Consolidated identities, but divided loyalties

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If Most Backward Classes, Dalits and Forward Castes turn out in more numbers than the Muslim-Yadav-Kurmi coalition on polling days, then the NDA may carry the day in Bihar

The approaching Assembly election in Bihar has precipitated a strident division of opinion amongst pollsters and political analysts alike. Taking note of the last round of opinion polling before the voting commences, it is clear that there is no singular or definitive narrative in place. In the heat and dust of campaigning, there exists an open season of claims and counter claims, whereby a given event is variedly described as a retreat by one set of analysts while another set deems it to be a parting shot.

Cut to Vidhan Sabha 2015. On a long-term horizon, the election in Bihar is but another milestone in the complex evolution of the State and by implication, national polity. The Mahagathbandhan comprising Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Indian National Congress (INC) represents the legacy of Other Backward Classes or OBC-based politics. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) is trying to stitch a new social alliance of forward castes, Dalits and Most Backward Classes (MBC). The historical arithmetic favours the Mahagathbandhanbecause of the demographic composition of the State. However, this edge is highly predicated on legacy electoral formulae that could be undone by the shifting sands of the Indian electorate’s psyche, as demonstrated by the Dalit voter’s shift towards the NDA in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Distinct advantage

Based on the Bihar Assembly elections of 2010 alone, the Mahagathbandhan appears to have started with a distinct advantage. RJD, JD(U) and INC polled 18.8 per cent, 22.6 per cent and 8.3 per cent of the vote share respectively, and a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that this combine can easily outstrip the BJP’s 16.4 per cent plus the LJP’s 6.7 per cent vote share. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the NDA won a combined vote share of 38.8 per cent and the theoretical RJD-JD(U)-INC combo won 44.3 per cent. Such calculations, however, suffer from a flaw that has felled many political ambitions in India. Primarily, the RJD-INC together contested all seats in Bihar, with JD(U) doing the same in parallel. When parties contest all seats in a State, their vote shares tend to suffer inflation on account of a larger base effect. Therefore, the vote shares that hold independently do not stand when contesting in alliance. Much will depend upon the JD(U)-RJD-INC combine’s ability to translate their theoretical prowess into real political muscle. In short: this alliance has arithmetic scores well in place but it will come out on top if it aces “chemistry” as well. Also, within Bihar, the NDA has traditionally been limited to urban or semi-urban areas where it is widely expected to do well, but in the countryside it is an uncalibrated entity and hence may be lacking in organisational strength to push through its candidates.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election in many ways was the high-water mark of the NDA’s — and by default the BJP’s — performance in the State. Even during the peak of the ‘Modi wave’, Mr. Prasad’s Muslim-Yadav combination amounting to 29.5 per cent of Bihar’s population did stay intact and delivered a decent vote share to the RJD. Therefore, in the current election, when his social base can sense a shot at power, it is all but natural for consolidation to take place in his tradition catchment. Similarly for the NDA, traditionally Bhumihars and Thakurs (comprising about 14 per cent of the State’s population) have been at loggerheads, but in this election they are both aligned in its favour. The MBCs or the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and Dalits (at about 46 per cent of the State’s population) constitute the contested territory in this election. The swing vote in Bihar 2015 is divided across various castes with their unique internal dynamics dictating their voting choice. Ironically enough, it was a rainbow coalition of MBCs that constituted the base of Mr. Kumar’s JD(U). However his alliance with Mr. Prasad and the emergence of Mr. Manjhi and Mr. Kushwaha have caused a disintegration of this rainbow social alliance. While Mr. Prasad’s support base is confident about supporting Mr. Kumar’s candidates, the reverse mapping is not holding true in the light of Yadav dominance of the 1990s, that triggered an MBC/EBC and Mahadalit counter-consolidation in the first place.

Concerns for the electorate

Therefore, the political equation in Bihar looks like this: the Mahagathbandhan started out with a dominant advantage purely on a numerical basis. However, the mutual social dynamics between Mr. Prasad’s and Mr. Kumar’s support bases have created an opening for the NDA. This equation will ultimately be resolved by the interplay of issues such as leadership, rebels, relative turnouts of communities, and organisational capacities.

Leadership is a primary concern for any electorate. While Mr. Kumar is clearly a leader of stature within the UPA camp, the NDA lacks such a figure. The projection of collective leadership worked for the BJP in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana because of massive anti-incumbency and the unpopularity of Chief Ministers in these States. When it came to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi though, the BJP was caught between the devil and the deep sea. This could be the deciding factor in the Bihar elections, too. The animosity between the Modi and Kejriwal camps in Delhi is extreme. But both camps know that almost 50 per cent of their own support base includes the voters who appreciate the split-leadership. Almost half of Delhi voted for Mr. Modi in the Lok Sabha and Mr. Kejriwal in the Vidhan Sabha and felt equally happy about it. There is a “silent” majority which celebrates both Mr. Modi and Mr. Kumar for their leadership and performance.

Mr. Kumar proved to be one of the most progressive Chief Ministers of Bihar when he undertook schemes for female literacy, security, and distributed bicycles for girls going to schools. Such measures endeared him to female voters, especially younger voters. In the last Assembly election, we reported the arrival of the “female” vote bank cutting across caste lines, especially in semi-urban areas. Gender as a Socio-Economic Classification (SEC) was not a factor before — not even when Rabri Devi became the Chief Minister of Bihar. In 2015, it remains to be seen whether the differential popularity enjoyed by Mr. Kumar still holds or was a time-limited phenomenon.

Politics is the epicentre of society in Bihar. Thus, aspirants to political offices in Bihar tend to be more numerous than in other States. It is always a task for political parties in the State to manage various claimants to party tickets as they tend to be crucial in winning a multi-cornered, low margin election. The BJP and JD (U) used to contest elections in a 102-141 seat split. The JD(U) will have to now factor in Mr. Prasad’s RJD aspirants as a part of “coalition compulsion”, giving up 41 seats where they have been contesting for almost two decades. For Mr. Prasad, this number is actually much bigger: 143 seats that RJD has shared with JD(U) and Congress. Given the fact that RJD and JD(U) will contest against each other, they will find it tough to let go of seats that will fall in their common political catchment. On the other hand, the BJP’s allies have a limited social catchment , thus making its job at ticket distribution slightly easier. So once can expect a large number of “rebels” from the RJD camp contesting seats where the JD(U) might be on the back foot. This is something which will be condemned officially, but insiders will tell you precisely which rebel has the “blessings” of the leadership and which doesn’t. Keep an eye on the list of “official” rebels.

Importance of turnout

Given a bipolar contest and accretion of different social groups under the banner of either alliance, relative turnouts of various communities could clinch the verdict. If MBCs, Dalits and Forward Castes turn out in more numbers than the Muslim-Yadav-Kurmi coalition on polling days, then the NDA may carry the day. Hence, a keen eye has to be kept on relative turnouts and not merely aggregate turnouts on the polling day to sense the direction of political winds.Pollsters across India have observed a split voting phenomenon in recent times, whereby the same panel of voters indulges in different but consistent voting choices across elections for different tiers of governance. For example, the popularity enjoyed by the BJP in the Lok Sabha poll compared to a Vidhan Sabha poll is on an average 10 per cent higher. The BJP scored more during Lok Sabha polls on account of the higher reputation of its central leadership, but lost about 10 per cent votes on an average across Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. The BJP’s victories in these four States were largely driven by anti-incumbency and the huge margins of Lok Sabha 2014, which, even after the 10 per cent downswing, carried the day .

In the case of Bihar, the BJP numbers were only around 38 per cent even in its Lok Sabha performance. Any downswing could be catastrophic and needs to be countered by unflagging organisational commitment that could be tough to muster and sustain. It is not without reason that the swing of Mahadalits towards the NDA — courtesy the Musahar leadership of Mr. Manjhi — is instrumental in taking the 2014 vote share up by a couple of points for the NDA. Without Mr. Manjhi, this election would have been easier to predict. All polls indicate the Mahadalit consolidation for the NDA. But at the same time, we are also witnessing a never before “extreme” consolidation of the Muslims and Yadavs along with OBC votes. The 1995 exit poll done by Cvoter had correctly predicted a Lalu Prasad come back against all odds, just by 60-70 per cent consolidation of the Muslim-Yadav votes. Our current number is showing this consolidation to a greater degree: up to 70-80 per cent. This is countered only to some extent by extreme polarisation of upper caste Hindus. You know this when you find warring factions of Rajput and Bhumihars both rallying for the BJP in similar voting patterns. But then, the arithmetic also tells us that Muslim-Yadav is a consolidated block of about 30 per cent while the upper caste vote is just about a half of that.

Conversely, regional outfits tend to score more when it comes to Vidhan Sabha polls on account of stronger local leaderships. It remains to be seen how powerfully this trend will manifest itself in the upcoming polls. The saving grace for the BJP could the confused anti-incumbency factor — while Mr. Kumar is not really blamed for some failures of the State government, there remains a lingering antipathy towards Mr. Prasad outside the Muslim-Yadav combination. Will Mr. Kumar’s supporters vote for Mr. Prasad and for Congress candidates? This remains the major question. The relative turnout of different combinations will be the deciding factor. Every fourth BJP voter supports Mr. Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate and every third JD(U) voter supports Mr. Modi as Prime Minister. Get ready for one of the greatest political battles that we have ever seen.