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Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times
Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times

Bihar elections: What the Grand Alliance got right

Electoral arithmetic and alliance chemistry key; alliance covered caste, development with Nitish-Lalu, say experts

The Bihar assembly elections, in which the Grand Alliance trounced the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on Sunday, was from the start a fight between caste and development. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar presented competing narratives of development, but it was peppered with caste overtures by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad.

Prasad kicked off the campaign of the Grand Alliance at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on 30 August, saying “Mandal Raj II" would see the light of the day with the alliance’s victory—a reference to the Mandal commission, which recommended a sharp rise in quotas in government jobs and education for other backward classes (OBCs).

In this election, the Grand Alliance posed a formidable community coalition. In several assembly constituencies, Yadavs, who favour the RJD, have a strong and influential presence, and in several others, a large Muslim population (16.8% of total population of Bihar) tilts towards the Grand Alliance. The upper castes, however, also have a significant presence in the state, which could have tilted the scales towards the NDA.

Does this signify that Kumar’s decade of work as chief minister had scored over the NDA’s model of development, or does it simply point out to a better-calculated caste arithmetic?

“The caste factor never ever went away in the first place. It was always there. Even in this election, all the three groups had a caste arithmetic; some had it more, some less," said Shiv Vishwanathan, a New Delhi-based political analyst. “It was always caste plus something and caste could mean a lot of things. Caste could also mean development."

According to Vishwanathan, the presence of both Kumar and Prasad in a way ensured that both development and caste were addressed in the alliance.

“Moreover, development and aspirations go together and this is where Nitish Kumar steps in. He gave the youth what they wanted and he is liked for that," Vishwanathan said. “But this election is also about the return of Prasad. There is a predominant sense of nostalgia after his return. Prasad commands a lot of affection from the people and his presence means freedom for the lower castes."

Kumar has overall had a positive image as chief minister and several voters said the developmental work done by him and improvements in law and order made him a favoured choice. A section of voters also said that Kumar and Prasad together would ensure the development of all the sections of the society, given that they draw support from a cross-section.

The BJP, which is considered to be popular in urban and semi-urban parts of the state, joined hands with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha to form an alliance that sought to gain support from the upper castes, Dalits and the extremely backward classes (EBCs). As a result, 65 out of the 153 candidates that the party announced till the first week of October were OBC candidates. EBCs are a subset of the OBCs.

“As far as caste consolidation is concerned, the BJP had hoped that the EBCs and Mahadalits will break (as a bloc) and vote in their favour, but the results indicate that this did not happen," said Sandeep Shastri, a Bengaluru-based political scientist and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University. “Also, the attempt by the BJP leadership at religious polarization during the fourth and fifth phase of the election does not seem to have worked. Clearly, there was a huge minority consolidation in the favour of the Grand Alliance."

A month before the start of elections, Kumar included EBC communities Nishads and Nonias in the Scheduled Caste category, thus ensuring some support from these sections, which were being spoken of as game-changers in the election as they accounted for around 30% of Bihar’s population. Keeping in mind its need for caste and religious consolidation, the Grand Alliance gave 130 tickets to OBCs, 33 to Muslims and 24 to Mahadalits.

“If I can put it most simply, the Grand Alliance won because of electoral arithmetic and alliance chemistry. It was an election where that alliance which could transfer its vote from one party to another would have won and, in this case, the JDU-RJD-Congress was able to do it. This verdict has proved that traditional political rivals like Yadavs and Kurmis are able to transfer votes and that has marked a success for this alliance," Shastri added. “Nitish’s image is also a key factor. Even the BJP leaders conceded that he has worked (for Bihar), which is why the only attack they had was about the baggage that he carries (Lalu Prasad) and not his own track record."

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