The race for Bihar’s top job was too close to call with exit polls divided on Thursday on who will win a fierce battle for one of India’s most politically crucial states after nearly two months of bitter campaigning.
Three exit polls -- NewsX-CNX, ABP-Nielsen and News Nation -- predicted chief minister Nitish Kumar could get a majority by a slender margin. Times Now- C Voter said a photo finish was likely with an edge for the Kumar-led Grand Alliance. India Today-Cicero forecast a hung assembly with the BJP ahead.
Only News 24-Today’s Chanakya – which came closest to predicting the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – said the BJP-led coalition was headed for a comfortable victory with 155 seats.
But experts warned such exit polls regularly go wrong – as seen in the unexpected Aam Aadmi Party’s landslide victory in the Delhi polls in February – and chances of inaccurate surveys were increased by Bihar’s complex caste, religion and region-specific loyalties.
Moreover, many of the exit polls didn’t fully factor in the final phase of voting for 57 seats on Thursday that saw the highest turnout of 60% in these elections. Overall, 56.8% of the 66.8-million-strong electorate voted in the five-phase polls. The votes will be counted on November 8.
The predictions gave three clear indications.
First, both alliances were able to hold on to their core base and the pivotal extremely-backward classes vote – that was aggressively wooed by both formations – appears to have been split.
Second, no exit poll, barring one, reflected a personal anti-incumbency sentiment against Nitish Kumar who has been in power for 10 years with three different allies – first with the BJP for eight years and with the Congress and the RJD for the remaining period. The Grand Alliance had played up Nitish as its CM face, hoping to cash in on the goodwill.
Third, it was largely a bipolar election which hardly gave any space to other players such as the Samajwadi Party, Left or Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM. The SP broke ranks with the Grand Alliance after getting a raw deal and tried to form a third front but doesn’t seem to have made an impact. Even the likes of Owaisi who fielded candidates in Muslim-dominated areas and rebel RJD MP Pappu Yadav, a muscleman from Saharsa, were largely ineffective.
A Grand Alliance win would bolster opposition parties and may even boost Nitish Kumar’s stature as a national-level opponent to Modi. It would also tempt a belligerent Opposition to disrupt the NDA’s legislative agenda in Parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha where the government doesn’t have the numbers to push through critical reform bills.
An emphatic BJP victory, on the other hand, would be a huge blow to the Grand Alliance and efforts to merge six erstwhile socialist parties into the Janata Parivar. It would also be an embarrassment for two-term CM Nitish Kumar, who buried differences with arch-rival Lalu Prasad to prevent the BJP from wresting power.
A saffron surge would not only give the BJP enough political leverage to stimulate the pace of reforms but also underscore the point that the Delhi loss was a mere blip, and Modi’s national popularity was intact.
The third possibility of a hung assembly -- with both alliances within touching distance of the majority mark of 122 in the 243-member house – will keep the hope alive on both sides with some help from independents.
Minutes after polls closed on Thursday, a confident Lalu Prasad told reporters that the Grand Alliance was winning 190 seats. But the BJP insisted most exit polls got their numbers wrong.
“There is no question of a photo-finish,” BJP in-charge for Bihar, Ananth Kumar said, claiming the NDA would end up with a two-thirds majority.
One of India’s most impoverished states, Bihar was ruled by Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal for 15 years but festering corruption and a poor development record paved the way for a Nitish Kumar win in 2005 in alliance with the BJP. The coalition ruled for the next eight years, till Nitish walked out of the 17-year-old alliance in 2013 over Modi’s elevation as the NDA’s chief campaigner for the 2014 general elections.