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Beyond Bihar

Local factors dominate the assembly election, but outcome will have a bearing far beyond the state.

Important issues such as the recognition and rights of the Mapuche indigenous population, powers to form unions, and water and land rights will be at the centre of the debate.

As the campaign winds down for the first phase of the Bihar assembly polls, it is clear that local issues such as jobs are likely to influence voting behaviour in a big way. That isn’t surprising, since assembly elections in recent years have become a referendum on the local government and leaders. However, the outcome in Bihar is likely to resonate beyond the state and even impact the course of national politics, especially the shape of political coalitions, for a variety of reasons.

First, Bihar is the first state to go to polls since the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year. The Centre-imposed lockdown saw waves of migrants from the state trudging back to their hometowns and villages from the metros. Two, Bihar marks the beginning of an election season that will see big states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam elect new governments in the first half of 2021. Though the political realities of these states are very different, the Bihar outcome will impact the way political parties strategise and build alliances. Three, the ruling coalition is under strain in Bihar, with three major groups, the JD(U), BJP and LJP, seemingly working at cross-purposes. The results will most likely have a bearing on the NDA, which has, since 2014, become overly dominated by the BJP and dependent on the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the Centre, the Modi government has just one non-BJP minister after one of its oldest allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), withdrew its nominee from the Cabinet, before quitting the alliance itself. The JD(U) is the last of the big regional parties left in the NDA, though its relationship with the BJP has been unsteady all through. For instance, the JD(U), which won 16 seats as part of the NDA in the 2019 general election, declined the offer to join the Modi government after the party was refused the ministerial berths it sought. The LJP’s decision to quit the NDA in Bihar over Nitish Kumar’s leadership and seek votes in the name of Modi has injected a dose of distrust into the alliance. The BJP will need to repair relations with the JD(U) to dispel the notion that it doesn’t value its allies — a charge that the Shiv Sena and SAD hurled at it while quitting the NDA. Fourth, the BJP, while endorsing Nitish Kumar as the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, is seeking votes in the name of Modi. Inadvertently, the party may be putting to test the prime minister’s ability to mobilise votes in a state election.

A win in Bihar would be seen as evidence of Modi’s enduring popularity and the BJP party machine’s ability to buck incumbency. A favourable result would be a big boost for the Opposition as it strains to be heard in Parliament and outside. The Bihar outcome will have a bearing on battles elsewhere in the coming months.

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