In the end, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has emerged as the winner in Bihar assembly elections. It has won 125 seats in the 243-member state assembly, just about enough to form the next government. The poll arithmetic would seem to have yielded exactly what the leadership of BJP had hoped for.
For itself, the party won 74 seats with a strike rate of almost 70% — the best in this election. Its “attempt” to relegate Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) to a junior partner’s status worked just as planned. It ensured there were enough spoilsports in the opposition ranks, especially in seats that were too close to call. And, last but not the least, it secured a mandate that reinforces the narrative that brand Modi delivers, no matter what.
All told, this election, however, has sprung a new hero in Indian politics — Tejashwi Yadav.
A closer scrutiny of the numbers reveals that the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), besides remaining the single-largest party with 75 seats, polled nearly 3 million votes, or 40%, more than it did in 2015. That shows the predominantly Yadav party has been able to extend its net beyond the core vote base of Muslims and Yadavs.
Notably, the increase in its vote share — from 18.3% to 23.1% — has come more from the BJP’s quota than that of the JD(U). The BJP’s vote share slipped from 24.4% to 19.5%. It also polled 1.1 million votes less than it did in 2015. Of course, the drop was in line with the lesser number of seats it contested this time because of the alliance, but it could not be offset by a commensurate in JD(U)’s vote share.
On the contrary, the latter’s vote share dropped from 16.8% to 15.8%. In fact, BJP candidates seem to have secured JD (U) voters, the same did not happen with upper caste BJP voters in seats contested by JD (U). They voted for rebel BJP or upper caste candidates who were contesting either on tickets from LJP or the RJD, and in some cases even independents and smaller parties such as the Plurals Party.
Leading from the front
Consider the above against the backdrop of elections in 2015, when a seasoned politician like Lalu Prasad Yadav was the chief strategist for the Mahagathbandhan and Nitish Kumar the face of its campaign. It was also a time when BJP was relatively less-resourced, and less-entrenched, in Bihar than it is today.
Five years on, the BJP is part of the ruling coalition of which Nitish Kumar is the leader; Lalu is lodged in jail from where he would not get bail to come out yet. All that left Tejashwi Yadav with a formidable task to single-handedly steer the ship for his party and its allies in this election. Moreover, the opposition in Bihar was in disarray until a few months ago. That is why, a win of 75 seats, compared to the 80-seat tally of 2015, should be considered a commendable achievement by the young Yadav.
However, what was remarkable about the 31-year-old cool-headed politician, a hero of this election, was his ability to successfully come out of his father’s shadow, shed the baggage of Yadav politics and nudge the state’s youth to look beyond identity politics.
More importantly, if the election campaign in Bihar remained relatively sober and free of hate-filled jingoism compared to other elections in recent times, the credit must go to the RJD leader. The BJP tried to raise divisive issues, such as Kashmir, CAA and the Ram Mandir during its campaign, but these did not cut much ice.
Even the controversy generated around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput that sought to cash in on the cultural fault lines proved to be a non-starter. Nitish Kumar tried to invoke the imagery of “jungle-raj” and resorted to personal attacks on Yadav and his family on many occasions, not with much success.
In all of these, Tejashwi Yadav exhibited maturity, rarely seen among people of his age. He refused to be pulled into any of this and stayed focused on the twin issues of education and jobs, which he pushed as the main election plank for the Mahagathbandhan.
He also succeeded in setting the agenda not only for this election but possibly also for post-pandemic politics in the country. The fact that BJP was forced to better Yadav’s pledge of 1 million government jobs for the state’s youth and also promise free vaccine for COVID-19 signifies the growing appeal of a Centre-Left political and economic discourse.
In some ways, this is underscored by the success of the Left parties, which won 16 of the 29 seats they had contested. The Left’s strike rate, a tad bit higher than 50%, was as good as RJD’s, and far better than the Congress’s 30% and the JD(U)’s 40%. Even while electing the BJP-JD(U) combine to office, Bihar might have simultaneously raised the pitch for Centre-Left politics in India.
If the elections in West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu next year were to replicate the experience of Bihar, its people would proudly say: “we showed the way”. That’s what makes Tejashwi Yadav a hero of this election, a hero of post-COVID politics.
Rajesh Mahapatra is an independent journalist and founder-director of Odisha Dialogues.