But this time, it was different.
The BJP’s performance (read: Narendra Modi’s national popularity) outshined that of its alliance partner (Nitish Kumar’s charisma in the state). While this may be brushed under the carpet as a one-off phenomenon, experts think the BJP is making stronger inroads into states since the past few years, using a strong political plank: that of flagship welfare schemes initiated by the central government.
Schemes such as Pradhan Mantri (PM) Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), PM Awaas Yojana (PMAY-Gramin), Ujjwala Yojana (free gas connection), and PM-Kisan — which reach the voter directly, and are named after the Prime Minister — are the blocks on which the NDA built its victory in Bihar.
How does the central schemes’ report card in Bihar look?
The Modi government-led scheme that connects villages with towns reached 11,160 habitations in four years (2016-17 to 2019-20), building 16,755 kilometres (km) of all-weather roads. Though the PMGSY target was higher — 13,835 habitations and 21,440 km during the same period — the achievement is substantial.
Under the rural housing scheme (PMAY-Gramin), as many as 2.54 million houses have been sanctioned, and over 1.31 million have been constructed since the scheme's inception in 2016. This translated into a completion rate of 51.2 per cent - lower than the national rate of 68.5 per cent.
But in a state where one household contributes two votes on average (42 million electors and 21 million households), over 1.31 million voters getting a new free house would have mattered a lot.
The improvement in cleanliness and hygiene, too, is considerable, if we go by the official date. From only 27 per cent of houses having toilets within the household premises in 2014-15, the coverage has now reached 99.5 per cent - close to total sanitation. This improvement coincided with Kumar’s recent term.
The latest scheme that came out of the central government stable was the cash income support to farmers. In 2018, the data shows that of the over 7.5-million eligible farmers in the state - around 3 per cent - received the instalment. This rose to 86 per cent in 2019, and in 2020, around 99 per cent of the farmers have been covered, under which they have received at least one instalment of Rs 2,000.
Explaining the phenomenon of voters identifying affinity towards the central schemes than with state programmes, researchers Yamini Aiyar and Neelanjan Sircar find that if an incumbent national policy is discernible and effective, it is in an advantageous position vis-à-vis a regional one in cornering votes.
“By creating an administrative environment in which state governments were no longer viewed as critical to the delivery of schemes, and where scheme benefits were directly attributed to the Centre, the Modi government fundamentally altered this balance,” they wrote in a recent paper titled, ‘Understanding the Decline of Regional Party Power in the 2019 National Election and Beyond’ published in the journal Contemporary South Asia.
Aadhaar-based direct benefit transfer (DBT) worked as a direct link between the Centre and voters, they noted.
“Aadhaar and DBT were relaunched as flagship reforms initiated by the government. Politically, this created the opportunity to further entrench a direct link between the PM and scheme beneficiaries, as benefits quite literally went from the national government’s coffers into citizens’ bank accounts,” they said in the paper.
Research by Avani Kapur and others at the Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based think tank, also showed the financial importance — or indefatigable preponderance — of central scheme finances in states’ development spending.
Money flown from Centre to Bihar through the above-mentioned centrally sponsored schemes is 22 per cent of the state’s total income.
Weaker states depend heavily on the Centre in terms of revenue. And Bihar, one of the financially weakest major state, takes 75-78 per cent of its revenue receipts from top-down transfers from the Union government.
Another reason why the NDA romped home to power is the support from women voters. According to reports, in about 166 of the 243 Assembly constituencies in the state, women voters outnumbered their male counterparts.
Another reason why the NDA romped home to power is the support from women voters. According to reports, in about 166 of the 243 Assembly constituencies in the state, women voters outnumbered their male counterparts. The NDA won an overwhelming 90 of these seats.
Further, women surpassed men in voter turnout, too, with 60 per cent of registered voters actually coming to vote, against 55 per cent men coming to poll booths.
The reasons for this could be clearly attributed to the performance of some of the women-centric schemes of the central and state governments.
The data showed that of the 16.45-million liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections in the state, nearly half, or about 8.5 million, were distributed under the free LPG gas distribution scheme (PM Ujjwala Yojana) in the past five years. At the national level, the proportion of beneficiaries within the LPG ambit since 2016 was 27 per cent.
However, there have been a few schemes in which Bihar did not perform well, especially in the most recent months in the run-up to the Assembly polls.
During the peak lockdown period, between April and August, the demand for rural labour work in Bihar under the rural employment guarantee scheme (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA) was among the highest in the country. As many as 3.5 million people worked under the scheme - highest in the three years. But, only 2,136 households had completed 100 days of work during that time - one of the lowest in the country.
Bihar’s performance has been far from satisfactory when it comes to implementation of food distribution during lockdown.
Bihar distributed 72 per cent of the grain from its quota for that purpose, but the ratio declined towards the end of the lockdown: from 91 per cent in April, 88 per cent in May, and just 37 per cent in June till June 30. In the case of pulses, Bihar distributed 82 per cent of April’s quota, 31 per cent of May, and had not distributed anything from June’s quota till June 30.
A senior official from the Bihar administration said that while it is true that the impact of central schemes has been optically stronger than state-level programmes the past few years, that does not mean state schemes did not work in Bihar.
“The Right to Public Services Act and the Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act have reached the people to a large extent. Electricity provision to all households is clearly visible to the public, and it adds to the popularity of both the chief minister and the PM,” he added.
He also said that the state government created a government-backed fund to make possible the student credit card scheme, and the public remembers that well.