PATNA/NEW DELHI: A Narendra Modi-fired NDA was on course to claw out a slender win in Bihar, beating back a spirited challenge from Tejashwi Yadav in a contest which marked the coming-of-age-party of the young RJD leader while diminishing incumbent Nitish Kumar‘s JD(U).
Nitish was on the brink of getting his sixth term. Though his first term lasted just four days and the fourth one accrued to him only because he had resigned midway through his second only to resume, he has joined an elite league of satraps.
At the time of going to press, NDA had won or was leading in 124 seats against the RJD combine’s 111, crushing Tejashwi’s hopes of leading his father’s RJD to victory after 14 years.
Chirag Paswan’s maiden outing as the leader of family outfit LJP did not go that well. Paswan Jr did manage to partly achieve his objective of damaging Nitish, with several of his candidates eating into NDA’s votes to RJD’s benefit. However, it was a pyrrhic achievement as it also exposed his claim for parity with JD(U) as hollow.
Congress, which had wrested 70 seats from RJD in exchange for its acquiescence in Lalu Prasad’s insistence to project Tejashwi as CM candidate, fared poorly, proving to be a drain on RJD. In contrast, RJD’s other allies did very well with CPI (M-L) Liberation notching 12 seats and CPI and CPM registering two wins each.
The nail-biter which saw the rival camps engaged in seat-to-seat combat was in keeping with the roller coaster that defined a lead-up which saw BJP-JD(U) being transformed from the overwhelming favourite to the underdog.
It was Tejashwi who turned the game around with his promise to provide 10 lakh government jobs to the youth on his very first day in office. It was a recklessly extravagant promise which, if implemented, could have bankrupted the state which struggles to meets its basic minimum needs. But it turned out to be an ultra-seductive proposition in a state where the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened rampant unemployment.
The RJD scion also tried to decouple himself from the legacy of RJD — the 15-year-long reign of his parents which remain etched in the minds of millions as unbridled anarchy — as an outreach to sections outside RJD’s Yadav-Muslim core.
The outreach also saw him entering into crucial tactical seat-sharing pacts with Congress and Left parties.
In the end, however, he seemed to have come up just short, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stalling him in his tracks in the second and third phases of the polls. Modi, who had played the game-changer earlier too, threw himself into the campaign with characteristic vigour, cashing in on the standing he appears to enjoy in the state and deploying his entire oratorical skills. He sought to undercut Tejashwi’s promise of jobs and growth by reviving memories of the lawlessness under RJD’s 15-year hegemony, and put paid to the young leader’s attempt to make a clean break from his party’s past by dubbing him “jungle raj ka yuvraj”.
Bihar election results 2020: Live updates
The PM also sought to cash in on the goodwill welfare measures launched by his government to reach out to women and the poor.
His was not an easy task. For, apart the challenge from Tejashwi, the strength of which was amplified by the turnout at his rallies, BJP was also having to deal with signs of sullenness, especially among BJP’s upper caste constituency and Hindutva hardliners, towards Nitish.
The obstacles could be overcome with the help of the constituency that Modi has acquired among the poor and women. Nitish’s constituency among Extremely Backward Castes and Mahadalits appear to have remained intact, providing another bulwark.
In fact, the elections mark yet another instance of BJP’s attempt to cast itself as the party of the poor which underlay the toppings of sections of upper castes and Hindutva votaries.
The outcome shows the effectiveness of the Modi factor but also presents fresh challenges. RJD and Congress have screamed foul but that is a far easier task compared to the issue of how to manage Nitish. The BJP leadership is firm in its pre-poll commitment to retain him as CM irrespective of how the two parties fared, but it also has to brace itself for the task of assuring the incumbent that he would have the same authority that he enjoyed by virtue of being the senior partner. Besides, it will also have to assuage suspicions in certain JD(U) quarters about Chirag having been set up to undercut Nitish. JD(U) leaders have in the past been prone to conspiracy theories.
His reduced numbers notwithstanding, Nitish has once again displayed his support among EBCs and women, something which gives him enough space for future manoeuvres.
The Bihar result capped a bad day for Congress, marking a setback for Rahul Gandhi‘s high-wattage campaign to target Modi on diverse issues of China’s aggression, handling of the pandemic and farm sector laws. He is unlikely to give up yet, but the results have brought out the task staring at him.