As Bihar Votes, All The Key Stats You Need To Know
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally, on Oct. 22, 2020. (Photograph: Janata Dal (United)/Twitter)

As Bihar Votes, All The Key Stats You Need To Know

BloombergQuintOpinion

As voting gets underway in Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s pursuit of yet another term as chief minister has run up against recent events that are fresh in the electorate’s mind – floods, the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resultant migrant worker crisis. He has also faced dissent within the National Democratic Alliance, with Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party walking out and putting up candidates against Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).

While Nitish Kumar remains the top choice as preferred chief minister, with a 32% rating among C-Voter’s survey respondents, this is rather low for an incumbent seeking re-election. In 2015, his rating on this count was in the range of 40-45%. Infact, incumbents have traditionally enjoyed a positive bias in such surveys.

Alliances With Revolving Doors

Bihar has had a history of political parties shifting coalition camps to suit their needs. In continuation of that trend, this time too the composition of the National Democratic Alliance and the rival Mahagathbandhan (MGB) have undergone a complete transformation, in comparison to the formations in the last assembly elections, and, to an extent, even last year’s Lok Sabha polls.

  • For starters, Nitish Kumar returned to the NDA in 2017 after leading the MGB to victory in 2015.
  • Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was briefly installed as chief minister by Nitish in 2014-15, broke with his party leader to ally with the NDA in 2015, moved to the MGB for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and has now made a return to the NDA.
  • Upendra Kushwaha, former union minister in the Modi government, was part of NDA in 2015, moved to MGB for Lok Sabha elections in 2019, and has now formed a Third Front with BSP and smaller parties.
  • Mukesh Sahani backed the NDA in 2015, moved to MGB for 2019, and has re-joined the NDA fold.
As Bihar Votes, All The Key Stats You Need To Know

Chirag Paswan: Trojan Horse, But Not The Way You Think

The recently-deceased Ram Vilas Paswan was known as a mausam vaigyanik or weather scientist, for accurately predicting which way the political wind was blowing in succesive elections, and for invariably being always on the winning side. With Paswan’s illness and subsequent death, his son Chirag now leads the Lok Janshakti Party.

Chirag Paswan at a prayer ceremony for his father Ram Vilas Paswan. (Image: Chirag Paswan social media)
Chirag Paswan at a prayer ceremony for his father Ram Vilas Paswan. (Image: Chirag Paswan social media)

When the NDA refused LJP its desired number of seats to contest on, Chirag said his party would go it alone. Interestingly though, the LJP has put up candidates only against JD(U) and not the BJP. Chirag has also openly called for Nitish Kumar to be replaced by BJP leader as chief minister, were the alliance to win.

The theory that first did the rounds was that the BJP is covertly backing the LJP’s rebellion to damage JD(U) and weaken Nitish Kumar’s claim on the chief minister’s post. But the BJP has since rubbished this theory and maintained that Nitish will be chief minister irrespective of the number of seats won by JD(U) and the BJP.

On the face of it, BJP’s official line suggests that Paswan Junior finds himself in no man’s land. Or is the door open for the BJP to do an Uddhav Thackeray on Nitish Kumar?

There could be another explanation.

The Chirag Paswan saga could be a clever ploy by the Modi-Shah duo, not to hurt Nitish Kumar but to divide the opposition vote. Initial surveys showed NDA—and especially JD(U)—losing support among scheduled castes, other backward classes, and most backward classes.

If LJP wasn’t contesting alone, the anti-NDA votes it gathers would have gone to the MGB.

Now some of these votes, especially scheduled caste votes, could be bagged by the LJP, thus actually helping the JD(U) increase its strike rate.

Chirag Paswan campaigning in Gobindpur, Bihar, on Oct. 23, 2020. (Photograph: @iChiragPaswan/Twitter)
Chirag Paswan campaigning in Gobindpur, Bihar, on Oct. 23, 2020. (Photograph: @iChiragPaswan/Twitter)

Also read: The ‘State’ Of Bihar And Why It Matters

Support Base Churn: Musical Chairs

The constant change of partners has led to a change in the voter base of parties who have been hopping sides lately, most notably the JD(U). Its vote base traditionally consisted of OBCs, MBCs, Mahadalits, and upper-caste voters. This witnessed a sea change in 2013-2015 when it broke from the BJP and allied with RJD, leading to a jump in Muslim-Yadav support. After the JD(U) came back to the NDA fold in 2017, it consolidated its OBC and upper caste support base. The support base of RJD and BJP has been more stable, Muslim-Yadav for Lalu’s party and OBC + upper caste for BJP.

RJD Hits Ceiling With Caste Arithmetic

Lalu Yadav’s party has been branded as a Muslim-Yadav party ever since his 1990 order as chief minister to arrest LK Advani in Samastipur during the Rath Yatra. To extend its social coalition in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the RJD roped in Jitam Ram Manjhi’s HAM, hoping to get a good share of the 10% Mahadalit votes, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP (Koeri - 8%) and Mukesh Sahani’s VIP (Nishad - 6-8%) for the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections. However, the experiment bombed - RJD and all these parties scored zero.

Having learned his lesson the hard way, Tejashwi has now forced out all these leaders from the alliance. With 31% support, (17% Muslim and 14% Yadav), Tejashwi knows well that he can’t win the battle in a primarily bipolar contest.

To extend his support base, and revive his father Lalu Prasad’s old voter base which comprised the poor and marginalised sections of society, Tejashwi has roped in the Left parties - CPI, CPI(M), and CPI (ML). While the Left parties are contesting 29 seats, they are a pale shadow of their past strength in the state.

However, by adopting an all-inclusive strategy, Tejashwi hopes the support these parties enjoy among landless labourers and poor peasantry will help him bridge the caste-class divide. 33.7% of Bihar’s population is below the poverty line versus 21.9% nationally.

RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav at an election rally in Bihar. (Image: Tejashwi Yadav social media)
RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav at an election rally in Bihar. (Image: Tejashwi Yadav social media)

Also read: Bihar Elections: No Longer Bipolar And Predictable

An Election With Many Contradictions

Initial polls suggested a comfortable victory for the NDA. However, the same polls show a high level of anti-incumbency against Nitish. With 54% voters wanting to change the government, the C-Voter survey still gave NDA 160 of 243 seats.

There’s more.

That poll gives JD(U) (70), more seats than RJD (56). These pieces of the puzzle are tough to fit into the overall picture. The voter wants to throw out the government, but still intends to vote for the same party? The TINA factor (there is no alternative) doesn’t entirely explain this behaviour.

The track record of opinion polls has not been great in recent times. In last October’s Assembly elections, the final NDA tally was 21% lower than early opinion poll projections in Maharashtra, and 50% lower in Haryana.

in Bihar, early opinion polls were conducted when candidates were just being named. Usually, a third of the people caste their vote based on the candidate, so these numbers change.

While many pundits believe Modi’s popularity could bail out Nitish, we have seen voters distinguish between national and state elections, which are conducted on local or hyper-local issues.

In Delhi as well as Maharashtra, an Axis-MyIndia survey had showed that less than 10% of people considered national issues when voting in the State Assembly elections.

Also read: 34% Candidates In Second Phase Of Bihar Polls Face Criminal Cases: ADR Report

‘Double Engine’ Versus Twin Anti-Incumbency

After his Lok Sabha win in 2014, every time Narendra Modi has hit the campaign trail for a state election his party has campaigned for a ‘double engine ki sarkaar’ (having the same party/alliance in government in the state as well as the centre) to bring coordinated, all-round development.

Instead, in every assembly election since May 2014 where the NDA was the incumbent in power, its tally of seats won has fallen, compared to the previous state election.

Nitish Kumar faces double anti-incumbency of another kind. That against the executive and the legislator.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally, on Oct. 25, 2020. (Photograph: Janata Dal (United)/Twitter)
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally, on Oct. 25, 2020. (Photograph: Janata Dal (United)/Twitter)

There seems to be noticeable disenchantment with the state government as well as against local MLAs. In power for 15 years, many MLAs of the JD(U), and BJP (not in power 2013-2017) are in their second or third terms, long enough to prompt voter fatigue.

Picture the elections as a cricket match between two squads, the NDA and MGB. There are in-form players on both sides, other players struggling with form who have been retained in the team due to legacy issues, and then some debutants.

  • NDA: JD(U) (Captain), BJP (Vice-Captain), VIP (Debutant), HAM (Out of form)
  • MGB: RJD (Captain), INC (Vice-Captain), Left Parties (Making a comeback)

The intensity of the contest in each seat can be plotted on a ‘Toughness Index’.

  • A JD(U) versus RJD fight is a tough contest for both.
  • The same with BJP versus RJD.
  • BJP versus INC is less tough for the former.
  • While the contests against VIP/HAM can be categorised as easy wins for RJD.
Among the major parties, the JD(U) faces the hardest battle. 69% of its candidates are in tough contests, 57% for the RJD, and 50% for the BJP.

RJD fancies its chances against JD(U) in a head-to-head match up, 24 of which are in Phase 1.

The form of the senior players in each squad will determine the result of this cricket match.

Their ability to nail the easy contests and emerge winners in tough contests will be the key to determine whether ‘Nitish sabke hain’ or ‘Is baar Tejashwi tay hai’.

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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