Reading the mandate in Bihar’s fragmented political landscape

Bihar’s voters have reposed their trust in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — despite the fact there were strong voices on the ground expressing discontent with the Nitish Kumar government, especially due to the hardships suffered by labour in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown.

However, what is very evident is that the voters have disaggregated their choices within the broad fabric of a “coalition”, and given to each political party only whatever seemed to be their due.

So, overall, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has emerged as a senior partner within the NDA, with the Janata Dal (United) a distant second. While Nitish Kumar’s poll propaganda banked on the plank of his return as chief minister, and this will happen, his party is not the leader of the coalition anymore, and has had a poor electoral strike rate well below the 50% mark. It is the BJP which saved the day for the NDA.

For the other opposing coalition, the Mahagatbandhan (grand alliance), led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), it is the Congress that has registered an abysmal strike rate of around 25% of the seats allocated to it.

In terms of the number of seats, it is the Left parties that have performed almost as well as the Congress. The combined Left front has a high strike rate. Even here, voters have seen each component of the coalition for what they are, and rewarded them in proportion.

There is a larger message here — voters are perfectly capable of making their political preferences clear, even as complicated political choices have to be registered under coalitions.

The second important issue is that of poll promises. Here, the NDA went in two different directions. The JD(U) focused on building on its governance agenda with skills, polytechnics, and improved job opportunities. The BJP took on the RJD’s promise of a million jobs with its own promise of providing 1.9 million jobs, and setting up an IIT and AIIMS for high quality technical and professional education.

As news of the poor performance of the NDA in the first phase of polls began spreading, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in posters with a personal appeal, asking voters to repose their trust in the BJP—“Bhajapa hai to bharosa hai”. The message was simple — the BJP could be relied upon to deliver to the people, just as it had delivered on its welfare schemes.

The BJP also kept up its attack on dynastic politics, and did not hesitate to remind the electorate of the jungle raj that could come back in Bihar if Tejashwi Yadav and the RJD were anointed to power.

This then throws up a second message — political trust and direct delivery trumped a new offering and lack of experience.

Contrary to perception, this election has also revealed that there are no settled terrains of vote bank politics premised on caste. For instance, in the Kosi and Seemanchal belt, there is an average share of 30% Muslim votes, and the Yadav-Muslim combination is considered formidable. This area has been the bastion of socialist thinking and Mandal politics.

But the RJD faced a strong challenge in a politically fragmented arena. Both Asaduddin Owaisi and Pappu Yadav’s respective formations turned into competitors for the Mahagatbandhan. Do remember that it was in this region that Nitish Kumar turned emotional, calling it his last election. And it was here that PM Modi’s rallies acquired a nationalist pitch. The region went to polls in the last phase, and NDA has done remarkably well.

Bihar’s voters have displayed electoral acumen in seeing through alliances, valuing political trust, and choosing their parties according to political geography. This brought the NDA close to power in a closely contested race, despite battling severe anti-incumbency.

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