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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 49, New Delhi, November 21, 2020

Covid Impact on Bihar Polls! | Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 21 November 2020, by Nilofar Suhrawardy


Ahead of assembly polls in West Bengal, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s victory in Bihar is said to be ringing alarm bells for anti-BJP parties in this state. Of course, BJP leaders love this prediction. But seriously speaking, it is as yet too early to assume that political tide may turn in favour of BJP. Even Bihar-verdict does not spell absolute majority of BJP. Statistically speaking, BJP has not swept the polls in Bihar. Apprehensions about saffron brigade having gained more ground to propagate its Hindutva agenda may thus be dismissed. Rashritya Janata Dal (RJD) has gained more seats and votes than BJP in 243-member Bihar assembly. Besides, Covid-phase has made people more conscious about their economic grievances and political rights. Migrant workers, including Biharis, walking home still remains edged in memories of many. It is possible, many of these have returned to find work outside their state and have not been able to cast their votes. But others have not ignored impact of trauma that they faced.

Even though Nitish Kumar has taken over as the chief minister for another term, he cannot remain oblivious of dismal performance of his party, Janata Dal-United (JD-U). The situation may have been different if the vicious coronavirus had not struck. If the vicious coronavirus had not spelled socio-economic tension for people at practically all levels, RJD may not have been able to politically cash on its impact by laying stress on its economic agenda. Bihar-polls may have then witnessed Modi-wave leading to BJP dominating the electoral-scene.

While BJP has won 74 seats and 19.4% votes, RJD has secured 75 seats and 23.1% votes. JD-U has won 43 seats and 15.4% votes. Not surprisingly, the present scenario in Bihar is being described as one in which BJP has emerged as a big brother to JD-U in NDA alliance. Kumar no longer enjoys the earlier dominance his party had in Bihar assembly as well as state politics. Compared to 115 seats, JD-U won in 2010 elections, 71 in 2015, this time the party has lesser seats only. In 2010, BJP won 91 seats, followed by 53 in 2015. During these polls, while BJP’s performance has improved against its gains in 2015, the same cannot be said about JD-U.

JD-U’s performance in 2010 and in 2015 was not based on its friendly relations with BJP. Rather, the case was totally different in preceding polls. Stumped by BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, key regional parties of Bihar did not wish this scenario to be repeated in assembly polls held in October-November 2015. Political luck favoured the Grand Alliance with BJP winning only 53 of the 157 seats, the party fought from. BJP secured 24.4% votes. BJP’s allies, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Hindustani Awam Morcha and RLSP won only five out of the 86 seats they contested. The Grand Alliance won 178 seats, with RJD securing 80 of 101 seats it contested from, JD-U 71 of 101 seats and Congress 27 of 41 seats they fought from. While RJD secured 18.4% votes, JD-U – 16.8% and Congress got 6.7% votes. BJP may have performed well in 2015 if Grand Alliance had not been formed. It may be noted, during preceding 2010 Bihar assembly elections, JD-U, RJD and Congress had contested as rivals. Their total vote share, 22.50, 18.85 and 8.9% respectively, was more than 50%. The vote share of BJP and its allies was around 40%.

Bihar politics witnessed a major U-turn when JD-U decided to part company with Grand Alliance on July 26, 2017. Political handshake between JD-U and BJP brought the latter from opposition to power and pushed Congress and RJD to opposition. JD-U chief Kumar stayed the chief minister.

Three years of friendly ties with BJP have not enhanced political gains for Kumar in his own home state. If Covid-phase had not descended, his party may have won more seats.

The young voters have not totally written off socio-political value of religion and caste. But electorally, they have begun giving greater importance to economic claims laid by politicians. Tejashwi Yadav (RJD leader) focussed primarily on what Bihar and its citizens really need, more economic opportunities, jobs and better education. His electoral strategy cannot be dismissed as a flop. It is also possible, had Covid-19 not struck, the average Bihari voter may not have been moved by electoral campaign laying stress on economic development.

Notwithstanding the stress spelt by Covid-phase at various levels practically all over the world, electoral-verdict in Bihar is just a mild indicator of it having virtually forced voters to seriously consider claims laid before them by politicians. You see, rather than be taken by a ride for the image linked with even experienced and senior politicians, Bihari voters appear to have opted for evaluating the same from what they perceive as important from their angle. Tight political race is just a pointer to their having refused to be swept by any political wave. The same is marked by Left-bloc not having been written off totally in these assembly elections.

Not surprisingly, a new importance was visible in assuring economic benefits to voters by most in the electoral fray. Of course, attempt was made to use Ayodhya-card but it hasn’t spelled any major gain. LJP leader Chirag Paswan even claimed that he wanted Sita temple in Sitamarhi bigger than Ram temple in Ayodhya. This card didn’t help him. During his campaign, Prime Minister Modi touched on Ayodhya-card but didn’t succeed in turning the electoral tide totally in favour of BJP.

The verdict may have been different if several parties and/or candidates had not contested only to split votes and reduce chances of their rivals’ victory. But with India home to multi-party politics, there is nothing surprising or new about this. This strategy has been tried at since decline of Congress as a primary national party and emergence of numerous regional parties. Religious, secular and other labels are used by smaller parties in the fray to try and win votes. Though they have tried playing their part in Bihar polls, their “success” has exposed their role as pawns and raised questions about their credentials.

Smaller parties like LJP and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) may have fared better if Covid-phase had not prompted Bihari voters to give greater importance to bigger parties in the race laying stress on economic development of the state. Bihar-verdict is just an eye-opener to a new political maturity being displayed by Indian voters after being struck by corona-crisis. To a degree, this point may be countered by saying that prospects of young voters being swept by any religious/extremist-card are fairly minimal. This is debatable. Nevertheless, trauma faced by migrant workers is just a symbolic indicator of economic crises and corona-panic not being decided by any religion and/or caste. Bihar-verdict suggests that new twist added to use of cards in electoral race because of Covid-19 cannot be ignored.

With pandemic here to stay for quite some time, prospects of it having greater impact on Indian politics cannot be sidelined, particularly forthcoming assembly elections. Though NDA has returned to power in Bihar, the dismal show put up by its key ally JD-U is least likely to be ignored by other regional allies of BJP as well as key regional parties in other states, including West Bengal. From this angle, talking of Bihar-verdict being a trailer to political tide in West Bengal seems equivalent to chasing a mirage!

( Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist with specialisation in Communication Studies and Nuclear Diplomacy. She is also author of several books. Her published books include:- This is Love! Poems on Love, Anguish & More (2020, Kindle Edition); Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress (2019- Paper Back, 2020- Kindle); Arab Spring- Not Just A Mirage (2018); Image & Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015); Ayodhya Without Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).)

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