If your social media feed is made up of a fair share of political jokes, you could not have missed the comparisons between the presidential elections in the United States and the Bihar Assembly elections that people came up with in the past week. Even former Bharatiya Janata Party ally, the Shiv Sena, have drawn a parallel, claiming the Nitish Kumar-led alliance will lose like Donald Trump did.

As counting for all 243 Assembly constituencies in Bihar is set to begin from 8 am on Tuesday, the comparison might run a longer course, with most exit polls predicting this election to be a close one. The elections, held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7, witnessed a total turnout of over 57% and have several components that can lead to this scenario.

With incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seeking a fourth consecutive term, a Tejashwi Yadav-led Opposition alliance which grew confident as the campaign progressed, and the unknown factor that Lok Janshakti Party leader Chirag Paswan introduced by splitting from the National Democratic Alliance, the run-up to the first elections in the country since the outbreak of the coronavirus has made enough headlines.

Those in contention

Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) was allocated 122 constituencies, making it the larger partner of the National Democratic Alliance in the state, as the Bharatiya Janata Party got 121 seats. Out of their quota, the JD(U) gave seven seats to Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha, while the BJP gave 11 seats to Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party. Both the smaller parties were with the Opposition in last year’s Lok Sabha elections.

In the Opposition’s Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance, Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal took 144 seats and the Congress and Left parties put up candidates in 70 and 29 seats, respectively.

Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, which split from the ruling alliance in October citing “ideological differences” with the JD(U), contested from 137 seats, including all 115 where Kumar’s outfit had fielded candidates.

The Grand Democratic Secular Front – a coalition of six parties including Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen – was also in the fray in all the seats.

A file photo of Chirag Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav. [Credit: PTI]

The stakes

The overarching narrative revolved around the anti-incumbency Kumar was facing after being at the helm of the state for 15 years, barring a brief period in 2014.

In at least two of his election rallies, Kumar faced outbursts from the public once when slogans were shouted in support of RJD, and on another occasion when onions were hurled at him. The apprehension around him was also seen when for the first time during state elections he shared a stage with Narendra Modi, a leader he once refused to work with.

Kumar, an ally of the BJP since the early 2000s, parted ways with it in 2014 after Modi took over its leadership. In 2015, Kumar tied up with RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav to jointly contest and win elections against the BJP. But their coalition government fell apart in just 18 months. Kumar then returned to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Two years later, the NDA won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Having successfully pitched his “sushashan”, or good governance, plank in three successive elections, Kumar seemed to have hit a roadblock this time as matters such as unemployment and the migrant crisis during the pandemic loomed large. By the time the dust settled, he even made a rather emotional appeal for votes, saying this was his “last election”.

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. [Credit: PTI]

In contrast, for Tejashwi Yadav, this year’s election was his moment to come of age. His father Lalu Yadav, an iconic figure of Bihar politics, has been in prison since 2017. This was the first state elections in 30 years that the former chief minister was missing.

Tejashwi Yadav spearheaded his party’s campaign in last year’s Lok Sabha polls too, only to draw a blank as the BJP-JD(U)-LJP combine won the state. He faces the dual challenge of reversing this mandate and defying the “jungle raj” narrative often attached to his father’s tenure. The latter will remain a challenge, even if he manages to achieve the first.

Equations at play

The anti-incumbency factor against Kumar meant that the BJP was left with some heavy lifting. However, it did not help the alliance’s cause that speculation of BJP’s backroom strategy behind Paswan’s rebellion were rife in at least the initial stages of the campaign. It took BJP leaders including Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to categorically state that there was no “secret deal”. On the last day of campaign, the prime minister even wrote a letter to the people of Bihar, endorsing Kumar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a dozen rallies too and stuck to his tried and tested formula of canvassing centrally-funded schemes and attacking the Opposition on their past records and matters that tend to strike an emotional chord with people. While his “jungle raj ka yuvraj” (heir to jungle raj) barb at Tejashwi Yadav remained a constant refrain, he did not miss any opportunity to plug the saffron’s party construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya and the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status last year.

On his part, Tejashwi Yadav did not touch upon either of these. In both his rallies and tweets, he constantly kept the focus on his promise of giving 10 lakh government jobs and his claim that the chief minister has nothing new to offer after 15 years. His campaign revolved around the slogan of “kamaai, dawaai, padhaai aur sinchaai” (employment, health, education and irrigation). Even if the results might prove to be a different story, Yadav drew large crowds and did not let the campaign become acerbic, as was the case in the Delhi elections earlier this year.

The Janata Dal United’s campaign also faced a consistent attack from Chirag Paswan, as the LJP leader remained vocal against the prospect of Kumar returning to power. However, Paswan claimed he was willing to “rip open his heart” in a show of support for Modi. Although the exit polls do not hold much good news for him, political observers will wait to see if Paswan’s Dalit vote bank manages to make a dent in the NDA’s chances.

File photo of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav. [Credit: PTI]

Exit polls

Various exit polls results last week had a similar story to narrate it is a tight contest, but the Mahagathbandhan has a slight edge. Except, there were three outliers.

Times Now-C Voter gave 116 seats to the ruling NDA and 120 seats to the Mahagathbandhan. Paswan’s LJP is projected to get just one seat, according to the exit poll. Republic TV-Jan Ki Baat gave 118-138 seats to the RJD-Congress-Left coalition, and 91-117 seats to the NDA. LJP is likely to win five to eight seats, it said. The ABP-CVoter survey, meanwhile, predicted 104 to 128 seats for Kumar and his allies, 108-131 for the Mahagathbandhan, and four to eight seats for other parties. A party or coalition needs 122 for a majority in the 243-seat Bihar Assembly.

As for the outliers, the India Today-Axis My India exit poll predicted a clear majority for Yadav and his allies with 139-161 seats, while the BJP-JD(U) combine is expected to get 69-91 seats, according to the polls. The Today’s Chanakya exit polls gave an even larger majority to Yadav, predicting 180 seats for the Opposition alliance and restricted the NDA’s tally to just 55.

Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar’s exit poll was the only one to predict a majority for the ruling alliance, giving it 120-127 seats, while it projected a tally of 71-81 seats for the Mahagathbandhan.

A “poll of polls” – an average of all predictions compiled by NDTV – said the Opposition will win 128 seats, the NDA 99, and the LJP six seats.