Why the Bihar outcome matters
With the Bihar assembly election results scheduled for Tuesday, established tenets of Indian politics are on test. The battle in Bihar is not just about who will become the chief minister or which formation will win. It is as much about the coronavirus pandemic and how citizens have perceived the response of the State; the political discourse that is resonating with voters; and the future architecture of power not just in the state but beyond.
One, it is clear that the lockdown, imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, had enormous human and economic costs. Bihar was deeply affected because of the high flow of migrants from the state to the rest of the country, who struggled, first, to return home, and, then, to find employment. There was already increasing disillusionment with Nitish Kumar’s third term in office but the pandemic appears to have cemented stronger views on the government. The outcome will reveal the political costs that the pandemic and its management may have levied on state governments (not the Centre, because, all reports indicate that citizens appear to be placing the responsibility on states). Two, the emergence of Tejashwi Yadav, but more importantly, his invocation of “economic justice”, rather than the old formulation of social justice, was a clear attempt to find solidarities across castes and rebuild a wider alliance. Whether this succeeds or whether voters still don’t trust the Opposition — for its governance deficits and political degeneration of the past — will be important lessons for other parties.
And, finally, the outcome will determine not just who assumes power in Patna, but shape larger national politics. A win for Mr Yadav will energise the Opposition — it will encourage regional parties and the Congress will find a reason to smile. This will then get reflected in sharper attacks on the central government. It will also have a psychological impact — though not necessarily any political impact — on West Bengal, scheduled to hold polls next year. It will also cement the perception of voters distinguishing central and state polls. A win for Mr Kumar, on the other hand, will reveal that voters still want a hand with a proven record at the helm while a good performance by the Bharatiya Janata Party but not for Mr Kumar will potentially lead to a further churn in the already depleted National Democratic Alliance. The stakes are, indeed, high.