Despite exit polls predicting a mahagathbandhan win, in the complexity that is Bihar politics, with its mix of caste combinations, and the addition of Covid and acute economic distress this time, the final picture could still change.
Exit polls might have given a clear advantage to the RJD-led Grand Alliance in Bihar, and voices on the ground seem to indicate that Tejashwi Yadav has struck a chord with his promise of jobs. However, in the complexity that is Bihar politics, with its mix of caste combinations, and the addition of Covid and acute economic distress this time, the final picture could still change depending on the following:
Anti-incumbency/anger against Nitish
“If it is anti-incumbency against Nitish, we could still manage a comfortable simple majority. But if it is anger, we are in for trouble.” This is how a senior BJP leader described the Bihar scenario.
While ground reports indicate clear anti-incumbency –– not surprising given that Nitish is seeking re-election for the fourth time –– at some places, the anger has spilled out in public. Most voters say Nitish ran out of ideas after his first term. And while most still laud provision of electricity as the high point of the JD(U) leader’s career, as one voter put to this paper, “Power had to come some time.”
With Bihar’s industrial growth lagging even behind the national average, the biggest grievance against Nitish this election was his government’s inability to provide jobs.
While the economic distress caused by the lockdown has made this discontent even more acute, the apparent callousness with which the Nitish government handled the migrant workers from Bihar stuck in other states remains fresh in people’s memories. Voters consistently compared Nitish’s advice to migrants to “stay where they were” against actions taken by CMs like Yogi Adityanath, who sent buses to get back his state’s stranded residents.
The drift away from Nitish is seen to have started back in April, when he spent 86 days closeted in the CM House at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The promise of jobs
With over 40 lakh migrants having returned home during the lockdown, and with hardly any government job appointments since those of teachers a few years ago and some in the police, Tejashwi’s figure of 10 lakh jobs, however unrealistic, touched a chord.
The 31-year-old reasoned that he hadn’t plucked the 10-lakh figure out of thin air, but taken into account 4.5 lakh pending vacancies and another 5.5 lakh jobs to reach the national average –– a line he kept repeating through his blitzkrieg of 251 public meetings.
Tejashwi also tapped into two disgruntled groups –– teachers and anganwadi workers –– promising them increased pay. Nitish, who was seen as being ahead by far in the beginning of the race, was initially dismissive, swearing by his old promises of roads and water, on which he has built his ‘sushasan’ image.
However, the NDA was eventually forced to read the writing on the wall. While Nitish countered that his job record far surpassed the previous RJD regime’s, the BJP went one step further and promised 19 lakh jobs.
The LJP factor
This will be an election in which a political party will be discussed more for the seats it made another party lose than how many it won. LJP president Chirag Paswan’s self-declared one-point agenda was to ensure the defeat of the JD(U), while at the same time underlining that he remained a friendly opponent of the BJP.
The mixed message left the core BJP voters, especially upper castes, confused. Most of the about 13% upper caste voters are considered an NDA constituency.
Paswan’s remarks also added to the distrust between JD(U) and BJP cadre at the same time as Tejashwi’s rallied behind him even more aggressively and vocally. JD(U) insiders admit the LJP could end up hurting them on at least 35 seats.
The BJP appeared to have realised rather late that the LJP might prove an “unguided missile”. However, the party’s effort to dispel the notion that it had propped Chirag up remained half-hearted. PM Narendra Modi, who has no love lost for Nitish, for one, did not disown Chirag completely.
Bihar’s three poles
Dominated by Lalu Prasad, Nitish and the BJP for the past two decades, Bihar politics has usually been easy to predict –– two poles coming together means a sure defeat for the third. This lies at the heart of the NDA’s confidence that, notwithstanding the exit polls, the BJP and JD(U)’s social combination of about 40%-plus votes will prove a winner.
If not a majority, the NDA hopes to win enough to ensure a hung Assembly, a scenario more favourable for it as the party in power at the Centre. A JD(U) leader said the pollster numbers don’t take into account its silent EBC and women supporters.
An RJD leader countered that the BJP-JD(U) formula is old, and that they have a new combination in the mix: MY for Mazdoor Yuva not just Muslims and Yadavs.
Congress and Left as cementing factor
The Mahagathbandhan and NDA presented a picture of contrasts. This time, it was the NDA that was a house in disarray, with last-minute partners Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahani not adding much value.
On the other hand, the RJD’s partners, Congress and the three Left parties, not only looked good on paper but also worked well on the ground. The Congress is confident of weaning away some of the fragmented upper caste votes, while the Muslim and Yadavs might vote for it more aggressively given the bright hopes of Tejashwi coming to power.
In the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region, voters were vocal about their apprehensions regarding the CAA and NRC, and their determination to support a party that would keep the BJP out.
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