Why blaming Congress in Bihar is a red herring
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Mahagathbandhan (MGB) failed to get a majority in Bihar despite getting almost identical vote share as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state. Multiple theories have been given from within the MGB fold to explain the loss. In its first press conference after the results, the MGB leadership accused the Election Commission of India (ECI) of having cancelled postal ballots which were in its favour in various assembly constituencies (ACs). However, it did not provide details of such cancellations. ECI has dismissed such allegations. Dipankar Bhattacharya, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), said that the MGB would have performed better had the Left parties been given more tickets than the Congress. The seat distribution within the MGB was 144, 70 and 29 for the RJD, Congress and the Left. In an interview to ANI, senior RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari took potshots at Rahul Gandhi , blaming the Congress for the MGB’s performance.
An HT analysis suggests that the real picture could be far more complicated.
Has the Congress really underperformed in Bihar?
The Congress managed to win 19 out of the 70 ACs it contested in these elections. In 2015, it won 27 out of the 41 it had contested. Compared to 2015, 2020 looks like an underperformance. However, the 2020 numbers need to be seen in the context that it was the Congress’s second best performance, both in terms of seats and strike rates, in the state since 1995. When seen from the historical perspective, it can be said that both the 2015 and 2020 performances of the Congress were more a function of the alliances it entered into rather than its actual support. Any political party rooted in Bihar, the RJD included, would have known the Congress’s actual strength before sealing the alliance. So, why did the RJD entertain the Congress at all? That leads to another question.
Why were the elections so close in Bihar this time?
The simple answer to this question is a fragmentation of the NDA’s upper caste support base. The CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey for Bihar – it got the seat shares wrong, but its vote share predictions of 39%-36% for MGB-NDA were not very off the mark – shows that the NDA’s support among upper caste voters was perhaps the lowest since the 2005 October assembly elections in the state.
Findings of the 2020 Lokniti post-poll survey show that the NDA had a support of 52%, 51%, 55% and 59% among Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and other upper castes in the state. The weighted average is likely to be less than 55%. The 2015 post-poll survey by Lokniti found more than 80% upper caste support for the NDA. This number was 65% and 56% in the October-2005 and 2010 assembly elections.
Lokniti findings also show that the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) was the main factor for the fragmentation in the NDA’s upper caste support base in these elections.
Congress is the RJD’s upper caste appeasement agent in Bihar
It is among the anti-NDA upper caste voters that the Congress was the most effective in the 2015 elections. Information collected by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University shows that 17 out of the 41 candidates fielded by the Congress in the 2015 polls were from the upper castes. This number was just 8 out of 101 for the RJD. 13 of Congress’s upper caste candidates won in the 2015 polls compared to just five on the RJD’s ticket. Things did not change much in 2020. 29 out of the 70 candidates fielded by the Congress were from the upper castes. The RJD fielded just 23 in the 144 ACs it contested. The Congress’s role as an upper caste party in the alliance becomes clearer when one looks at the share of upper caste candidates among non-Muslims and non- Scheduled Caste (SC)/non-Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates. This number was 81% in 2015 and 66% in 2020. While most parties field SC/ST candidates from reserved constituencies, Muslims are mostly fielded from ACs where they are in significant numbers.
Obviously, if the RJD had a wider support beyond Yadavs and Muslims, then it would not need the upper castes and the Congress.
Would it have helped if the Left had a bigger share in the alliance?
The Left parties, especially the CPI(ML), said that giving more seats to the Left parties instead of the Congress would have helped the MGB improve its performance in the assembly. Is there merit in such assertions? The strength of the combined Left block has risen to the highest since 1995 assembly elections. Many, including this author, have argued that the Left was more successful in championing the economic justice rhetoric of the MGB. However, an analysis of 2010 and 2015 election results shows that the MGB seat distribution in 2020 did follow some logic. Left parties have had a much higher vote share in the 29 ACs they contested this time than the 214 they did not contest this time. This means that the Left parties were given ACs where they have had some historical traction. A pre-2010 comparison is not possible because AC boundaries changed after the 2008 delimitation.
What the Congress needs to realise?
While it is unfair to blame the Congress for the MGB’s poor showing, it does not make the former any less irrelevant in the state’s politics. If the Congress intends to revive itself as an upper caste party in the state — the purpose it has served in the 2015 and 2020 polls — then its central leadership would do well to cultivate a set of local leaders who acknowledge this realpolitik requirement and plan accordingly.