After months of shrill rallies, ad wars and incessant media coverage, the Bihar assembly election has finally come to an end. The Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan (MGB) of the JD(U), RJD and Congress won a comfortable majority. To understand the success of the Lalu-Nitish duo, let’s first summarise the failure of the BJP’s three-pronged strategy. The BJP’s core assumption was that the “unholy” alliance of Nitish and Lalu would not work, and therefore the NDA should exploit their two-decade rivalry before they came together for survival after the 2014 general elections.
To begin with, the BJP made it a point to harp on the possible return of Lalu’s “jungle raj” in Bihar. By doing so, it hoped to scare away Dalits and EBCs — communities that hadn’t benefited economically during Lalu’s tenure — from voting for the MGB. At the same time, the BJP also wooed Yadavs, who, at 14 per cent, are the most populous caste in Bihar. At his rallies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked “yaduvanshi” pride, saying the benevolent man from “Dwarka”— where Yadav king Krishna once ruled — had come to improve their lives. The BJP also announced special economic packages and a vision document to attract floating voters across castes.
Nitish and Lalu, on the other hand, worked assiduously to consolidate their respective core supporters to ensure that the vote transfer — between, say, Yadavs and Kurmis (the caste Nitish belongs to) — took place smoothly. Unlike the NDA, the MGB also declared its list of candidates together, displaying surprising harmony. Both Lalu and Nitish appeared willing to sacrifice some important seats so that the coalition would be stronger overall. The MGB also tried to unite OBCs and Dalits by attacking the BJP on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reviewing reservations; Lalu, especially, tried to create a fear that the BJP, under pressure from the RSS, might tamper with existing quotas.
Nitish and Lalu also attacked Modi on his inability to deliver on the promises he made in 2014. The duo spoke of the rising prices of pulses and onions, empty Jan Dhan accounts, failure to bring back black money, lack of job creation, etc. Nitish also reminded voters of the development work done by him in the last 10 years: Improvements in roads and electricity, a host of successful schemes, reservations for women in panchayats. The choice, Nitish made it seem, was between a “Bihari” who has delivered on his promises and an untrustworthy “bahari” PM. Modi’s inability to deliver anything tangible to the poor is perhaps why he was unable to sustain the leher that swept Bihar in 2014.
Something must also be said about the BJP’s campaign design, especially its refusal to promote local leaders. The BJP dismissing 25 years of rule by Nitish and Lalu — “pachees saalon ka hisaab do” — must have been confusing for voters, given that the BJP was Nitish’s coalition partner from 2005-13.
After the first two phases, ground reports suggested that despite multiple rallies by Modi, the MGB was doing much better than the NDA. Two things were becoming clear: Yadavs had chosen to go with the MGB; and the BJP and its allies were not being able to transfer votes to each other. This forced the BJP to tweak its strategy. Suddenly the NDA’s ads started featuring state-level leaders, especially prominent low-caste leaders from among its allies, like Jitan Ram Manjhi. This poor performance seemed a shock to Amit Shah. A desperate BJP then decided to employ a lethal combination of caste and communal polarisation. Ahead of the third phase, Modi alleged at a rally in Buxar that Janata leaders were going to snatch away reservations from lower castes and transfer them to people from “other” communities. The day before the fifth phase, a newspaper ad featuring a cow questioned Nitish’s silence on cow slaughter. The BJP had hoped to reap the gains of polarisation, but it was too late and too little to have the needed impact.
In the end, the MGB fared better than the NDA across all phases. It would be safe to say, then, that there was a silent wave in support of Nitish and Lalu. The challenge for the friends-turned-foes-turned-friends is now to sustain the harmony they so recently displayed.
Kumar is an economist with the International Growth Centre, Patna. Choudhary is a Delhi-based journalist.