When I visited Bihar during the 2015 state election, the first thing I noticed was that all the BJP hoardings there had pictures only of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, president of the BJP at that time. They did not project any local leader even though their opponents were two Bihar stalwarts: Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The result shocked many. The BJP and the minor parties it was in alliance with were trounced by the Grand Alliance of the JD(U), RJD and the Congress, which won 178 seats to their 58 in the 243-member assembly. It was surprising because just a year ago, the BJP-led NDA had won 31 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general election. The lesson here? In recent times, no one has been able to win the Bihar election alone and having a local leader of stature is a must. In the forthcoming election, the NDA seems to have a formidable combination in a local leader who has ruled the state for 15 years and a prime minister who enjoys immense popularity as a national leader. There is also the exceptional organisational prowess of the BJP. Despite local leaders raising concerns of anti-incumbency, the party has reposed full faith in Nitish by declaring him as their chief ministerial candidate.
The Bihar election is the first poll to be held in the pandemic. It will be a test of Nitish’s performance as chief minister and the success of schemes such as taking drinking water supply to every household or his tackling of the migrants’ crisis during the lockdown. The BJP, which so far has won just one of the three state elections held after its landslide win in May 2019, has a point to prove too. Importantly, the Bihar election will also be a referendum of sorts on the Modi government’s handling of the pandemic. The BJP is taking nothing for granted and the prime minister will be addressing 12 rallies in the state even though the NDA won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
This is the first state election in over three decades where the indomitable Lalu Prasad Yadav is absent, even from the campaign posters of his own party, the RJD. His troubled legacy, a 15-year rule by his family marked by crime, corruption and some of India’s most abysmal social indices, is clearly something his son and successor Tejashwi Yadav wants to shake off.
Hearteningly, for a state riven by caste equations, this is among the first polls where the caste arithmetic has been played down in campaigns. The poll planks are issues that should matter to the state’s 71.8 million voters, development and jobs. Tejashwi’s election promise of 1 million jobs for young persons is aimed at the state’s substantial youth bulge, 23.6 per cent of whom are in the 18-29-year-old median. Meanwhile, the incumbent Nitish is promising a sequel to his good governance plank, Saat Nishchay, the seven resolutions that include improving the quality of education and handing out loans to entrepreneurs. Nitish is also banking on the goodwill generated among women voters for introducing prohibition four years ago.
The Lokniti-CSDS survey gives us the clearest appreciation of the ground situation in the state so far. There is an undercurrent of anti-incumbency as Nitish’s 31 per cent approval ratings are the lowest since he was elected CM. However, he is still clearly the favourite choice for chief minister. Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD-led grand alliance is close on his heels, with a 27 per cent approval rating. A majority of the voters we surveyed picked development as their top electoral issue, followed closely by those who said jobs mattered the most to them.
The survey puts the NDA vote share at 38 per cent, and of the RJD-led grand alliance at a close 32 per cent. The NDA is projected to win between 133 and 143 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly, marginally more than the 125 seats they currently hold. The RJD-led grand alliance, on the other hand, is expected to corner 88 to 98 seats. Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which decided not to ally with the NDA in the state, is slated to pick 2-6 seats while others may get 6-10 seats.
Senior Associate Editor Amitabh Srivastava, who has been tracking the ground situation in Bihar, puts the survey findings in perspective in our cover story, ‘A Winning Combination’.
Conventional wisdom in Bihar has it that when two of the state’s three major political formations, the RJD, JD(U) and BJP, join forces, they triumph. This is what happened in 2015 when the JD(U)-RJD alliance routed the BJP. However, there are some imponderables.
A third front alliance of six parties, including the BSP and the AIMIM, is projected to get a 7 per cent chunk of the vote share, thus splitting the anti-incumbency vote. One in 10 voters surveyed also said they were undecided. One in seven said their preferences could change on voting day. The Congress will be contesting 70 seats as part of the grand alliance, 29 more than in 2015. The Grand Old Party has been in terminal decline in the state in recent years, and at least 46 per cent of traditional Congress voters said they were voting for other parties. The Congress party could well become the Achilles’ heel of the Opposition. Barring campaign hiccups, the NDA seems set to rule Bihar again.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, A Winning Combination, for November 2, 2020 issue of India Today Magazine)