When we put Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on the cover of the magazine three weeks ago, with the headline ‘A Winning Combination’, it seemed like the Bihar elections would be a cakewalk for the NDA. A Lokniti-CSDS poll predicted a comfortable majority and given this formidable alliance of leaders—one with national charisma and the other with powerful local salience—facing a relative newcomer, the 31-year-old dynast Tejashwi Yadav and his hastily assembled allies, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. But as former British prime minister Harold Wilson famously said, “One week is a long time in politics”. Three weeks, of course, would then be an age.
So it was in the recent Bihar elections. After a shaky start, Tejashwi emerged as a serious contender. He ditched the dubious legacy of this father, Lalu Yadav, and took up the issue of unemployment, which hit a nerve with the young. In the end, he brought the Bihar elections to a nail-biting finish, closer than any seen in recent years. Yet, ultimately, political math prevailed. The formations that made the right set of pre-poll alliances coasted past the finish line with a simple majority.
There are several takeaways from this election. It has established that Prime Minister Modi’s charisma remains undiminished by the Covid pandemic and economic downturn. It is also a verdict on the success of central schemes, such as Jan Dhan, PM Ujjwala Yojana, PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana and the distribution of five kilos of foodgrains and a kilo of pulses every month to poor families through the pandemic. The increase in the turnout of women apparently worked to the BJP’s advantage as they credited Modi for all these schemes.
The BJP has emerged as a major force in Bihar—with many more seats than its ally—although the chief minister will be from the Janata Dal (United) for now. The BJP cannot form a government without Nitish Kumar’s party, and to his credit, he has pulled off a record seventh stint as the state chief minister. But his party lost seats and vote share to anti-incumbency and the challenge from a former ally, Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). Also, the JD(U) vote got transferred to BJP candidates but the favour was not returned.
These were the first Bihar elections in recent years in which issues like development and employment proved as significant as the state’s powerful caste equations. Bihar’s young voters, who have never known a non-Nitish Kumar government, voted in large numbers for the opposition. It is imperative for Nitish Kumar to expand his party beyond his traditional support base, the women and extremely backward classes. He also has to build the missing second rung of leadership in his party which, like many other regional parties, has become a one-person show; otherwise, it will disintegrate on his departure.
The challenger, Mahagathbandhan (MGB) alliance head Tejashwi, came within a whisker of becoming India’s youngest ever state chief minister. Tejashwi was four months old when father Lalu first became chief minister in 1990. In the final weeks before the polls, Tejashwi commandeered his father’s party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), waged a tenacious political campaign that sidestepped his family’s troubled history and focused instead on the aspirations of the state’s youth bulge. His efforts have not gone unrewarded—the RJD remains the state’s single largest party and Tejashwi has emerged as a leader of the present and future.
The directionless Congress, meanwhile, continues its drift into the widening gap between its promise and performance. It dealt the MGB a fatal blow by winning just 19 of the 70 seats it contested. Keeping Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) out of the MGB was another costly mistake, splitting the Muslim vote. The AIMIM grabbed five valuable seats. All sides will closely study these changed ground realities and new actors for the assembly elections in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam next year.
Our cover story, ‘Saffron Crown’, written by Senior Associate Editor Amitabh Srivastava, analyses the results of these elections and looks at the road ahead for the government in Patna. Nitish Kumar has to walk the talk on issues of unemployment and development raised by Tejashwi in one of India’s poorest, least industrialised states. He has to meet the aspirations of the 16.7 million young people in his state who are between 18 and 29 years old. He has to deliver on his pre-poll promises of skill development, healthcare, promoting entrepreneurship among women, providing irrigation facilities to farms and waiving student loans. The state’s per capita income had gone up from Rs 30,617 in 2018-19 to Rs 43,000 in 2019- 20. But it is still less than half the national average. Nitish Kumar will have to focus on the services and manufacturing sectors to provide jobs and boost incomes. The November 10 verdict has also sown the seeds of potential conflict. Nitish Kumar faces significant challenges in the next five years as chief minister. With a three-seat majority, the NDA will need to depend for its survival on fickle allies like the Vikassheel Insaan Party and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), which have four seats each. Nitish Kumar will have to deal with the looming shadow of a Big Brotherlike BJP, now the state’s second-largest party. While the BJP will support Nitish Kumar’s candidature for chief minister, there is likely to be a significant reset in the equation. The BJP is unlikely to be content with just 10 cabinet berths out of 33 as it was in the last government. A larger number of berths could increase their say in the government. Nitish Kumar, ever conscious of his secular image, had always reined in the forces of Hindutva in Bihar. How this will play out against the ambitions of a resurgent BJP, looking to become the state’s predominant party, remains to be seen.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Saffron Crown, for November 23, 2020 issue of India Today Magazine)