With the Election Commission of India declaring its last and final press briefing on counting day to be held at 1 PM of 11 November, suspense around Bihar Assembly Election 2020 finally appeared to be settling. In a roller coaster ride of sorts, fortunes of both the ruling NDA and Mahagathbandhan led by Tejaswi Yadav kept changing during the day, with a new set on analysis coming every time there was a major turn-around.
The final tally of the closely contested election stands at 125 for NDA (3 seats more than the majority mark of 122 in the 243 member house) with 74 for BJP, 43 for CM Nitish Kumar’s JD (U), 4 for Hindustan Awam Morcha of ex-CM Jitan Ram Manjhi and 4 for Mallah leader Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insan Party. The Mahagathbandhan reached 110, with RJD reaching 75 seats and becoming the biggest individual party in the state, CPI-ML bagging 12 seats, CPI, and CPI (M) both getting 2 each respectively, and the Congress winning 19 seats.
What are the key takeaways from this closely contested election, which was initially termed as a cakewalk for the NDA due to “optionlessness” and later a decisive victory of the Mahagathbandhan as per exit polls?
Hell of a close election:
According to an analysis by Hindustan Times, there were 23 seats this time which were decided by a margin of fewer than 2000 votes; in 2015 there were only 9 such seats. Further, the vote percentage difference between both alliances is a meagre 0.02% according to some accounts, with the Mahagathbandhan getting more votes than the NDA. Lastly, there is a difference of only 15 seats between the winner and loser alliance this time. This was really a very close election where hair-thin margins decided the outcomes, making it difficult for poll watchers to call it.
However, it was bound to be so as a change in the mood of the electorate was sensed during the course of the campaign. In situations like these where there are turnarounds during the campaign, no party or alliance could begin with a lead and continue with the same as it becomes a phase by phase election in place of a “wave election”.
RJD has broken the “MY Plateau Curse”:
RJD is said to be the party of the Yadavs and Muslims in Bihar. Over the course of many elections, it has been observed that it failed to reach out to other sections of Bihar’s electorate like the EBCs and Mahadalits- who are considered the vote bank of CM Nitish Kumar, or upper castes and Baniyas- who are considered BJP voters. Since MY (abbreviation for Muslim Yadav) vote is considered to be around one-third of Bihar’s electorate and since RJD commanded majority support of this section, its vote percentage continued to stay around 18% over successive elections. It was its strength and its weakness too. The party will get around 18% votes in any case and continued to be a force, but it failed miserably to increase that, so as to become a winning party at its own. This was the “MY plateau curse” that the party suffered from over the years.
If the vote percentage of this election is any clue, then the RJD has certainly broken this curse. It has polled 23.11 percent votes according to the ECI data this time. This increase of around 5 percentage points could not have been possible without sections of the EBC and Mahadalit voters rooting for the party.
The tragic case of Nitish Kumar:
CM Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) probably had their worst performance in an alliance this election. The party could win only 43 seats and 15.39% votes; in 2015 it won 16.83% votes and 71 seats and in 2010, 22% votes and 115 seats. Does this huge decline mean that his control over the EBC and Mahadalit votes- which could make or break fortunes of his alliance partners, over? Not yet, I would say. His hold over the EBC-Mahadalits votes has certainly loosened, as evident from the fact that a significant section of them votes for RJD led Mahagathbandhan, it is definitely not over yet.
If there is any testament to that, one should see the BJP tally, which touched 74 this time. Considered primarily an upper-caste-Baniya party in Bihar, BJP could not have achieved this result without the transfer of Nitish Kumar’s votes to its candidates. Nitish has always helped his alliance partners achieve better success in clinching an election, be it RJD in 2015 (which won 80 seats in alliance with JD U in 2015) or BJP this time. However, what explains his dismal performance this time is also the same thing. While Nitish’s votes got transferred to BJP, BJP’s votes did not come to Nitish. That LJP, which primarily fielded upper caste candidates especially in seats where JD U was contesting and got 5.6% votes implies that upper votes got divided wherever there was a JD U candidate, bringing the strike rate of Nitish down.
This means that Nitish Kumar gave too much to the alliance than what he got back from it. And the credit for his dismal performance goes to no other than BJP, which despite having all resources at its disposal failed, or maybe decided not, to control the conception that it has a secret alliance with LJP to get rid of Nitish.
“The Successor” has arrived:
One big takeaway of this election is no doubt the turnaround that Tejaswi brought during the course of the campaign. From a smooth sailing for NDA, he turned this election into a seat by seat contest. Contrary to his father’s brash and arrogant style, he championed a liberal image and made sure not to antagonize any social sections. He reached out to like-minded parties and was willing to cede grounds to keep the alliance together. His insistence on jobs, education, medical care, and irrigation succeeded in putting a seasoned player like BJP on the backfoot. The energy and commitment that he brought to the campaign made ripples in the politics of Bihar. RJD under him is the single largest party in Bihar despite being in opposition to the NDA which has more resources and bigger social-segments under it. The jump in his vote percentage clearly shows that he has succeeded in breaking the MY curse and reaching out to Mahadalit and EBC voters. Clearly, we now have an answer to the biggest political question of Bihar- “after Nitish who”; it could be no one else but Tejaswi.
It is going to be a stormy season ahead:
Lastly, we should remember that the treasury benches in Bihar assembly are only 3 seats more than the majority mark and the biggest party of the state will be sitting in opposition. NDA might have touched victory, huffing and puffing, but it certainly doesn’t command a proper mandate. And the opposition this time is composed of 16 left MLAs (most of them young) and a grounded party like RJD with a young leader like Tejaswi. In a state like Bihar where employment, education, medical care, and dignity continue to be extremely important, and where the incumbent government faced anti-incumbency this time like never before, Nitish 4.0 is surely going to be a bumpy ride.
The author teaches Political Science at Royal Global University, Guwahati. He is also associated with the survey agency- People’s Pulse.