How Bihar was won

By Chinmaya Kumar & Abhishek Choudhary

The result of the general elections in Bihar has been to Nitish Kumar’s chagrin: out of 40 seats, the BJP-led NDA won 31 and the RJD-led UPA won seven; Nitish’s JD(U) could summon up barely two (the JD(U) gave two seats to the CPI, both of which they lost). Even in terms of percentage vote shares, the NDA, with 39 per cent of total votes, was far ahead of the UPA’s 29 and the JD (U)’s 16.

Why did the JD(U) do badly despite Nitish’s popularity as Bihar’s “development man”? If efficient governance could fetch the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD 20 out of 21 seats in Odisha, what explains Patnaik’s fellow special category status-demanding, sub-nationalism-evoking chief minister’s extraordinary failure in the neighbouring eastern state?

Caste — as with everything else in Bihar — gives the answer.

We need to begin with June 2013, when Nitish broke the NDA coalition in Bihar over Narendra Modi’s ascension as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The JD(U)’s supporters were a mix of non-Yadav backward castes (Koeris, Kurmis — to which Nitish belongs, and a few others) and a section of Dalits and Muslims; the BJP, on the other hand, relied mostly on the four Hindu upper castes. But since upper castes are less than 15 per cent of the population, the BJP, after the coalition collapsed, was desperate to find partners that could broaden its support base: the BJP formed an alliance with Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. The LJP was an insignificant entity and had nothing to offer to any coalition other than, perhaps, a palaver of secularism. But the LJP and the RLSP could transfer a significant number of votes of the sub-castes they represented to the NDA.

The post-poll survey by CSDS suggests that the BJP’s social engineering has paid off: 68 per cent of Dusadhs — the Dalit sub-caste Paswan belongs to — voted for the NDA. The NDA also wooed the Extremely Backward Castes, which constitute around 30 per cent of Bihar’s population and have traditionally voted the JD(U): 53 per cent of them reportedly voted for the NDA. This massive shift in the EBCs’ support to the BJP owes partly to Modi’s backward caste origins that the BJP kept trumpeting during its campaign in the Hindi heartland.
The upper castes, as expected, voted for the BJP en masse. The BJP could successfully build another “coalition of extremes” to their advantage.

Modi’s own persona played a role, too: the BJP’s vigorous campaign to project him as a leader capable of extricating India out of unemployment, inflation, and corruption that the UPA helped create, worked well. A unique combination of caste realignment, the word-of-mouth spreading of Modi’s achievements in Gujarat, and communal polarisation in rural areas has ensured the NDA’s historic victory in Bihar. The CSDS survey shows that a significant percentage of votes across castes went to the NDA: Upper castes: 78; Yadav: 19; Kurmi and Koeri: 26; Lower OBC: 53; Dusadh: 68; Mahadalits: 33. Interestingly, only 2 per cent of Muslims in Bihar voted for the NDA.

Another less talked-about factor that helped the NDA mobilise the backward castes and Dalits is the massive reduction in violent caste-based conflicts after Nitish Kumar assumed power in 2005. This scale of mobilisation would have been unthinkable in the 1990s when the caste-based militia would indulge in frequent killing of people from each other’s caste. Back then, any candidate or party that was aggressively backed by the upper castes used to make the backward castes and Dalits suspicious. Nitish Kumar made a concerted effort to kindle a sub-national Bihari identity by downplaying caste and emphasising development. In that sense, it could be argued that Modi successfully rode on Nitish’s achievements.

But that still leaves the JD(U)’s electoral rout — a distant third position — unexplained. When the JD(U) parted ways with the BJP, the gesture was intended to win the confidence of Muslims, who constitute a handsome 16 per cent of the population. As Lalu Prasad was jailed and disqualified to fight the Lok Sabha election and the Congress had become unpopular nationally, the UPA appeared to
be a spent force. The real battle in Bihar, it seemed, was between the BJP and the JD (U).

As the Modi brand unfurled, however, the core voters of the JD(U) — Mahadalits and EBCs — decided to temporarily shift allegiance to the BJP: the 2014 election was for “Delhi”, not “Patna”. Soon, the Muslims also started reconsidering their support to the JD (U): their only objective in this election was to ensure that the BJP candidates lost, so they were open to supporting any party that could undo the Modi juggernaut. As the opinion polls started predicting that the RJD-led UPA was in a stronger position than the JD(U), Muslim voters also started shifting towards the UPA.

It also didn’t help that the JD(U)’s supporters were diffused across hundreds of sub-castes (some from the most marginalised — Musahar, Chamar) and therefore not in a position to openly display their support. This made the task of assessing the strength of the JD(U) candidates very difficult and Muslims were left confused. Muslims preferred supporting the RJD, which had the support of the Yadavs, a powerful upper backward caste, who constitute around 13 per cent of the state’s population. The polarisation of votes due to Modi and the silent nature of support for the JD(U) might have pushed Muslims to vote predominantly for the RJD, not the JD(U).

What does this mean for Nitish’s prospects in the assembly elections due in the latter half of 2015?

Nitish made a tactical move by resigning from the chief ministership and negotiating support from Lalu in the assembly:
in doing this, he did save his thin majority government from collapsing but, more importantly, he symbolically played out his revenge on the upper castes who ignored him in favour of the BJP. Together, the JD(U) and the RJD can consolidate nearly three-fourths of the state’s votes, which does not include the upper castes, for the assembly elections.

Also, as the CSDS survey shows, this time, over one-fourth of the total voters in Bihar voted for the “national interest”: it’s expected that a majority of them would go back to the JD(U) for the state-level elections. So, while Nitish’s attempt to carve out a niche at the Centre might have utterly failed, in Bihar, he is down but by no means out.

Kumar is an economist with the International Growth Centre, Patna; Choudhary is a Delhi-based journalist