Bihar will vote in the second phase of polling on November 3 for 94 seats spread across 17 districts. A total of 71 assembly constituencies polled in the first phase and recorded a 54.76 per cent voter turnout. The chill is setting in but the poll heat is rising.
Clearly, the Bihar assembly elections are an unfolding story of anti-incumbency, social discontent and caste consolidation. The intersectional conflicts of caste and class, which is a defining feature of Bihar politics, has been advantageously exploited to woo voters. With the judicial trust on the Election Commission, the election is witnessing a strong power play between the two significant political blocs - the NDA supported Janata Dal (United) and the Mahagathbandhan. Despite being in a pre-poll alliance, JD(U) and BJP have released separate election manifestos instead of a common minimum programme for development.
The BJP seeks to establish its singularity in holding the reins of power, aloof of a trade-off with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar riding the wave of anti-incumbency. The contending political parties have laid the table for highly aspirational promises vide their election manifestos. The perception of the electorate to gauge the feasibility of actualising the electoral template may determine electoral outcome in the state.
The bait of employment
The electoral template is premised on a common agenda, but the imagination for implementation is different for the two main contesting power blocs. The Covid-hit economy with its spiraling downward trend has portrayed a dismal performance in the last few months. The fallout of this phenomenon has been the growing unemployment, largely in the informal sector. Despite the predicted difficulties in reviving the economy, political parties have been abundantly generous in claiming to generate gainful employment once voted to power.
While the BJP has promised almost two times more jobs than the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the catch line is the time frame of five years. The sector-wise employment schema of the BJP and RJD seeks to portray an infallible picture of the economy. JD(U) affirms its commitment to creation of government employment opportunities along with unemployment allowance for the youth. The illusion of employment is a time-tested bait that voters readily accept in every election.
The reluctance of CM Nitish Kumar to initiate a state-led intervention in favour of the migrant labourers who moved from the cities during the early days of the pandemic has caused resentment among them. The distrust has been appropriated by RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav in his several mentions in many rallies about the failure of the state to assuage the difficulties of its people in adverse condition. The RJD has promised a new industrial policy with focus on investment-induced growth to arrest migration to other states. Bihar’s industrialisation dream has been nurtured by many governments, but none have taken concrete steps to realise it. BJP’s fidelity to the idea of ‘aatmanirbharta’ is reflected in its promise for self-reliant industrialisation in Bihar.
Agriculture is the mainstay of Bihar’s economy. With growing resentment among farmers in North India over the new Farm Laws, the political parties have been carefully dealing with the issue. Higher minimum support price for agricultural produce and loan waivers have been a common promise. A minimum support price regime will be put in place for pulses in the state. The BJP has talked about 10 lakh agriculture-linked jobs which will rejuvenate the economic well-being of the farm sector in Bihar. Better irrigation facilities for farmers and development of allied sectors is an affirmation given by both JD(U) and RJD.
Key reform in education
Education has been on the agenda of Bihar’s governance for a long time. Bihar ranked the second-lowest in terms of School Education Quality Index according to the Niti Aayog. Both the power blocs have incorporated education as an important point of rallying with the voters.
Raising the education budget to 22 per cent along with inducting teachers in government schools and focus on e-learning - is a component of RJD’s discourse. BJP has emphasised on vernacular-based curriculum in higher education. This is an indication of BJP’s endeavour to integrate it into its national New Education Policy. JD(U) too is not too far behind. It has also reiterated its faith in harnessing ‘yuva shakti’ through skill-based education via polytechnics and industrial training institutes. Turning Bihar into an IT hub is a primary concern for all the political parties.
Strengthening health infrastructure
The urgency of renewed interest in better health infrastructure lies in the poor disaster-preparedness of states in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. The BJP has politicised the matter by offering free Covid vaccines to the entire population of Bihar. The BJP has promised AIIMS in Darbhanga. RJD and JD(U) have vouched to provide better health facilities to the masses. The RJD has vowed for generic medical stores in every panchayat in the smart village model.
Making cities and villages ‘smart’
The urban-rural divide is a dominant theme in this poll. The idea of smart city that was popularised by the BJP in 2019 national elections has been juxtaposed with the idea of ‘smart villages’ in the political discourse in Bihar elections. The broader integration of the urban and the rural through infrastructural development like road connectivity with state and national highways has found an enthusiastic response among the voters. The BJP has promised 4G and broadband services in all towns and villages. The RJD has mooted free computer centres in every panchayat in local areas for greater benefit of technologies in rural contexts. It has pledged to provide CCTV cameras in local areas. JD(U) has assured the installation of solar lights on the streets of villages and provide homes for senior citizens and the urban poor.
The governance architecture has to be restructured to generate new zeal for entrepreneurship. The poll manifesto has incorporated visions of new entrepreneurship programme in varied ways to create employment opportunities. The JD(U) has pushed for developmental schemes for women entrepreneurs. There are special schemes mentioned for women for loans and fee waivers. Micro-financing scheme to make more than 1 lakh women independent is a part of the BJP list. The RJD speaks of tax deferment and tax waiver schemes along with provision for subsidies for new businesses.
More or less, the prominent contenders have harped upon the larger issues at stake in an identical manner. What is missing is the legitimate onus on them to fulfill the promises once they are voted to power. The question is that of accountability of election manifestos. The vision and positionalities of the political parties on varied issues is critical for mobilising support. However, it is equally important that these documents acquire more force for imposing democratic liabilities on winners of the electoral game.
Bihar could mend its image and emerge as a classic model by enforcing delivery on each promise it has beheld as electoral bait.