The National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) victory in Bihar, albeit by a razor-thin margin, is an affirmation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to win elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clearly the biggest winner. Whether or not it is the largest party in the Assembly, it is now in pole position to shape the fortunes of India’s third-most populous state. All others are losers, including Nitish Kumar, except for the Communists. The fragmented nature of the state’s electorate and its changing expectations also played a role as the final results show that smaller parties — from Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen — have acted as spoilers for the Janata Dal (United) and the Mahagathbandhan (MGB), even as the Hindustan Awam Morcha (four seats) and the Vikassheel Insaan Party (four seats) helped the NDA over the line. Estimates suggest Mr Paswan’s party has played a role in undermining the JD(U)’s election performance in at least 35 seats.
Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has lost, but it is now clear that the young politician has established himself as a big factor in the state. Though a distant second at 19.5 per cent in terms of overall vote share compared to the RJD’s 23.1 per cent, the BJP has the best strike rate among the major parties, winning 74 of the 110 seats it contested. The RJD won 75 of the 144 seats it fought. The BJP’s position has been strengthened also by the fact that Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) came a distant third, losing 28 seats. The BJP brass has confirmed that it will make Mr Kumar chief minister for a fourth term, but the veteran leader’s room for independent manoeuvre can be expected to shrink considerably. The diminution of Mr Kumar’s status was already clear in the BJP’s inexplicable tolerance for Mr Paswan’s public denigration of an alliance partner. There is some prescience in Mr Kumar’s remark that this would be his last election. But then he has had a long innings anyway.
If several exit pollsters need to return to the drawing board to explain embarrassing miscalculations, Mr Modi appears to have read voter expectations correctly. The 2015 campaign, which was fought against the menacing background of cow slaughter bans and reservations, ill-served the BJP. This time, in his 12-rally campaign, Mr Modi focused relentlessly on development and anti-corruption (the RJD’s Achilles heel), conjuring for Bihar’s voters a future far removed from the record joblessness and slow economic growth. He has managed, as he did in the Lok Sabha elections, to cut across caste lines in his electoral message, yoking Mr Kumar’s well-deserved reputation for development to his own personal dynamism. That may explain why Mr Yadav could not pull off a decisive victory despite his party’s strong traditional constituency of the Yadavs and Muslims, and an extravagant promise of delivering one million government jobs. Mr Yadav may draw lessons from the good showing by his Left allies. Whereas the Congress’ performance continues to be disastrous, the CPI (ML) has been a star, with 12 seats, campaigning exclusively on a pro-poor agenda. In one of India’s poorest states, this message remains a potent one.