It was confusion worse confounded when counting began. No one, not all the pollsters, the grand alliance (GA) or the BJP itself could have predicted that its once invincible juggernaut would hit such a speed breaker in Bihar. After the initial leads, it wobbled along picking up a seat here, a seat there, pushing up its tally to 58 as it watched the GA breast the tape with 179 seats (at the time of going to press). It was a bitterly fought election, one which sceptics thought was over before it began for Nitish Kumar, who got into an alliance with arch foe RJD chief Lalu Prasad, considered a spent political force and a tainted leader to boot. Today, Mr Kumar has acquired national stature and could well become a magnet for a possible national Opposition alliance.
The BJP got off the blocks well enough with its development plank, but soon its own vocal members forced the discourse to move to sectarian issues like religious identities and reservation. There was much talk about a young electorate shunning caste and going for more progressive development issues, but political parties on all sides fell back on their comfort diet of forwards versus backwards in the hope that caste identities are part of the Biharis’ DNA. But the BJP’s big mistake was that it did not project a local face when it had a tailormade one in the form of Sushil Modi. Instead, it went all guns blazing with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing over 30 rallies, making it an almost personal fight against Mr Kumar. This will focus more attention on the Modi-Shah electoral formula to the party’s detriment now. The Congress has put up an unexpectedly good show, something which may get its party machinery going with a little more enthusiasm as other elections loom ahead. For Mr Kumar, now that Bihar is under his belt for the third time, the challenge will be to make sure that the poor state becomes the real winner. He has tried to push the development plank all these years. But given that he began from such a low base, the gains have been incremental even though the state’s GDP growth is now 9.4%, the highest in the country. It spends a whopping 15.1% on the social sector. Law and order is certainly a lot better, women’s health and education have improved but the state has still not been able to shake off the tag of being a prominent part of the Bimaru conglomeration.
What Mr Kumar really needs to watch out for is the fact that given the RJD’s superb performance, it could try and force its somewhat antediluvian politics on the next government. The electorate seems to have rejected that even as it has given the RJD another chance. For the BJP, this will mean that it will have to recast its strategy and hit the ground running as more high-profile elections featuring an impressive cast of leaders are drawing close.