PM Modi's charisma trumps even 
a mismanaged pandemic in Bihar

The NDA's victory in Bihar and in the byelections across the country has a special significance, given that polls were held for the first time, post-Covid. One of several notable outcomes of the election is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged a winner, his popularity undented by the fallout of the pandemic.

The wafer-thin majority thrown up in Bihar, however, calls for judicious post-poll management. During the campaign, coordination between the two main NDA partners, the JD(U) and the BJP, was poor and the faultlines will persist in the aftermath of the campaign. The BJP's Bihar wing made no secret of the fact that it regarded JD(U) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as a liability, thanks to anti-incumbency and poor handling of the pandemic.

That the JD(U) would lose ground and the BJP would gain was evident. The latter was expected to win big and emerge as the single largest party, with a hit rate of 80 per cent or more. This led to the widespread public impression that the BJP was seeking to undermine Nitish and evict him from chief ministership after the election. The belief was strengthened by the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Chirag Paswan, who condemned Nitish and accommodated a host of BJP rebels.

The fracture in the NDA prompted Union Home Minister Amit Shah to publicly state that regardless of the electoral outcome, Nitish would be chief minister. For good measure, nine rebels who defected to the LJP were sacked. But the mixed signals confused both sets of party workers.

The results came as a surprise. The BJP did increase its tally, but not quite as much as expected and the JD(U) was severely diminished, but by no means wiped out. Just as well – a couple of seats less and the NDA would have fallen short of the half-way mark. The caste arithmetic worked well for the alliance, with the upper caste and upper- and lower-OBCs giving it 35 per cent of the vote, as opposed to 32 per cent for the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress.

The BJP remains dependent on the JD(U) in Bihar and their internal differences must be managed, given the precarious majority. The allies will have to keep their respective flocks together, by balancing the aspirations of various interest groups. The animosity towards Nitish within the BJP has fuelled rumours that he will eventually be asked to shift to Delhi, but it is clear that no 'succession plan' is possible without his assent.

The other significant feature of the election is the emergence of the RJD's Tejaswi Yadav as a credible leader. He, too, must hold on to his MLAs and those of the Congress. There may be trouble at home, with his older sibling Tej Pratap pulling off a win against the JD(U). His sister, Misa Bharti, has apparently put her political ambitions on hold.

Tejaswi also needs to address long-term issues, like broadening the social base of his party. The split in the minority vote, thanks to the Democratic Secular Front, comprising the AIMIM and the BSP, eroded his voteshare. The AIMIM won an impressive five seats.

The young RJD leader does not lack either political acumen or a fighting spirit. He is clearly a crowdpleaser, but chose to take his cue from Rahul Gandhi and make populist promises - “10 lakh jobs” - that voters knew he could not possibly deliver. Although the Congress is the RJD's oldest ally, it is not clear whether there is two-way transfer of votes, something Tejaswi will need to review.

The third notable outcome of the election is the resurgence of the Left. Tejaswi obviously read the ground accurately when he allocated as many as 29 seats to the Left front. It did not disappoint, adding 16 seats to the Mahagathbandhan's kitty. The CPIMLL, in particular, has a strong presence in certain districts of the state.

The party was heckled by political rivals for alleged 'Naxal' links but has long been running overground mass organisations for women, youth, students and farmers. It was able to cash in on the RJD's vote base and returned the favour by mobilising huge crowds for Tejaswi's rallies. Again, it is not clear whether there was a two-way transfer of votes.

The presence of the Left in the Bihar assembly is likely to liven up the sessions, with articulate members who are uncompromising on economic justice issues. If the coordination between the Mahagathbandhan allies continues, successful electoral alliances between the Left and centrist parties may emerge in other states.

For BJP chief J P Nadda, the results are a big relief, after the series of misadventures that have characterised his stewardship of the party – the loss of Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Delhi and the loss of majority in Haryana. To his added credit, he pulled it off when election specialist Amit Shah was missing in action.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the PM, who held a series of rallies across the state. Anti-incumbency, an unemployment rate higher than the national average and the debilitating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic proved no match for the Modi charisma.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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Free Press Journal