An alliance of parties led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stormed to power in Bihar on Sunday, dealing a heavy blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for whom the election was seen as a key test of his popularity.
The alliance bagged almost a three-fourths majority, riding on the support of Yadav and Muslim voters – so-called social engineering -- rallied primarily by his ally Lalu Prasad, who emerged as an unlikely hero from the bitterly fought, month-long election.
The victory resurrects Lalu’s image as a key Opposition leader, giving him a greater say not only in politics in Bihar but on the national platform where he was reduced to a bit player after his party was hammered in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
“The face of development-minded Nitish Kumar and the rich vote bank of Lalu won the day for the grand alliance,” said DM Diwakar, former chairman of AN Sinha Institute for Social Studies.
Watch| How BJP lost the plot in Bihar
Another major gainer from the vote was the beleaguered Congress party which won in 27 constituencies, according to provisional results published by the Election Commission, in a starkly improved show since the last polls in 2010 when it had bagged just four seats.
But given that Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) won 71 seats to Lalu’s 80, the outcome may see him undermined within the coalition and open to possible turf battles with the wily two-time former chief minister.
The results, though, would be particularly worrying for Modi who had mounted a no-holds barred campaign, addressing some 30 rallies and promising voters billions of rupees in investment to pull the state out of chronic poverty.
Modi’s second straight election setback after losing Delhi earlier this year could galvanise opposition parties ahead of the winter session of parliament, embolden rivals in his own party and hurt his image as a vote-winner going into a string of crucial state polls – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Uttar Pradesh -- over the next two years.
The defeat in Bihar could also force him to go slow on radical reforms such as overhauling archaic labour laws and land acquisition rules. Moreover, Modi needs to win most of the state elections over the next two years to gain control of the Rajya Sabha if he has to push through his economic reforms agenda.
Face of progressive Nitish, votes of Lalu
The grand alliance’s victory is also attributed by many to the rejection of communal politics, driven mostly by a recent debate over whether India was becoming intolerant under the BJP-led government. Modi’s failure to control food prices or bring back slush funds stashed abroad also rankled with voters. Lalu also capitalised on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks seeking a review of the quota policy.
“It was a milestone election in view of the huge resources deployed by the NDA and the results reflected the mood of the nation,” Kumar told reporters.
“People have squarely rejected the attempt to polarise the society with their decisive mandate and at the same time also made it clear that they have immense faith in democracy and want to have a strong Opposition in place at the national level.”
Kumar’s clean image and his projection as chief minister also did the magic for the grand alliance as Kumar is seen as a man committed to development. Several of his schemes, particularly those related to empowerment of women and girls, were popular and received wide appreciation.
As it became clear that Modi had failed to move voters in Bihar with his message of development, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “This is a victory of unity over divisiveness. Humility over arrogance. Love over hate. A victory of the people of Bihar,” he tweeted.
The Shiv Sena, too, taunted ally BJP by calling Kumar a “political hero” whose win was “necessary” for Bihar.
For the NDA, in addition to the bitter campaign launched by its leaders and more particularly by the BJP, targeting Lalu Prasad and name calling alliance leaders also seemed to have damaged the BJP’s chances.
The party also failed to derive any benefit from the promise of a special Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for Bihar.