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What will win Bihar: Modi's chemistry or Nitish's arithmetic?

Livemint logoLivemint 22-09-2015 Roshan Kishore
What will win Bihar: Modi's chemistry or Nitish's arithmetic?: Political commentators are describing Bihar as a crucial test for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo after the drubbing in the Delhi assembly elections. Photo: PTI © LiveMint Political commentators are describing Bihar as a crucial test for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo after the drubbing in the Delhi assembly elections. Photo: PTI

The battle for Bihar is heating up with pre-election surveys predicting a close contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the grand alliance between the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress party. Many political commentators are describing Bihar as a crucial test for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo after the drubbing in the Delhi assembly elections.

The BJP’s biggest source of confidence in the upcoming elections is a continuation of the Modi wave which helped the NDA sweep the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar. The other camp is highlighting Kumar’s governance record and alleged failures of the federal government to help it turn the tide from the 2014 elections.

Statistical evidence shows such turnarounds are rare. Mint has analysed the direction of vote swing between Lok Sabha and assembly elections for large states from 1999 onwards when state legislature polls take place within two years of general elections. Data show if an alliance or party loses votes from one Lok Sabha election to the next, in most cases it also stands to lose votes in the following assembly election compared with the previous one. It is this pattern—call it the spillover effect—which should worry the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance the most.

The grand alliance would be hoping to counter the Modi wave with electoral arithmetic. While the tripartite alliance of JD(U)-RJD-Congress does appear formidable on paper—the three parties polled around 45% votes against the NDA’s 39% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—an alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav has also given the BJP an opportunity to target Nitish Kumar’s governance plank.

While Yadav’s track record of running the state is clearly unenviable, his social base is not insignificant by any count. Even in the 2010 assembly elections, when the RJD got the lowest number of seats, its vote share was an impressive 19%.

Yadav’s Mandal raj counter against the NDA’s jungle raj barb is a clear appeal to his other backward classes (OBC) support base. It was with Yadav’s rise in Bihar’s politics that OBCs gained dominance vis-à-vis upper castes in terms of the number of MLAs in the assembly.

Data show that historically Janata Dal/RJD has had the highest percentage share of OBC and Muslims among its MLAs in comparison to all parties from 1952 to 2005. It is this Muslim-Yadav equation which laid Yadav’s road to success.

In contrast to Yadav’s OBC support base, BJP emerged as the clear favourite of upper caste groups in Bihar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, according to a CSDS-Lokniti survey.

Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says there is reason for both sides to sober their expectations. Kumar is of the view that on the one hand it would be difficult for the BJP to replicate the scale of its Lok Sabha victory, given the qualitative difference between Lok Sabha and assembly elections. On the other, it would also be unrealistic to assume that the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance would manage a sum total of the respective vote shares of these parties. In what is bound be a tight contest between the two large alliances, smaller non-BJP players might play the spoiler for the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance.

Apart from deciding whether Delhi was an aberration for the Modi-Shah juggernaut, Bihar is also important in the BJP’s larger scheme of things. It is the only unconquered Hindi-speaking state for the party. BJP governments have gained power in Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh at least once. The party also won a majority of seats in all these states in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

In Bihar, the BJP was a junior partner to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) until 2013. However, the alliance did help the BJP in expanding its vote share in the state, as the chart shows. A repeat of the Lok Sabha performance in the forthcoming assembly elections would firmly establish the BJP as the biggest party in the Hindi belt.

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