Chanakya: Five factors which could shape the Bihar poll results
Bihar will go to polls in three phases from October 28 to November 7. This will be the biggest election (so far) globally after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The campaign restrictions that the Election Commission (EC) has put in place are bound to have an effect on the poll process and campaigning. However, the coronavirus pandemic is not the only factor which could matter in these elections. There are four others which could shape the poll outcome in the state.
2020 is radically different and far less competitive than 2015.
The political situation in Bihar is radically different from the state of play before the 2015 polls. Back then, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the two people who have dominated the state’s political scene since the 1990s, buried their animosity to forge a grand alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The powerful coalition inflicted a crushing defeat on the BJP. The alliance was not to last, though, and Kumar came back to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold in 2017.
The NDA swept the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Today, Yadav is serving a sentence for corruption in a Ranchi prison. If the 2019 results are any indication, his sons are no match for their father’s political appeal and abilities to put the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in pole position. Simply put, the probability of the NDA suffering a setback in the 2020 elections is far lower than what it was in 2015.
But tensions within the Bihar NDA remain.
The Janata Dal (United), with 16 Lok Sabha seats, is the second-largest constituent of the NDA. Yet, it does not have a minister in the Union Cabinet. Apparently, it wanted two Cabinet positions and was offered only one. The BJP sacrificed its sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) to contest an equal number of seats as the JD(U) — there was a 17-17-6 division between the BJP, JD(U) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) — in the 2019 elections.
But the JD(U) used to contest a greater number of seats in the Bihar before 2015. This is the first assembly election where the LJP is a part of the NDA. It will be interesting to see the final distribution of seats within the NDA. In at least two assembly elections after the 2019 Lok Sabha, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the BJP has paid a heavy price for having failed to sort out matters with its alliance partners. While Jharkhand saw a pre-poll fallout between the BJP and the All Jharkhand Students’ Union, in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena walked out of the NDA after the results. The 2020 assembly elections will be an important milestone as far as the realignment of the NDA in Bihar is concerned.
What will the Muslim voter do?
Even though he contested as part of the NDA, Kumar enjoyed significant support from Muslims in the 2005 and 2010 assembly elections. That he parted ways with the BJP over Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature is a testimony to this fact. Will parts of the Muslim vote bank return to a JD(U)-led NDA again? This cannot be ruled out, especially given the fact that the RJD is perhaps facing its biggest crisis in these elections.
Will Kumar be able to prevail upon the BJP to abandon its now established practice of deploying communally charged rhetoric in election campaigns? Any such exception by the present-day BJP will amount to a dilution of its core politics of Hindutva. Another factor worth watching out for would be the fortunes of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), which managed to win a by-poll in the Muslim-dominated north-eastern region of the state. Any significant gains for the AIMIM could signify the beginning of loss of Muslim support for the RJD-led front in the state.
Will economic pain translate into anti-incumbency?
At least two factors must have made Bihar’s pandemic-inflicted pain worse than many other states. It has a very poor health infrastructure, which has affected the state’s response. Indeed, many opposition parties demanded that elections be postponed due to the health crisis.
The state has also suffered among the biggest shocks to remittances due to the high share of migrant workers in its population. A 2018 World Bank paper by Gaurav Nayyar and Kyoung Yang Kim found that migrant remittances had a share of 35% in Bihar’s gross state domestic product (GSDP) and positively affected consumption at the household level.
While the central government has made a host of pre-poll announcements, regarding development projects in the state, nothing radical was done on the welfare front. Will these factors generate tailwinds for anti-incumbency? We will only know the answer on November 10.
How will the pandemic affect voter turnout?
The EC has announced a slew of guidelines on social distancing during the campaign and voting process.
Whether these are followed or the elections increase the spread of the virus, is something we will know only in November. The single-most important metric related to the pandemic, which might affect the election is voter turnout. It is reasonable to say that the pandemic has created two sets of people in society; those who avoid getting out (and risking exposure) at all costs and those who are not worried about it.
One’s ability to stay in the first set can also be a function of socio-economic privilege. Only those who have either a white collar job (which can be done remotely) or enough money to stay indoors without running into financial difficulties can practise social distancing.
Large parts of the socio-economic elite in Bihar are NDA supporters. So, a significant drop in turnout among these sections could actually adversely affect its chances.