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How NDA emerged victorious in Bihar: Five key takeaways

Navneet Mundhra
·8-min read

From Nitish Kumar's reduced stature and PM Modi's surging popularity to Tejashwi Yadav's resolute campaign, here are the five key takeaways from Bihar polls:

1) Nitish Kumar diminished, but not decimated: All the opinion polls in the lead-up to the assembly elections evinced that there were raucous rumblings of discontent against the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, especially on the issues of education, health, migrant crisis and unemployment. The groundswell of ire was particularly booming among the youth. However, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his ally, was largely undented. A large section of people asserted that they prefer Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) but have no love lost for Nitish's Janata Dal (United).

Throughout the campaign, Nitish looked tad jaded and was at the receiving end of stinging jibes from opposition leaders such as Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan. He also uncharacteristically lost his cool during rallies and bristled at crowds a number of times. The personal attacks and unedifying language directed at the opponents underlined his trepidation. His assertion at the election rally that this would be his last election was the final throw of the dice.

The results corroborated the general mood of the public. While BJP performed spectacularly at the hustings and raked in 74 seats, JD(U) could only eke out 43 despite contesting in equal constituencies. In fact, JDU's tepid showing made heavy weather of the alliance's victory which otherwise would have been the breeze. National Democratic Alliance (NDA) just managed to scrape past the majority mark and settled for 125 seats against Mahagathbandan's (MGB) tally of 110. A party/alliance needs 122 seats in Bihar to form the state government in the house of 243.

While Nitish's political stock has sharply plummeted with JDU's worst performance in last 20 years and dent in his own image, he isn't completely decimated. The women voters, in particular, are still firmly with him and his transformational work in Bihar between 2005-2013 is still acknowledged. However, there are clouds of uncertainty over his political future and relevance.

(Photo by Parwaz Khan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Parwaz Khan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

2) PM Modi reigns supreme: Bihar elections took place in the midst of a pandemic that has killed lakhs of people in India. It has also resulted in severe economic downturn due to which millions have lost their livelihood. The pandemic has particularly been severe for impoverished migrants. During the initial lockdown, hordes of distressed migrants from various cities made their way to their native state Bihar. The stories of their agony were heart-wrenching. The 15 years of anti-incumbency against the ruling dispensation in state and anger against CM Nitish Kumar were abundantly evident on the ground. However, despite all these factors and the fact that Modi has been the PM at the Centre for six years, his popularity and credibility remain undented. In fact, if anything, they have only soared.

Most of the BJP's campaign was unsurprisingly centered around Modi in Bihar and even the ally Nitish, with stiff upper lip, played second fiddle. It was clear to everyone that Modi would be left to do the heavy lifting for the NDA if the alliance had to retain the power. And he didn't disappoint. Despite JDU's lacklustre showing, the NDA, on the strength of Modi hurricane, managed to squeak home in a humdinger of an election. BJP, for the first time in 15 years since they have formed the government with JDU, emerged as the Big Brother of the alliance in Bihar. This reinforces his stature as by far the tallest and most popular leader in India.

3) Emergence of Tejashwi Yadav: Before the elections, Tejashwi was marinating in the shadows of his illustrious father. The questions about his political acumen and mass appeal were routinely, and rightly, bandied about. The murmurs about his churlish and often impetuous style gained currency after a number of senior Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders spoke against him publicly. On top of that, his party copped an ignominious drubbing in the 2019 general elections, which were fought under his leadership, and failed to win even a single seat.

Pitched against the combined force of shrewd stalwarts such as Modi and Nitish, Tejashwi appeared a babe in the woods till a few months ago. The election outcome was deemed a foregone conclusion by most of the political pundits. But surprising one and all, Tejashwi mounted a resolute, focused and energetic campaign. He unwaveringly talked about jobs, migrant crisis, farmers and education. Unlike his father, he didn't ostensibly pander to any particular caste and desisted from colorful jargons. His rhetoric was inclusive and finely measured. "1990s was a time of social justice. Now it's about economic justice irrespective of caste," was his refrain. His promise of 10 lakh jobs in the state if he would be voted to power became a pivot point of election narrative.

He didn't make the mistake of playing into the BJP's hand and steered clear of harping on issues such as Article 370, CAA-NRC and Ram Temple. His jibes at Nitish were sharp, judiciously pointed and almost rattled the incumbent CM. However, he didn't assail the PM in similar vein. As a consequence, his rallies drew astonishingly massive crowds comprising of farmers, students, migrant labourers along with a large section of his party's traditional voters - Yadavs and Muslims.

Though the Mahagathbandhan missed the majority mark by a whisker, his party RJD emerged as the single largest party in the elections, be it number of seats (75) or vote percentage. A remarkable turnaround after drawing a blank last year in general elections.

4) CPI-ML and Congress - a study in contrast: The stunning performance of CPI-ML gave MGB a huge leg-up in Bhojpur region. CPI-ML took root in Bihar in 1969 as a bulwark against exploitative and oppressive 'bhumihars' and 'zamindars'. The party and its cadre have been working with poor farmers, Dalits and downtrodden labourers since then but were a guerilla and underground outfit till 1992. It actively supported and participated in armed struggle of peasants and cultivated a large band of loyal supporters. After their entry into the mainstream electoral process, their cadre gave up arms and the party has been winning a few seats in assembly elections but never joined forces with any dominant alliance in the state.

This time, it joined MGB and cobbled together a mutually-beneficial association. While MGB benefitted from CPI-ML's large cadre at the grassroots and loyal support base, CPI-ML found the patronage of traditional voters of the RJD. CPI-ML surprisingly won 12 out of 19 allotted seats with a strike-rate of over 60%. It's performance and presence propped MGB up in Patna rural and Bhojpur regions.

On the other hand, the abject showing by the Congress pulled MGB, and its chances of winning the elections, several notches down. Out of the 70 allotted seats, Congress only wrung out 19 and queered MGB's pitch. A pitiable 27% strike-rate in a cliffhanger proved the death knell for the alliance and only accentuated the terminally depleting political stock of the party.

5) LJP and AIMIM - vote-cutters and props: Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM and Chirag Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) inadvertently contributed in making Bihar elections a nail-biting thriller.

Before the elections, LJP broke ranks with the NDA in state and decided to contest against erstwhile alliance partner Nitish's JDU on all the seats. Chirag made it clear that he admires PM Modi and his development policies, and hence would not put up any candidate against the BJP. The insiders suggested that LJP was acting at the behest of Modi to undercut his ally Nitish's stature and tally of seats.

The denouement is that while LJP managed to win just one seat, it played spoilsport for JDU in a number of constituencies. In 32 seats, LJP polled more votes than the margin of defeat for the JDU. Without LJP's intervention, JDU would have won at least 75 seats - one more than their ally BJP (74) - and the NDA would have romped home comfortably. However, BJP wanted a scenario where they (BJP+JDU) can scrape through to win but with a weakened Nitish. By decisively undercutting JDU on so many seats, LJP made sure that polls were a nail-biter.

AIMIM put up a spirited show in Seemanchal and hoovered up 5 seats, while damaging MGB on another 5 seats. Seemanchal is home to a large population of Muslims who have been the traditional voters of the RJD but the entry of Owaisi's party and his incendiary rhetoric sliced away a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes from MGB. In an election, where the victory of any alliance depended on swing of just 5 seats, Owaisi is called a King-slayer. Congress and RJD are shooting barbs at Owaisi, calling him a vote-cutter and the BJP's Team B who enables communal polarisation. The pugnacious leader however is steadfast in refuting the allegations and accusing Congress of being an 'impotent' party which holds Muslims to hostage and can't stem BJP's rise.

Jubilant at his party's performance, he has vowed to contest upcoming assembly elections in Bengal which has a significant population of Muslims.

Follow the author on Twitter (@navneet_mundhra)