How Bihar election will reshape India’s political landscape

From a bipolar contest, the state is now a quadrangular affair which plays to the NDA's advantage by dividing the minority vote.

 |  6-minute read |   14-09-2015
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The showdown between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar has been brewing since June 2013. That's when Nitish took the JD(U) out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in a fit of pique after Modi was appointed chairman of the BJP's election campaign committee.

By noon on November 8, 2015, when counting in the five-phase Bihar election is half-way through, we will know if that walkout was the best - or worst - decision in Nitish's political career.

If the JD(U)-RJD-Congress "grand alliance" wins Bihar, it will establish Nitish as the pivot in a potent anti-Modi national coalition. More parties and leaders will coalesce around him to mount a challenge to Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Congress, though a bit player in Bihar, will get new wind in its sails. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi will be emboldened to continue their aggressive disruption of parliament. Modi's sheen of invincibility will dim. Murmurs of internal dissent could grow. The battles for West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2016 and 2017 will become harder to win.

If, on the other hand, the NDA wins Bihar, Modi and Shah will consolidate their grip over the party. The Modi wave will gather new momentum. That could help it sweep the Assam assembly election in 2016 and make a dent in the Kerala poll the same year. West Bengal (2016), Tamil Nadu (2016) and Uttar Pradesh (2017) are more electorally complex. But the BJP's long-term prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha election will receive a steroid boost.

Internal dissent will quieten. Modi will be able to re-assert his authority over right-wing extremists. His bargaining power with the RSS will increase. Development will take centrestage. Following a triumph in Bihar, Modi could recapture his mojo of 2014. All of this makes Bihar the most important election since the 2014 Lok Sabha poll.

The electoral math

Pre-poll opinion surveys by India Today-Cicero and India TV-CVoter have thrown up contrasting numbers. The India Today poll projects 125 seats (with 42 per cent vote share) for the NDA coalition and 106 seats (with 40 per cent vote share) for the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine. The CVoter poll gives the NDA 102 seats and the JD(U)-led alliance 124 seats (both are midpoints of the projected range).

The decision by Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to walk out of the JD(U)-led "grand alliance" and team up with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) could be critical in a tight race. NCP leader Tariq Anwar may be projected as the SP-NCP's chief ministerial candidate, slicing Muslim votes away from the Nitish-led alliance. A meeting last week between Mulayam and Anwar is a pointer in this direction. Anwar is a Lok Sabha MP from Katihar in north-east Bihar where the influence of Muslims is strong.

The electoral debut of Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the Seemanchal region of Bihar, which has a large Muslim concentration, could wean away additional minority votes from the Nitish-Lalu-Sonia triumvirate.  The JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine posits itself as a secular alliance. It isn't. Secularism is properly defined as being religion-neutral. The RJD's and the Congress' political philosophy is not religion-neutral. It is rooted in minority favouritism during elections and minority neglect after elections. That is why Bihar's 19 million Muslims are among India's poorest, allowing Owaisi to fish in Seemanchal's troubled waters where Muslims have suffered decades of developmental neglect. From a bipolar contest, Bihar is now a quadrangular affair which plays to the NDA's advantage by dividing the minority vote.

The caste and community factor

Muslims comprise more than 17 per cent of Bihar's electorate. Before Mulayam's decision to contest with the NCP and Owaisi's entry, most opinion polls gave the Nitish-led alliance over 80 per cent of the minority vote; the BJP got barely 15 per cent. The SP-NCP and AIMIM factors will significantly change that equation. With vote shares of the two main competing alliances hovering around 40-42 per cent each in opinion polls, an erosion of even a tenth of the 17 per cent Muslim vote could tip the balance in favour of the NDA. In the India Today-Cicero poll, the NDA is ahead of the "grand alliance" among all castes except Yadavs and Kurmis and, among communities, except Muslims. The role of Mulayam and Owaisi could therefore be decisive.

Jitin Ram Manjhi will meanwhile bring mahadalits to the BJP's table while Ram Vilas Paswan will draw dalits. With the BJP's traditional upper caste support, a "caste rainbow" is being built for the first time across Bihar's complex demographic spectrum. EBCs (extremely backward castes) could hold the final trump card in this caste cauldron.

The development card

How well has the Nitish-led Bihar government done after the JD(U) broke off its alliance with the BJP? The figures tell their own story:

Indicator 2012-'13 2013-'14
GSDP* (%y-o-y 15.5 8.82
Agriculture output ** (Rs. Cr) 32,694 28,908
Investment proposals with State Investment Promotion Board (Rs. Cr) 17,542 6,059
Per capita NSDP (%y-o-y) 9.30 8.56
Kidnappings 4,737 6,570
Rapes 927 1,127

*CSO Bihar, **Economic Survey, Bihar; GSDP: Gross state domestic product; NSDP: Net state domestic product. Source: Public Policy Research Centre

According to these statistics, tabulated by Public Policy Research Centre, a BJP think tank, gross state domestic product (GSDP) in Bihar between 2012-'13 and 2013-'14 halved, agriculture output fell, investment proposals reduced to a third, kidnappings rose by a third and rapes climbed by over a fifth. These statistics could weaken Nitish's developmental electoral plank.

The BJP has allocated 83 seats to its three allies (Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP, Upendra Kushwaha's RLSP and Jitin Ram Manjhi's Hindustani Awam Morcha). That leaves the BJP with 160 seats. Assuming its allies deliver a strike rate of only 25 per cent and win around 20 seats, the BJP will need to win at least 102 seats from its own quota of 160 seats to secure a simple majority of 122 seats for the NDA coalition in the 243-seat assembly. That translates into a required strike rate of around 63 per cent (102/160). The BJP had achieved a strike rate of 91 per cent on the seats it contested in the 2010 assembly poll - though, being in alliance then with the JD(U), the comparison isn't entirely valid. Nonetheless with a quadrangular contest, a strike rate of just over 60 per cent, compared to its earlier 91 per cent, seems achievable and possibly surpassable.

For Nitish and Lalu, the electoral math is more problematic. Each needs to win 60 of its quota of 100 contested seats, since the Congress with its cache of 40 seats could draw a blank. While Nitish may well win his share, a strike rate of 60 per cent for Lalu (which would mean taking his 2010 tally of 22 seats to 60) is a tough call.

In the end, the Congress and the RJD, the JD(U)'s historical enemies - now uneasily bound together with Nitish to defeat a bigger common enemy, the BJP - could prove the grand alliance's undoing. In politics, as in life, an enemy-turned-friend can be the most dangerous of all. As Lalu - now on bail - awaits the outcome of his appeal against conviction in the fodder scam, Nitish Kumar scarcely needs to be reminded of that.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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