This may sound strange in the context of a narrow NDA victory, but given the circumstances, the Bihar election verdict is the best result that secular and democratic-minded citizens could have expected.
The people of Bihar have made it clear that there is a possibility and an aspiration for change, but the opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies will have to ensure greater engagement at the grassroot level. The entire opposition campaign was based around issues first raised by the Left and made into mainstream issues through consistent mobilization around them. Therefore, the Left should assert itself within the anti-BJP alliance even more both in terms of deciding the agenda and seat sharing.
If the entire opposition had ensured greater visibility, through relief work and political mobilisation, during the lockdown, the result could have been even better for the Mahagathbandhan. Ultimately, this meant that popular opinion did not associate the economic crisis and massive mismanagement of the migrant crisis with the NDA in Bihar or the BJP at the centre.
It is unrealistic to expect an automatic defeat for a finely tuned electoral juggernaut such as the BJP, even after consistent blunders at the level of policy and governance. During the entire election campaign, the opposition solely attacked Nitish Kumar, and this has helped the BJP to disassociate itself with the failures of his government, particularly during the Bihar floods, and the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
Avoiding criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP is not a good strategy in the long run for the opposition, despite several political commentators applauding Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign for focusing on Nitish and avoiding any mention of Modi’s name.
The election result is also a testimony to the sheer strategy and cunning of the BJP. They have smartly evaded the anti-incumbency of the Nitish regime and exploited the yearning for change through Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). The BJP has also decisively dug the Janata Dal (United)’s grave and ended its tenure as one of the two poles of Bihar’s polity.
“It is unrealistic to expect an automatic defeat for a finely tuned electoral juggernaut such as the BJP, even after consistent blunders at the level of policy and governance”
This election indicates a beginning of the JD(U)’s death spiral and Nitish Kumar’s announcement of retirement from electoral politics (which he subsequently retracted) can be read as a sign of things to come.
In the coming days, the voter base of the JD(U) shall undergo tumultuous churning, and the BJP, as it already has in other states where it is partnered with regional political outfits, will try to woo a section of that base.
Yet the JD(U)’s voter base, a significant section of which are formed by voters belonging to the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), can also be attracted by the Left by taking up issues faced by them.
Women voters, recognised as an independent voting bloc by the JDU, have helped the NDA in this election as well. This is another constituency which must be approached by the opposition with due respect, which must include appropriate policies in its agenda and increased representation.
Bihar’s Muslim community is changing as well: In the Seemanchal region, where the Mahagathbandhan vied with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) for the Muslim vote, the latter won 5 seats in the election. The AIMIM has been accused by members of the Congress of hurting its chance of winning other seats.
This indicates two things: First, that mere claims to secularism do not guarantee the unwavering support of the Muslim community. The electoral aftermath of the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement and the lack of grassroot participation and the evocation of the issue in the electoral campaign, particularly from the RJD and Congress, has pushed the Muslim community to seek other alternatives.
Second: Increasing communal polarisation and consolidation of the Hindu community by the BJP has led to the consolidation of Muslim voters, particularly in constituencies like Kishanganj. This has also meant that in many of the seats which ultimately went to the AIMIM, the Mahagathbandan could not ensure that its supporters from the Hindu community voted for its Muslim candidates. The political outfits that are a part of the Mahagathbandan, many of whom have received unwavering support of Muslim voters over the years, must work hard to win back their support through steadfast and grassroot participation in the struggle for secularism and moving beyond token representation.
The imminent downfall of the JD(U) and the politicisation and consolidation of the Muslim electorate has opened new avenues and challenges for the opposition, particularly the Left. Through better engagement with women, EBC, and Muslim voters, they can emerge as a staunch pillar of resistance to communalism and defence for the rights and aspirations of the working population. Through this, they can establish themselves as a major pillar in Bihar politics who, along with other political outfits in the Mahagathbandhan, can ensure that the BJP and its politics is isolated and electorally defeated.
The author is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at JNU and is a former JNUSU Vice-President.