The Bihar assembly election results forecast by exit polls on Saturday, after the third and final phase of voting, has left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) camp worried, as they mostly predict that Nitish Kumar, who had sought a fourth straight term as chief minister, may lose the game to the Tejashwi Yadav-led Mahagathbandhan.
The Bihar election, which until a month ago seemed like a walkover for the NDA, has seen many twists and turns along the way. The last two phases of voting, in particular, were tense for both NDA and the Mahagathbandhan as the leaders of both alliances had to rework their strategies according to feedback from the ground.
Top sources with access to the NDA’s backroom told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that after the second phase on November 3, Nitish spoke to Union home minister Amit Shah on the phone. Nitish, said these people, told Shah that he expected the NDA to get 90-95 seats in the first two phases, and that it would require around 40 seats in the third phase to retain power.
The Mahagathbandhan camp was also redoing its calculations until the last minute. People familiar with the matter said that RJD’s Bihar unit president Jagdanand Singh met former CM Rabri Devi and Tejashwi. Singh asked Tejashwi to be careful while making statements such as the one on ‘Babu Saheb’, which the NDA had seized on.
The winning coalition will need to get at least 122 seats to come to power in the state, which has 243 assembly constituencies.
Three opinion polls predict that Tejashwi is in a position to form the government—if this is borne out, the 31-year-old will emerge from the shadow of his father Lalu Prasad Yadav in a big blow to the NDA, which repeatedly mocked him as the ‘yuv raj of the jungle raj’.
While supporters of the RJD and Mahagathbandhan are celebrating the exit poll predictions, the top leadership is still cautious, as two polls have forecast a tight contest, which could lead to a hung assembly, like in 2005. To be sure, exit polls are not infallible at all and have been wrong on many occasions, including in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, when they mostly predicted a resounding victory for the BJP. It also remains to be seen whether the upper-caste anger against the NDA overrides their mistrust of the RJD and its allies such as the CPI(ML).
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which fielded candidates against JD (U) across Bihar and is considered the B-team of the BJP, is predicted to win just a handful of seats. However, this is unlikely to worry Chirag Paswan, who has often claimed that his biggest mission was to “unseat Nitish”.
The BJP, which has vehemently denied any link to Paswan’s anti-Nitish tirade, may have to deal with an upper-caste backlash if the RJD does manage to unseat the government. At this point, the party is keeping its card close to its chest and trying to put up a united front.
All eyes on Tuesday
JD (U) national spokesperson KC Tyagi was slightly worried over the figure projected by the exit polls.
“The people of Bihar are mature. They can’t hand over the mandate to an incompetent person who inherits a bad legacy, whose father is in jail on corruption cases and other members of his family facing disproportionate asset cases. People can vote for change if they have a good alternative. Tejashwi stands nowhere. People can’t vote for change for worse. But if predictions of opinion polls become true, then I have no word to comment,” Tyagi told HuffPost India.
Tyagi also pointed out that the exit polls ahead of the 2015 Bihar assembly election proved completely wrong.
“All opinion polls were projecting a landslide victory for the BJP-led NDA alliance, but the result was opposite. Even during the 2019 parliamentary election, opinion polls had predicted a simple majority to the BJP led NDA alliance when there was a strong Modi wave across the country,” Tyagi said.
Reliable sources told HuffPost India that Tyagi even spoke to election strategist Prashant Kishor to gauge his thoughts on whether the Nitish-led NDA alliance has any chance to retain power in Bihar.
But a top leader of the JD (U) said that the Mahagathbandhan has thrown a formidable challenge before the NDA.
“It’s no cakewalk for the NDA and there’s no wonder if JD (U) gets less seats this time. If there is return of ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar, credit goes to Chirag Paswan. But I strongly believe that the NDA is going to form a government,” said this person, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the third phase, there was a sizeable number of seats where Muslims are the deciding factor, giving an edge to the RJD. Nitish was also personally uncomfortable with the BJP attempting communal polarisation with leaders such as Yogi Adityanath giving provocative speeches. The BJP, however, had made its intention of increasing communal polarisation quite clear. For instance, during seat distribution for the third phase, the BJP took the Jokihat seat, despite the JD (U) trying to convince them not to, since the constituency has around 70% Muslim population. But the BJP insisted on the seat to satisfy its core Hindu voters.
The NDA is also pinning its hopes on the so-called “silent voters”, whom they hope will turn out to support Modi and Nitish.
“This is untrue that the third phase was completely Muslim-dominated. Everybody knows that polarisation happens here. But this is not going to harm the NDA. NDA is going to get around 100 seats in the first two phases and in the third phase NDA was in a very strong position. The Narendra Modi government extended support to the poor and socially vulnerable section of society by launching various schemes. This section is a silent voter of NDA,” said Nand Kishore Yadav, a senior BJP leader and minister in the Nitish-led government.
A BJP insider pointed out that upper caste voters who traditionally support the NDA had a poor turn-out. Many of them are angry with Nitish over the Munger firing as well as the death of a Brahmin man in Bhagalpur, allegedly after being beaten by the police.
“BJP’s tally will increase. The NDA could have done better had upper castes shown similar aggression. But our silent voters have compensated this loss,” the leader claimed.
The RJD is confident that Muslims and Yadavs have aggressively voted, besides anti-Nitish votes flocking behind Tejashwi.
Sanjeev Choudhary alias Bhagwan, a progressive farmer from Khanpur village of Samastipur district, said that in the caste-driven politics of Bihar, analysts have forgotten the land-holding class is primarily dominated by upper castes, followed by OBCs.
“Despite a sense of disgruntlement towards the Nitish government, this class was not comfortable with Mahagathbandhan due to the presence of CPI (ML). Bihar has seen bloodbaths in the name of revolution and caste pride. Tejashwi, no doubt, is a young face but it takes time to win trust that there will be no return of old days,” said Choudhary.
The Congress, which has been riding piggyback on the RJD in Bihar for the past three decades, hopes the result will resurrect its traditional base. It has got 70 seats in the Mahagathbandhan, much more than it deserved, and struggled to find candidates to contest.
“In the last election, we had contested 41 seats and won 27 seats. The Congress will expand and we will play a bigger role,” Congress MLC Prem Chandra Mishra told HuffPost India.
At this point, there is little attention on the likes of Pappu Yadav of Jan Adhikar Party and Upendra Kushwaha of Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, who had formed a Grand Democratic Secular Front with four other parties. Though they hoped to play a crucial role as kingmaker, analysts think they are unlikely to get their moment to shine.
Nitish’s last-minute gamble
The 78 seats that voted in the last phase cover vast swathes of the Mithila region where the JD(U, RJD and Congress coalition had won 54 seats in the 2015 assembly election.
Aware that the phase was crucial for his political survival, Nitish unexpectedly played his last card during a rally on Thursday.
“Jaan lijiye aaj chunaav ka aakhri din hai. Parson chunav hai aur ye mera antim chunav hai. Ant bhala toh sab bhala (Understand that this is the last day of the election campaign. Voting will be held that day after tomorrow and this is my last election. All’s well that ends well),” said Nitish, addressing an election rally at Dhamdaha constituency in Purnia.
While “sources” close to Nitish immediately tried to walk back from the statement, it kicked off a political debate in which both supporters and rivals jumped in. The impact on voters is less clear, but many believe the statement came too late to make any difference.While the statement obviously hinted that Nitish was thinking about retirement from electoral politics, it confused people about the last time Nitish himself contested elections involving direct public voting. The CM has told his inside circle that he meant the 2020 assembly election and did not intend retirement.
Some believe that Nitish was also sending a message to the BJP that in case the NDA gets close to a majority he would be fine if the ally has scripted some other post-election plan for him that may not involve the CM’s seat. HuffPost India has reported earlier that some BJP insiders are tired of playing second fiddle to Nitish. Nitish, who once prevented Narendra Modi from campaigning in Bihar and walked out of the NDA fold in 2013 after Modi was projected as the prime ministerial face, has seen his statue drastically diminish, and is not forced to rely on Modi’s appeal for votes.
The RJD was quick to say that Nitish had just confirmed what they had been telling people for a long time.
“Nitishji is too tired to run Bihar. He conceded his defeat before the third phase. Opinion polls match with our ground assessments that people have voted for a positive change in Bihar which only Tejashwi can bring. Youths need job which Tejashwi can give,” RJD spokesperson Mrityunjay Tiwari told HuffPost India.
Senior JD (U) leaders quickly tried to clarify that Nitish was neither down nor out.
“After 2004, Nitish Kumar has not contested any election involving direct public voting so how one can draw conclusions like this? He commented about the ongoing election. As national president of JD (U), he will continue to lead the party in elections. Opposition tried to create a perception that there was a wave against the NDA but such things are not going to work because people of Bihar have tested Nitish Kumar and they also know the kind of legacy Tejashwi carries,” said senior JD (U) leader Dr Ajay Alok.