NDA holds edge in Bihar thriller: BJP, RJD fight for single-largest party

BJP supporters celebrating in Patna on Tuesday, even as the Bihar Assembly poll contest remained a tight race Photo: PTI
The Janata Dal United (JDU)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance was within striking distance of forming the government in Bihar, according to the leads from the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Tuesday night. The counting of votes was proceeding at a glacial pace because of the larger number of polling booths to ensure social distancing and Covid-prevention measures. A pre-poll alliance that wins at least 122 seats in the 243-member House will be able to form the government.

The Grand Alliance leader, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), was emerging as the single-largest party, but because of the sub-optimal performance by the alliance partner Congress, it is unlikely to reach the majority mark. The performance of the BJP has been far better than that of its ally, the JDU, but several leaders of the party, including President J P Nadda, have made it clear that it is Nitish Kumar who will be the chief minister, ignoring calls from various quarters in the party that the BJP, being the bigger ally, must lead the state. As the day ended, Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Sushil Modi called on Kumar, who had a phone conversation with Union Home Minister Amit Shah on further strategy.

If he becomes chief minister again, Nitish Kumar, who has declared this will be his last election, will have to address the political and economic challenges thrown at him during the campaign – unemployment, loss of income because of Covid-19 mismanagement, the challenge of floods, and failures in the implementation of some his pet policies, including prohibition and education.

Although it is unlikely that RJD will be able to get the numbers to form the government, the performance of Tejashwi Yadav has been notable. Without the assistance of his father, Lalu Prasad, who is in jail on corruption charges, Yadav put together an alliance and crafted a campaign strategy that – if the leads are accurate – will ensure roughly the same number of seats the RJD got in the outgoing assembly (82 seats). The difference is, in the last election, the RJD contested the election in alliance with Nitish Kumar. Although some senior leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad Singh were driven out of the RJD because of Tejashwi’s abrasive and aggressive style, the younger Yadav ensured that the party did not feel the gap. The Congress contributed its bit to the GA campaign by bringing to the table ideas addressing issues of livelihood, employment, and health. The most remarkable performance has been by the Left parties and, if the leads are to be believed, will be represented in the Bihar assembly in double digits this time.

The party that has suffered the most severe setback is the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), helmed by Chirag Paswan, who lost his father Ramvilas Paswan just before the campaign opened for the elections. 

While the trend shows the LJP harmed the JDU the most, it also hurt the BJP, while purporting to be its ally, by giving many BJP defectors tickets in the election. Most of them are trailing. Paswan’s strategy was to gain by arbitrage if no alliance got a majority. His gamble does not appear to have worked. While women voted for Nitish in large numbers, 25 per cent of Bihar’s voters were in the age group 18 and 29. There is no evidence that all of them voted for the RJD, identifying with 31-year-old Tejashwi Yadav as their leader, although they thronged to his meetings in large numbers. The GA’s alliance saw a focus on issues of economic deprivation and aspiration, circumventing social justice, which used to be a central theme in all RJD’s campaigns.

This campaign has sensitised Bihar voters to omissions of the Nitish administration. Nitish's claims of good governance were dented and if he becomes CM again, he will have to address some of these issues squarely.

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