The big picture in Bihar: Hung House or a bare majority? 

LJP, rebels and smaller parties are likely to affect the outcome of the Bihar Assembly election significantly. Whichever alliance wins may end up with a bare majority

 The big picture in Bihar: Hung House or a bare majority? 

AJ Prabal

It is astounding to note that as many as 183 political parties are in the fray in Bihar this year! While the two major alliances, BJP-led NDA and the RJD-led Grand Alliance or the MahaGathbandhan, are the main contenders, in many constituencies, the contest is turning out to be three-cornered or four-cornered. And with Independents and smaller parties chipping away a few thousand votes in each constituency, the result can swing either way.

None of these factors will matter if there is a significant wave against the ruling alliance and if, as some commentators are suggesting, some sections of the electorate, notably the poor, the youth and the women, rise above caste considerations.

There are nevertheless three possible outcomes of the Bihar election. Opinion polls had predicted that NDA partners BJP-JD(U) with a little aid from LJP would easily secure a majority and would win between 130 to 160 seats in the 240-member House. Observers on the ground on the other hand see either a close contest and a hung House or a clear majority for the Grand Alliance or the MahaGathbandhan.

NDA to get a clear majority: At the beginning of the election, BJP was clearly confident of bagging between 80 to 90 seats on its own. With the party contesting just 121 seats, the projection of a 75% strike rate was optimistic but given the disarray in opposition ranks, it was not unrealistic.

There was tacit recognition that JD(U) would face the brunt of anti-incumbency because of the growing unpopularity of chief minister Nitish Kumar. Strategists believed its tally would decline. Indeed, BJP’s game plan of allowing LJP and Chirag Paswan to field BJP loyalists, former MLAs and ministers to contest against JD(U) was aimed at ensuring that Nitish Kumar was cut down to size.

This had two objectives. If BJP emerged as the single largest party and JD(U) was reduced to having around 40 MLAs in the House, the case of a chief minister from BJP would be stronger. The other objective was to weaken JD(U), which does not appear to have a second line of leaders, so that it could be split, if necessary. This would be the revenge of Narendra Modi for the temerity with which Nitish Kumar had sidelined him earlier, refusing to allow him to campaign in Bihar till 2014.

In the event, BJP appears to have overestimated its own strength and popularity. A party which had a 30% strike rate in 2015 (54 out of 180 seats contested) was hoping for a 75% strike rate in 2020. But after the 2015 Assembly election, a lot has happened. Narendra Modi is not as popular as he was in 2015. His image has been dented following Demonetisation, mishandled GST, the arbitrary lockdown, the migrant crisis and Inflation.

It also seems to have overestimated the appeal of its communal rhetoric. In 2015 also Amit Shah had played the Pakistan card, telling voters that there would be celebrations in Islamabad if the opposition won. Amit Shah, who had camped in Patna then, is missing in action this time. But the PM in his rallies did invoke Kashmir, terrorism, Article 370, Pakistan, Jai Shriram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai—all the catchphrases it whips up to polarise and mobilise voters.

BJP also appears to have miscalculated in letting Chirag Paswan loose. Junior Paswan fielded very strong candidates, almost certainly at the prompting of the BJP behind the scene, and boasted that he would be instrumental in installing a BJP-LJP government in the state. Nitish Kumar, he declared, would not be a chief minister but would be arrested and sent to jail.

A clear majority for RJD+: For the Grand Alliance to get a clear majority, the principal party Rashtriya Janata Dal also needs to bag 90 of the 140 and odd seats it is contesting. A 70% strike rate appears a tall order but for the fact that it did win 71 seats out of the 100 it had contested in 2015. If it could achieve a strike rate of 70% in 2015, can it repeat it in 2020?

The surge of Tejashwi Yadav has come late and the opposition by and large have been dormant on the ground. But with Tejashwi Yadav drawing mammoth crowds and his businesslike and positive campaign appealing to a cross section of voters, the party must be hopeful. The refusal of Tejashwi Yadav to deviate from the theme of “Kamai, Padhai, Dawai, Seenchai” (Employment, Education, Health and Irrigation) and exodus of people from the state has unnerved the NDA. After many years a party’s manifesto is being talked about and is taken seriously. So, the optimism may not be misplaced.

Whether RJD made a mistake by not contesting alone is something that only the result will tell. Congress (70 seats) and the combined Left (29) can add to the momentum or drag the tally down. The challenge before the Congress is greater because it is contesting in BJP strongholds in a large number of seats, constituencies which have traditionally voted for the BJP in the last four elections. The conventional wisdom, therefore, is that the party’s strike rate will be 30% or less and it can hope to bag between 20 and 25 seats, fewer than last time.

The Left is the dark horse. The three Left parties, CPI(ML), CPI and CPM, contesting together and contesting in alliance with a national and the regional party for the first time, have been singled out for attack by the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders this time. The left tally having been in single digits in past elections, the sustained attack on the Left is significant. BJP understands the threat posed by the Left in not just the 29 seats it is contesting, but also in several other constituencies where they have pockets of influence

The Hung House: In a crowded, caste-ridden, waveless election this would easily be the most likely option, with a caveat. The third phase of polling on November 7 can prove to be decisive in giving the push to one of the alliances. This is where Asaduddin Owaisi, Pappu Yadav and the BSP ---the third front—hope to slow down and halt the two major alliances. In constituencies with minorities comprising a quarter or more of the voters, these 75 odd constituencies hold the key. In the last three elections minorities here largely backed the JD(U). The support this time would be wavering, given the slippery wicket Nitish Kumar is batting on.The LJP is also a factor in the crowded field. Therefore, keep your fingers crossed till Tuesday, the counting day, although Exit Polls on November 7 will forecast a clear majority for the NDA!

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