In Bihar, caste comes across as more relevant than last time but development still comes first

While development and related concerns are still the main issues in Bihar elections, caste and community considerations too remain relevant.

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The 1995 and 2000 elections in Bihar were mainly about caste. The 2005 election was primarily about change. In 2010, Nitish came out with a winning combination, “development+caste”. In 2015, he is confronted with the same formula being used — and perhaps more effectively — by his friend-turned-foe, the BJP. Lokniti’s pre-poll survey reveals that this election is about both development and caste. While development and related concerns are still the main issues, caste and community considerations too remain relevant. The survey found that a majority of the voters, 53 per cent, see this election as being only about development whereas 34 per cent see it as being more about identity. What is significant, however, is that the proportion of those who view it just as a development election has dropped by eight percentage points as compared to 2010. Conversely, the share of those who see it as a caste election more than anything else has gone up by six points.

This may, in part, be because both main rivals have chosen to emphasise caste prominently this time. Consequently, the sentiment that caste will matter more has gone up among upper castes (from 22 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent now) — the massive upper caste consolidation behind the NDA in this and the 2014 Lok Sabha election corroborates this — as well as among Kurmis and Koeris (from 19% to 33%), lower OBCs (from 22% to 32%) and Muslims (from 29% to 49%).

See chart

That said, development is still the main issue for voters. When respondents were asked to answer, unprompted, what the single most important issue was for them, a large section (29 per cent) said “development”. More specifically, 15 per cent said it was about issues relating to electricity, water and roads. What is interesting is that among those who gave these two responses, the preference for the NDA and the grand alliance was nearly equal (see pie, ‘What’s your key issue, and whom are you banking on?). Both alliances are seen as equally capable of delivering on development.

However, they are viewed very differently by those for whom unemployment and inflation are the key issues. The NDA’s lead among such voters (one-fourth of the electorate as per the survey) is in double digits. Jobs and inflation are the two areas on which the Nitish government is seen as having performed poorly. Nearly half the respondents said joblessness had increased in the last five years. Two-thirds felt costs of essential commodities had gone up.

How much Bihar developed during Nitish’s 10-year rule will remain a matter of academic debate, but these negative perceptions of performance might prove detrimental to the JD(U)’s attempt to win a third term.