The Bihar mandate has lessons for all parties
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is happy at retaining power in Bihar. The NDA also strengthened its hold in the by-elections in several other states.
But is Bihar just a victory born out clever political arithmetic? Imagine the result if Asaduddin Owaisi, Mayawati and Upendra Kushwaha had not formed the Grand Democratic Secular Front (GDSF) in the elections. This coalition suddenly emerged in the political theatre and won six seats, and also got around 6% of the votes. As the close contest over the vote share between the NDA and the mahagatbandhan (MGB) of Opposition-led parties indicates, if only half the votes of GDSF had gone to the mahaganthbandhan, the outcome may have been different. Would the verdict then have been considered a mandate in favour of MGB?
But elections are not just about percentages. The BJP won 53 seats in 2015, after securing 24.42% of the votes. This time, the party’s vote share has fallen by almost five percentage points, but its strength in the assembly has increased to 74 while the situation for its partner, the Janata Dal (United) is not the same. The JD(U) got only 15.4% of the votes this time, compared to 16.83% earlier. Had the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)’s Chirag Paswan not been in the fray, it might have got at least close to three dozen more seats. Then, might it have been considered a wave in favour of Nitish Kumar?
Even if the NDA won the November 2020 Bihar elections and by-elections in 11 states, its leaders should be worried. It lost an average of 16.5% of the vote in five state elections after the landslide victory of 2019. It also lost 12.5% of the votes in Bihar (though the caveat is that the composition of NDA this time is different than in past polls). In such a situation, it should be asked whether this reflects the popularity of Brand Narendra Modi or is it just the party’s formidable political and organisational skills. Take Madhya Pradesh, where Jyotiraditya Scindia, the popular young mass leader who recently joined the BJP from the Congress, played a major role played in the party’s victory in the by-elections.
Even though the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav has emerged as a big player in this election, he was not able to get his message of jobs across to the voters. Nitish Kumar was able to neutralise this by retaining the women vote, after having worked hard on gender empowerment for the last 15 years. Girl students who got bicycles to go to school, thanks to the Nitish Kumar government, are now voters. Since they are educated, they also participate in the decision-making process in their families. Migrant workers have definitely suffered during the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But they have also benefitted from the welfare schemes of the central and state government and this shaped voting behaviour.
All of this suggests that the era when a wave in favour of one or the other party would carry an election at the state level is perhaps over. Development issues matter a lot more today. The best examples of this are Arvind Kejriwal and Naveen Patnaik. The NDA could not uproot them despite its best attempts.
The RJD has emerged as the single-largest party in Bihar with 75 seats. This number is substantial enough to affect policymaking. By playing the role of a positive opposition, the RJD may be able to win the trust of the people. Being in the opposition has its advantages since you can raise all the right issues.
The biggest the challenge before NDA will be to fulfil the promise of employment. There are around 450,000 vacant government posts in Bihar. There should an effort to fill these posts. After providing basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water, the biggest challenge before the Bihar goverment is to move to the next stage. Effective industry policies will have to be framed, apart from rejuvenating old industries. The reality is that business houses from other states do not want to invest in Bihar as it is today. The state needs to create a positive environment, which is the only way the promise of stopping such large-scale migration can be fulfilled.
The government should also consider the consequences of its prohibition policy. Nitish Kumar won the trust of women through prohibition, but the consumption of alcohol was not really curbed. On the one hand, it affected the economic situation of the poor, and, on the other, they had to face the wrath of very stringent laws. The government should now think about preventing needless persecution even while continuing prohibition. There are lessons all around in these elections. Those who look carefully into these will emerge the ultimate winners.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal