Every Indian state election offers fascinating insights into the state of our politics and its sheer unpredictability. Bihar has been no different. Eighteen months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance alliance won 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, an extraordinary sweep that convinced most observers that this year’s state elections would be a shoo-in for the ruling arrangement in Patna.

In the end, we had a cliff-hanger election that almost went to a super-over. Here then are ten takeaways from the battle for Bihar.

1. Economic distress is real but so is welfarism Modi style

If 2019 was the year of macho post-Pulwama-Balakot nationalist politics, 2020 is the year of the pandemic. This was an election fought in times of acute economic distress, far greater than the Centre and the finance minister would have us believe. For a low-income state like Bihar, the images of reverse migration during the lockdown and students struggling to reach exam centres amidst flood waters only aggravated the sense of despair and hopelessness.

When asked in the Axis My India poll what was the most important issue in this election, 42% said lack of development, 30% unemployment and 11% inflation: these numbers suggest that there was a creeping anger against the government. And yet, the NDA was able to defeat anti-incumbency because the misery was cushioned by direct cash transfers and other benefits distributed to the poor.

For example, the free ration scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna reportedly reached millions of Biharis, giving them succor in tough times. Welfarism Modi style has been highly effective in last-mile delivery of government aid, a critical factor that often gets missed out in the shrill debates over Hindutva and nationalism.

2. Bihar’s women are the ‘silent’ voters

Right through the election campaign, the narrative centred around Bihar’s “Y” factor: its angry and restless youth. The real game-changer were not so much the young but the women, often hidden from the camera gaze. For a second successive election in Bihar, women out-voted the men by around 5%. Not for the first time, the women voters appeared to pitch their tent with the NDA: both Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar have consciously cultivated the woman vote bank.

The Centre’s much-publicided Ujwala free gas cylinder scheme has specifically targeted women while Nitish Kumar’s steps, be it 50% reservation to women in local bodies, free bicycles for school-going girls and the more contentious decision on prohibition have earned him the goodwill of nearly half of the state’s population.

In a tough election, the women may well have given Nitish Kuar a reprieve, especially when his “softer” image is contrasted with the memories of a harsher, muscular, male-dominated imagery of Yadav Raj.

Nitish Kumar at a mazar in Patna on November 5. Credit: PTI

3. Mahila-Youth as the ‘new’ M-Y

Reports from the ground across Bihar revealed a growing rage against the Nitish Kumar government on issues like quality of education and lack of job opportunities. The young voters were attracted by Tejaswi Yadav’s “rozgaar” or employment messaging as they were by the “Bihar First, Bihari First” slogan of Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party.

But while the mood for “badlaav” or change was perhaps the highest amongst the young, it wasn’t driven by any specific affection for Tejashwi or Chirag Paswan. Bihar’s youth seem ready to look beyond the traditional caste identities such as the Muslim-Yadav or M-Y grouping forged by Lalu Yadav and build a post-Mandal “Naya” Bihar. But there isn’t a figure at the moment around whom this hankering for change can coalesce.

That may well happen in 2025 if a youth icon emerges by then. Caste will always matter but be prepared for a future configuration that re-defines caste equations with women (mahila) and youth at the vanguard.

4. Nitish Kumar is down and out, well almost

On the last day of the campaign, Nitish Kumar dramatically announced that this was his last election. The emotional appeal may have ensured that his core woman and EBC (extremely backward caste) voter turned out in substantial numbers in the last phase but the truth is, this really is in all probability Kumar’s final moment in the political sunshine. His “sushashan babu” image of good governance is now mired in red tapism and sloth while his ideological trapeze acts have left him with few options politically.

Hemmed in from all sides, the 69-year-old politician seems visibly exhausted and almost dependent on the BJP and more specifically his one-time prime adversary, Narendra Modi, to rescue him from a disillusioned citizenry.

The Ni-Mo “double engine” helped him survive this time but a downsized Nitish Kumar means that his chief ministerial days could be numbered. Fifteen years as chief minister is an aeon in Bihar politics.

BJP members celebrate their party's poll victories. Credit: PTI

5 The BJP is the new pivot of Bihar politics

Make no mistake, the BJP is now Bihar’s party number one even if they eventually fell one seat short of matching the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s tally. Winning 74 of the 110 seats it contested, the BJP had the best strike rate amongst the main parties. It is now poised to be in the driver’s seat in the one Hindi heartland state where it has never fully been in charge.

The BJP’s campaign strategy played out like a chess game, fragmenting the opposition while astutely widening its own social base through strategic alliances. Whether there was a conspiracy to diminish Nitish Kumar by giving a licence to Chirag Paswan to attack him we will never know. What we do know is that the BJP is a well-oiled election machine with the resources, the organisation, the media muscle and the leadership to crush its opponents at election time. .

6 The fall and rise of Tejashwi Yadav

Just a few months ago, Tejashwi Yadav was being written off as another undeserving dynast, accused of spending far too much time cooped up in Delhi. Father in jail, siblings at war, a party machinery in decline, Yadav was seen as a poor substitute for a missing Lalu. Yet, now at age 31, he has become the principal face of the opposition after running a remarkably energetic campaign, albeit much too delayed.

More than the man, it was his messaging that was effective: he did not engage the BJP or the prime minister in any debate on national issues like Article 370 or the Ram temple, focused on local concerns, distanced himself from Lalu raj and just kept hammering on rozgaar, kamai (earnings), padhai (education), mehngai (inflation), sichai (irrigation) and dawai (medical care) as primary concerns. And yet, Yadav remains both a beneficiary and prisoner of his father’s legacy.

While the 28%-30% core Muslim-Yadav base is his bankable asset, he struggled to create a more inclusive coalition: the tie-up with the Left was a big plus but he just wasn’t able to shake off the tag of leading a party of political bahubalis who would revive “jungle raj”. Without a “caste-plus” vote, Tejashwi Yadav’s political limitations were exposed.

Rahul Gandhi and Tejashwi Yadav at an election rally in Nawada on October 23. Credit: PTI

7 Congress as the ‘kamzor kadi’, the weakest link

The Congress contested 70 seats and won 19, a winning percentage of less than 25%. Both the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left had a 50%-plus strike rate. Net-net: the Congress pulled down the Mahagatbandhan or grand alliance.

The Congress claims they were given mainly unwinnable seats, those which had been dominated by the National Democratic Aliance in recent elections. And yet, the fact is, the Congress simply had no serious ground game in Bihar, hobbled by a leadership vacuum, ossified systems and de-motivated cadres.
The sense of defeatism in the Congress ranks extends well beyond Bihar suggesting the party has still not emerged from its post-2019 election stupor. It remains a patient in ICU with no immediate prospect of revival: as the principal national opposition party, the Congress’s lingering crisis only further constricts the lack of options to a rampant BJP.

8 Owaisi and the emergence of a “Muslim” party

The All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen or AIMIM has a fraught history, emerging from the womb of cultural and political Islamism but confined to Hyderabad city for much of its existence. All that has changed in the last few years with its charismatic leader and Hyderabad MP, Asaduddin Owaisi, determined to expand the party’s footprint.

Owaisi first ventured into the Muslim-dominated districts of Bihar’s Seemanchal in 2015 and has since steadily made inroads. By winning five of the 19 seats he contested and giving a tough fight in another couple of seats, Owaisi completely upturned the calculations in a region which the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance was hoping to sweep.

The rise of Owaisi as the political face of Muslim assertion should be a warning to the “secular” parties that have treated Muslims as a captive vote bank: the aggressive politics of religious polarisation is now witnessing an ominous new vocabulary of Islamisation as a response to Hindutva rhetoric.

9 The cult of Modi

In the aftermath of the 2019 general election victory, there has been a perceptible decline in the BJP’s performance in state elections, clearly indicating a sharp divergence in voter behavior between state and national elections. An illustrative data point suggests an average swing of 16.2% away from the BJP in the five elections held since the party’s impressive Lok Sabha triumph.

In Bihar too, the swing against the NDA was around 12% but the alliance was able to stave off defeat largely because the prime minister’s popularity remains high.

With his flowing beard and monk-like appearance, Modi is not just a neta but a cult-like figure whose appeal transcends caste and class barriers. In Bihar, posters of Modi were plastered all over the state in an attempt to remind the voter of the prime minister’s looming presence even in a local contest. The strategy of getting the prime minister to hold joint rallies with Nitish Kumar clearly worked: even if the chief minister was in trouble, the prime minister was still in play and able to ensure that the NDA punched above its weight.

BJP workers celebrate the NDA's lead in Bihar Assembly elections in Varanasi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

10 Exit polls are not ‘exact’ polls

Indian elections have always been far more complex than number crunchers would have you believe. The interplay of chemistry and arithmetic, made even more complicated in Bihar’s highly competitive politics, has meant that forecasting an election in the state can be a pollsters nightmare. And yet, exit polls are now an intrinsic part of the TV news spectacle, adding a touch of drama to the election season. But most pollsters, including Axis My India with a formidable track record, got Bihar wrong.

There could be many reasons for it, including the difficulty of conducting a survey in Covid-19 times. Suffice to say its time to stop treating exit polls as the last word in election analysis. Polls are useful guides in providing a wealth of information on voter behavior but to expect a cent per cent success rate while forecasting seats is foolhardy.

Delving into the mind of the Indian voter is a big challenge and will always remain so as the inscrutable Bihari has proven once again.

Post-script: Ahead of the Bihar campaign, there was a buzz that the tragic death by suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the open support given to the actor’s family by the Bihar government and the Centre would be a factor in the elections. The BJP even sent former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to Patna to be part of their campaign brains trust while the Janata Dal (United) speedily granted voluntary retirement to the Bihar DG Gupteshwar Pandey who was leading the charge against the Mumbai police.

Eventually, Fadnavis had to retire mid-way with Covid-19 while Pandey didn’t even get onto the political pitch after being denied a ticket. The BJP IT cell may have kept Rajput in the news but on the ground, the wild conspiracy theories didn’t gather much traction. As they often say in Bihar’s politically astute nukkads: Yeh public hai yeh sab jaanti hai! This is the public, it knows everything.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author most recently of 2019: How Modi Won India.