More than two-thirds of the assembly constituencies (ACs) in Bihar are still to vote after the first phase of voting on October 28. If the first-phase figures are any indication, the pandemic has not had much of an impact on voter turnout except in urban constituencies. The voter turnout in the first phase was 55.69%, higher than the turnout in the corresponding constituencies in the 2015 assembly elections at 54.94%.
The broad political narrative of the campaign has fallen into place by now. The main opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led alliance, is targeting the Nitish Kumar government primarily on the question of jobs and economic well-being. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which has been in power in the state from 2005 to 2013 and from 2017 until now, is evoking memories of the RJD’s past stint in power to seek support for itself. This, in a way, suggests that it is advancing a lesser evil theory. To be sure, the NDA, especially Nitish Kumar himself, is also harping on its own past record. That the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has not been thrown out of the NDA at the Centre despite making vicious attacks on Nitish Kumar, suggests that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like the chief minister and his party, the Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), to face a bulk of the anti-incumbency flack. The centrality of the development narrative notwithstanding, identity-based contradictions, especially around caste, will continue to matter in the elections. It is the intersection of these two processes, which makes Bihar an interesting contest from a political economy perspective.
How is Tejashwi Yadav being able to sell an aspirational agenda?
Bihar reversed its economic decline after Nitish Kumar assumed office
That Bihar went from bad to worse during the decade and a half long regime of Lalu Prasad Yadav is an objective fact. This is borne out by a comparison of Bihar’s per capita income with all-India figures. The ratio of Bihar’s per capita Gross State Domestic Product and India’s per capita GDP fell from around 0.4 to 0.3 during the period when Lalu Yadav or his wife Rabri Debi held power in the state. This trend reversed almost immediately after the JD(U)-BJP alliance got power in 2005. While this ratio has been improving continuously, Bihar continues to be among the worst performing states in terms of per capita GSDP.
However, Biharis still have the lowest incomes in India
It is this persisting backwardness inter-state backwardness, which is giving the RJD led opposition an opportunity to undermine the NDA’s claim of having brought historical improvement from where the state was a decade and a half ago. The prolonged economic slowdown in the Indian economy and Covid-19’s economic disruption, especially due to reverse migration, might have increased the economic pain, and helped the opposition in targeting the current NDA government. Whether or not the RJD’s aspiration plank under Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership can overcome NDA’s attempts to evoke memories of poor governance during his father’s term, will be an important factor in these elections.
The BJP has a problem in launching a full-scale attack on the RJD’s Yadav base
The RJD did not win even one Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 elections in Bihar. Yet, it has managed to forge a coalition with majority of ACs for itself and is claiming to be the natural challenger to the incumbent NDA. One of the biggest reasons for this is the fact that the RJD is seen as the primary beneficiary of the more than 30% Muslim and Yadav voters in the state. The Muslim support comes from the fact that it has never done business with the BJP. While the BJP, as of now, is not interested in courting Muslim voters, it does want to attract the Yadavs in the state, who are perhaps the single largest caste group in Bihar. Narendra Modi in his Hoonkar Rally (at 2:02 hours) before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections evoked his Dwarka (a Hindu pilgrimage spot in Gujarat associated with Lord Krishna, who Modi described as the king of Yaduvansh; or the Yadav clan) credentials to express affinity with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s social roots and portray himself as a well wisher of the Yadavs. The BJP has been successfully fielding Ram Kripal Yadav, against Lalu Prasad Yadav’s daughter Misa Bharti from the Pataliputra constituency in both 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s aggressive pursuit of the RJD’s Yadav base hurt the latter, which, according to the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey, could only manage 55% of Yadav votes, its worst performance, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP would like to increase its support among Yadavs
According to an Indian Express report, both the BJP and the JD(U) have given around 15% of their tickets to Yadav candidates. This, although significantly lower than the share of Yadav candidates fielded by the RJD (40%), is not an insignificant number. It is entirely possible that a large number of Yadav voters who supported the NDA might be willing to vote for the RJD in these elections. At the state level, it is the RJD which promises them greater share in exploits of power. There is not much the BJP can do to prevent this political promiscuity by the Yadavs, lest they are antagonised during the Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, portraying a Yadav as its main leader in Bihar, which could help it attract an even bigger chunk of RJD’s Yadav votes, could trigger a backlash from the upper caste voters for the BJP, who although overwhelmingly behind the BJP, have had an antagonistic outlook vis-a-vis Yadavs. That the RJD is keeping its attack focused on Nitish Kumar rather than the BJP or Narendra Modi, suggests that it has understood the merits of exploiting a split-ticket behaviour among the Yadavs in the assembly elections.