Look at the results coming in from the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections, at least the trends as of 7 pm, and the numbers seem almost identical to the figures from 2015.

NDTV, for example, was projecting 121 seats for the National Democratic Alliance, featuring the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United) as well as smaller allies. This compared to the 114 from the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress-Communists coalition called the Mahagathbandan, the Grand Alliance.

See how that stacks up against the numbers from 2015, according to NDTV at 7 pm.

On the surface that seems to suggest a close election – 122 is the halfway mark in the Bihar Assembly – but one in which not much has changed. That interpretation would, of course, be completely wrong.

The final result may mean that the incumbents, the BJP and Janata Dal (United), remain in power, possibly with Nitish Kumar continuing as chief minister. Yet the results are radically different from the 2015 verdict, and not just because the Janata Dal (United) was then contesting with the Grand Alliance.

Covid-19 measures meant that the number of booths was much greater for this election, and so counting of votes is taking longer than normal. There are still more than 40 seats with a margin of less than 1,000 votes and the final result could still go either way. But as of 7 pm, some trends seem clear.

BJP’s ‘manage Nitish’ strategy

In 2017, the BJP convinced Nitish Kumar to leave the Grand Alliance – which had handily defeated the saffron party in 2015, dealing a major blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s broader electoral hopes at the time. Kumar brought his Janata Dal (United) back into an alliance with the BJP, and came into this election fighting alongside each other.

But underneath a pretence of collaboration, there were deep tensions between the two parties. BJP leaders in the state particularly complained about the massive unpopularity of Nitish Kumar and spoke about the desire to have a chief minister of their own.

Modi himself remained extremely popular by all accounts. Rumours spread that he had propped up a third front – the Lok Janshakti Party, in an alliance with the BJP at the Centre – to only take on Janata Dal (United) and leave Kumar diminished and easier to steer.

For context read our piece explaining this “insider trading” on the BJP’s part.

The BJP did not seem to have enough confidence to ditch Kumar and strike out on its own. Yet it seemed clear that it hoped to undercut its ally and grow on its own in the state.

The strategy seems to have worked. The BJP has done remarkably well. As of 7 pm, it showed leads in 65% of the seats it contested. It was on track to gain 19 more seats than it did in 2015, when it had many more candidates in the fray. At the same time, Janata Dal (United) looks likely to drop as many as 30 seats from the last time, with a strike rate of just 35%.

In the short run, if trends hold, Kumar may yet remain chief minister, as the BJP promised he would be if the alliance won. But the result may also provide impetus for the BJP – which is the larger partner in Bihar for the first time – to make its move and demand the top post.

Tejashwi’s strong showing

One reason the BJP may not dump Kumar just yet: this was an extremely close election. We may not know for some time this evening who forms government, though as of 7 pm the BJP-JD(U) combine seems the more likelier of the two. But the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav, son of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, has clearly put in an extremely strong showing.

Yadav had been written off as an out-of-touch dynast just six months ago, when many expected his alliance with the Congress to net around 50 seats. But he led a campaign focused on broadening his appeal beyond the old Muslim-Yadav vote base that the RJD had counted on, while identifying employment as the main concern for the youth across the state.

Here is where things stood as of 7 pm, according to News18.

And it seems to have worked. Yadav’s rallies seem to attract huge crowds right before the election – and despite the Covid-19 pandemic – and his popularity appeared to peak just in time. Trends as of 7 pm show that the Rashtriya Janata Dal is likely to be the single-largest party in the Assembly. This is a position the BJP had desperately hoped to capture, and one that will come in useful if the final numbers do not give a majority to any single alliance.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal is leading in 55% of the seats where it contested. Tejashwi – in particular because of his youth appeal – looks set to remain a major player in Bihar’s political space regardless of who forms government. This a development that did not seem certain just a few months ago.

Grand Alliance’s weak link

The Communists have done remarkably well for the Mahagathbandhan. The clutch of parties – the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India-Marxist and Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist – are leading in 18 seats. This is a huge jump over their previous position in the assembly.

This is even more relevant because of the numbers pulled in by the Congress, which was contesting far more seats than the Communists. As of 7 pm, the Congress only had leads in 20 out of the 70 seats it contested. This is a strike rate of 29% – far behind that of both the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Communists.

If the election ultimately goes to the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance, it will be in part because that Congress does not seem to have been able to convert the support that flowed in to Tejaswhi and the Communists into votes for itself.

The party has, however, blamed its dismal results on the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, the smaller party led by Asaduddin Owaisi. The MIM, as it is known, was contesting Bihar Assembly elections for the very first time, in an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. As of 7 pm, it appeared to be on track to win five seats, a strong showing for its very first effort in the state.

What to watch for

Obviously the big question is who will win, which is as yet unclear. The BJP-JD(U) alliance has led the results for most of the day, but many seats remain close and the final result may yet take time. But here are a few other things to look for as counting goes into the evening:

  • If trends hold, will BJP-Janata Dal (United) name Nitish Kumar chief minister, as promised, despite the diminished numbers for his party? And even if they do, what concessions will the BJP demand for being much larger than the Janata Dal (United)?
  • In connection to this, what tone will Nitish Kumar – who claimed towards the end of the campaign that this was his last election – strike, as a response to the relative drubbing his party has received? Will he signal a willingness to play second fiddle to the BJP, which expanded in Bihar on his watch?
  • How many seats ultimately will the Lok Janshakti Party, believed by many to be deliberately fielded by the BJP to undercut Nitish Kumar, have played a pivotal role in? The Lok Janshakti Party doesn’t seem likely to win more than a seat, but its candidates may have done enough to hurt the Janata Dal (United)‘s chances in a number of seats. However, we will only know how many when results are final.
  • If the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance falls below 122, does it have the support of enough independents to still form the government? Will it consider the Lok Janshakti Party, assuming the latter has won a seat? What compromise will be struck, if that is the case?
  • Regardless of who ultimately forms government, will the two big winners – the Rashtriya Janata Dal and BJP – look back at the election and wish they had kept more seats for themselves? Will the lopsided results within the alliances lead to a clearer realignment in Bihar politics?