polls were always poised to be a cliffhanger. Most reporters who were on the ground would have vouched for a tough contest. It eventually turned out to be exactly that.
The National Democratic Alliance scraped past the majority mark of 122 in a nail-biting day-long counting process. The Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Mahagathbandhan fell short of the majority by 12 seats.
According to the Election Commission website, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally is 74, while Janata Dal (United) is considerably behind at 43.
Two smaller NDA allies, the Vikassheel Insan Party and the Hindustan Awam Party (Secular) won in 4 seats each. The RJD, on the other hand, finished as the single-largest party with 75 seats, while the Congress won a mere 19. Of the 29 seats the Left parties had contested, they won in 16, with the CPI (ML-Liberation) winning at least 12 of them.
A quick reading of the results points towards at least five broad trends.
One, had the BJP ensured that the Lok Janshakti Party stayed in the coalition, it would have been a far more comfortable win for the National Democratic Alliance. From the very beginning, the NDA had the caste arithmetic strongly in its favour.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (United)-LJP combine’s conventional vote bank comprises “upper” caste groups (15%), a large section of economically backward classes (EBC) (26%), and Dalits (16%). The LJP’s defection set the anti-incumbency sentiment in motion but also ended up restricting the Mahagathbandhan’s shot at power as much as it hurt the JD(U).
Two, in a multi-cornered contest that eventually ensued, the Congress proved to be the Achilles’ heel for the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Mahagathbandhan, winning less than 10% of votes. Its abysmal strike rate can be deduced from the fact that of the 70 seats it contested, it could manage to win only 19.
At the same time, the Left parties performed beyond expectations.
The presence of CPI (ML-Liberation), the biggest Left party in the state, lent the alliance enough weight to pull off a passionate campaign that has clearly seen dividends. The party, in at least 100 seats of Bihar, has been consistently polling between 5,000 to 40,000 votes in past elections.
The addition of this support to the RJD made all the difference in its numbers, while the Congress could not lay claim to any solid vote bank and has a less than 10% vote share.
Three, it is clear that the NDA lost a substantial chunk of its votes owing to the prevailing air of resentment against the chief minister Nitish Kumar but managed to retain enough to remain in the contest.
Whether or not issues of livelihood and anger against widespread economic distress overcome, or even weaken, traditional caste interests was a crucial question in the run-up to the polls. The Mahagathbandhan’s respectable performance indicates that it could swing caste interests – however diverse they may have been earlier – around the issues of “kamaai, padhai, dawai, sichai” (income, education, medicine, irrigation). But clearly the extent of this swing is not enough to break the NDA’s stronghold in their territories.
Despite significant anger against him, Nitish has retained a large section of the support he has traditionally received from the non-assertive economically backward classes, including those in the Muslim community, and the Mahadalits.
Four, the support that the chief minister still enjoys in his core base helped the BJP propel itself into securing the highest number of seats it has won in Bihar. However, the JD (U) itself had to face substantial losses because the BJP’s own traditional vote bank comprising “upper caste groups” splintered to support the LJP candidate – mostly BJP rebels – in a considerable number of seats.
Given this outcome for the NDA, it was eventually Nitish’s influence which helped the NDA reach a respectable figure.
The BJP will likely leverage its position to create a Hindutva narrative as separate from the social justice rhetoric advanced by the JD (U). But it would still be difficult for it to entirely alienate Nitish Kumar, given the fact that his party has won a significant enough number to remain relevant through the next five years.
Five, although the RJD-led coalition led a spirited campaign to cash in on the disenchantment against the state government, it couldn’t consolidate much beyond the confines of its traditional voter base in the Muslim-Yadav communities. It was known that a significant section of the electorate wanted Nitish out. However, the challenge in front of the Mahagathbandhan was to channel the splintering votes towards itself. While the Left parties successfully did that, the Congress miserably failed in this effort. The RJD below par strike rate (it won or is leading in 77 out of the 144 it contested ) also shows that Tejashwi Yadav’s appeal among voters wasn’t enough.
The RJD gained almost five percentage points in terms of vote share if compared to the 2015 polls. At 24%, this may be the highest votes that the RJD has received since 2005, thanks to Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership and efforts. However, almost 27% votes cornered by “others” and LJP points towards a noticeable splintering of the total anti-incumbency votes.
In multiple assembly seats, The Wire found that the livelihood issues raised by the RJD-led alliance resonated among people from across caste groups. Sections among EBCs, Mahadalits, and even the “upper” caste groups wanted to vote against Nitish, but didn’t commit to the RJD. They rather believed that they should reserve their vote for the one who was in the best position to defeat the chief minister’s party JD (U).
What the results have proven is that Nitish Kumar is not merely a political figure in Bihar but a social force – the only leader who enjoys support cutting across caste and class. The RJD’s efforts to dethrone him and the BJP’s attempt to undercut him were thus proven too wishful. He may have won fewer seats but has kept his bargaining power intact.
Yet, one can’t discount the performance of the Mahagathbandhan easily. Barring the deadweight Congress, the RJD and Left parties gave their all to this election. Their relevance can be judged from the way they will play the role of a strong opposition in the next five years.
It was because of their campaign that after the second assembly poll in 2005 in which Nitish Kumar came to power for the first time on the planks of good governance, this 2020 elections were fought on issues of livelihood, and not purely caste calculations.
Eventually, it turned out to be a winning mix for Nitish Kumar, who emerged as both a keen purveyor of both ‘good governance’ and as patron of non-assertive caste groups in Bihar again. However, that does not take away much from the fighting spirit the Mahagathbandhan showed in the run-up to the polls at a time when the media had written it off.