Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an odd claim at the Bharatiya Janata Party victory gathering on Wednesday, after his party’s alliance was re-elected.“BJP is the only party whose seats increased in Bihar, even after staying in power for three terms,” Modi said, in a speech narrating the party’s impressive growth nationally over the last decade.

What exactly did Modi mean by this statement?

Was it supposed to be a comment about his party defying anti-incumbency, and expanding despite remaining in power for three consecutive terms? That would be plainly wrong because the BJP has not been in power for three back-to-back terms. It was out of power in 2015, having lost the elections, and only returned in 2017 by convincing the Janata Dal (United) to ditch its alliance partners.

Was it meant to be about how steadily the BJP has grown over its last few elections, whether or not its wins were consecutive? That too would be awkward framing. The party had a far larger vote share in 2015, when it contested alone. It had many more seats in 2010 when it contested with current alliance partner, the Janata Dal (United).

Sniping at Nitish Kumar

The only reading of Modi’s comment seems to be a pretty targeted snipe at the one party that actually has been in power in Bihar for three consecutive terms, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).

Quite significantly, the Janata Dal (United) has, for the first time in Bihar, won fewer seats than the BJP, pulling in just 43 to the BJP’s 74. Along with two smaller alliance partners, this meant the coalition had just enough seats – 125 – to win a majority in the Assembly, where 122 is the halfway mark. It was also the very same number of seats that the alliance had going into the election.

Even more significant here is the reason why the Janata Dal (United)’s numbers are so much smaller than the BJP.

Many have attributed it to the anger, or at the very least unpopularity, of incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Others have depicted the election as one in which Modi “won Bihar for Nitish”.

Yet the data at least shows one clear reason: the Lok Janshakti Party. In at least 31 seats, according to News18, the Lok Janshakti Party – which contested by itself – played spoiler for Nitish Kumar’s party, meaning the number of votes it received was greater than the margin by which the JD(U) candidate lost. If Janata Dal (United) had won each of these seats, its final figure would have been 74, exactly the same as the BJP’s final tally.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI

BJP ally vs BJP ally

Of course, other parties may also have cut into Janata Dal (United)’s votes. But the Lok Janshakti Party
is particularly relevant for a very simple reason: It is an official ally of the BJP’s at the Centre, and its chief Chirag Paswan’s entire platform involved telling the voters that he, and not the Janata Dal (United) was the true representative of Narendra Modi in Bihar. As if to drive the point home, the Lok Janshakti Party mainly contested in seats where it would be up against the Janata Dal (United), and many of its candidates were former BJP leaders.

And it worked.

By some calculations, if the Lok Janshakti Party were not in the fray and its votes went directly to the BJP-Janata Dal (Unted) alliance, they would have had a two-thirds majority.

In other words, an official ally of the BJP at the Centre – the Lok Janshakti Party – drew in enough votes to cause the defeat across 31 seats of another official ally of the BJP in the state, Janata Dal (United), and nearly cause all to lose.

Imagine, for a moment, if this had happened to the Congress, with its own allies conspiring against each other. The result would have either been interpreted by observers as a tremendous self-goal or as the inability of the Congress leadership to control its alliance partners and factions.

In the BJP’s case, however, it is being seen as a Chanakya-style move that ensured the pre-eminence of the saffron party while reducing its alliance partner’s bargaining power within the coalition. Never mind that such a tactic nearly cost the alliance the election, with final results going down to the wire.

Modi’s success or BJP’s failure?

The conventional interpretation is that Modi somehow swooped in and prevented Nitish Kumar’s unpopularity from sinking the alliance, and thereby notching up a grand victory.

Yet in reality, Modi’s failure to clearly identify which ally he wanted BJP voters to transfer their votes to could also very well have been responsible for how badly the alliance did in those seats.

As Sajjan Kumar of the research organisation People’s Pulse has argued, rather than seeing this as an election in which Nitish Kumar’s unpopularity was the key differentiator, you could easily see the BJP’s inability – or unwillingness – to transfer votes to the Janata Dal (United) as the key change between 2010 and 2015. In this view, it is actually the appeal of Nitish Kumar that led to the higher strike rate of the BJP in 2020, compared to 2015 when Modi campaigned much more vigorously in the state.

“While the Nitish Kumar support base transferred their votes for BJP, the same was not true other way round. A significant section of upper castes ended up voting for the candidates fielded by parties like LJP, which fielded around 45 senior BJP rebel leaders as its candidate against JD(U)...” Kumar argued. “Hence, within NDA, the prime responsibility of their relatively poor performance would be on BJP rather than Nitish Kumar.”

Chanakya or cynical?

Many believe the BJP’s unwillingness to transfer votes to the Janata Dal (United) was intentional.

If this is untrue, one might have expected the party to have acted against the Lok Janshakti Party much earlier. And, indeed, if the BJP was genuinely unable to act against the Lok Janshakti Party, then the more accurate interpretation is of incompetence – Modi failing to rein in an ally that cost his team votes in the state.

Rumours spread in the early parts of the campaign that the Lok Janshakti Party had been propped up to grab votes from the Janata Dal (United) and help the BJP, with Chirag Paswan all but admitting to it in his campaign – and afterwards. As voting continued, senior BJP leaders tried to assert that this was not the case, even as others continued to praise Paswan.

And through all of this, even after the Lok Janshakti Party nearly cost the alliance the election, it remains a partner of the BJP at the Centre.

There is no doubt that this may have actually been the BJP’s strategy, denting its ally’s chances just enough to grow at their expense without sinking the whole ship. And if so, it seems to have been extremely successful, leaving a much more subdued Nitish Kumar at the helm.

But it is also deeply cynical, and yet is not being characterised as such.

If the Congress had deliberately tripped up the Nationalist Congress Party’s chances in Maharashtra just to ensure that its own numbers were better, even if that risked losing the election, the analysis of such a tactic would be much more likely to include talk of selfish, corrupt and cynical politics.

Yet the BJP seems to have earned admiration rather than censure for such an approach, telling us as much about the power the party has over the framing of political narratives in the country as it does about results themselves.