"All politics is local," Tip O'Neill, the former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, is reputed to have once observed.
In the context of the ongoing Bihar Vidhan Sabha election also, the politics depends on what the pulls and pressures are in each constituency. From a distance, it’s difficult to gauge the public mood and therefore the voting trend. Even the reporters on the ground send mixed signals.
The standard theory says any time the voting percentage goes up, it’s indicative of the momentum against the incumbency. In the first round (October 12th.), the voting percentage went up to 57 percent, at least two percentage points higher than in the previous election. The BJP spokesperson credited greater mobilization of voters to the appealing campaign by the Prime Minister.
The four to five percent higher turnout of women voters compared to men, however, is ascribed to certain welfare measures Nitish Kumar is reported to have taken for women during his two terms as Chief Minister. Enhanced women’s participation could also be because from many villages men folks have gone to the big cities to work leaving women and elderly behind. In any event, the turnout at the polling booth would depend on the resources and effort of the local parties or the candidates and, of course, local politics.
Reports suggest that the BJP has changed its election tactics by de-emphasizing the role of the Prime Minister and Amit Shah, the party national president in the campaign; now, the leaders of Bihar from all castes are being projected. The party strategists are positioning to insulate the two central leaders from the blames of any potential reverse. Observers are reading too much into the cancellation of a couple of the Prime Minister’s rallies. Nitish Kumar says Narendra Modi has fled to New Delhi deserting the battlefield. His Chief Minister colleague from Delhi, referring to his own sources, prophesies that Nitish will "sweep" the poll.
The ultimate tally in suspense, certain NDA tactics seem to have been flawed in the rear-view mirror. The BJP in Bihar had virtually put all its eggs in the popularity-basket of Narendra Modi, thereby over-exposing and making him vulnerable. Another source of blow to the BJP could be from the chief of its ideological wing, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who asked for a reconsideration of the affirmative action program (reservation) for the Other Backward Castes. The Lalu-Nitish propagandists could be successful in convincing the OBCs that this privilege might be revised or withdrawn.
Unlike in other states, the BJP’s communal card wouldn’t work in Bihar. The Muslim-Yadav unity consolidated by Lalu and Nitish will remain intact particularly against the BJP. The BJP tacticians erred if they counted on driving a wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus. The BJP hasn’t done much to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslims in Bihar, there are only two or three Muslims in its list of 160 candidates. In the absence of a Chief Ministerial candidate, it’s also known that the Bihar BJP leadership is a divided house.
Just on its promise of providing a cleaner and efficient alternative to the incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and its developmental plank, the BJP campaign was doing just fine. The focus got distracted by the Hindu zealots in the party who raised entirely irrelevant issues like beef-eating. It has the potential of grouping together the Muslims and a section of the Dalits who trade in the skin of animals. A ban on beef-trade would affect them and for this reason, they could be scared away and enticed by the other side.
The Grand Alliance, on the other hand, is perceived to be partially changing the political discourse in the course of the campaign. Apart from raising the bogey of Bihari prestige (swabhimaan) before the voters, the GA has sought to turn the election into a referendum on the 16-month old government of Narendra Modi. Nitish has claimed Bihar better than Gujarat in many respects.
However, the truth is, organizationally, beginning with Jitan Manjhi and a number of JD(U) MLAs to the doyen of the Grand Alliance, Mulayam Singh Yadav, more cadre have broken away from the Lalu-Nitish duo than from the NDA. Evidence of a ramshackle government came to light when an OBC (Kushwaha) minister of Nitish was caught on camera taking stash of money as bribe. It leaves no one in doubt what all the Nitish men and women have been doing all these years. In any ideal democracy, this is the sure sign of a tattering coalition.
All said and done, both the coalitions by now have a committed following and a vote-share. Both the sides are competing for maximizing their share among Mahadalits and Extremely Backward Castes. In the first-past-the-post system, whoever has the plurality of votes and crosses 42 percent will be the winner.
A lot of trust has been placed on the younger voters who may see merit in the argument that the governments of the same coalition at both the center and the states would ensure rapid progress of their State. An estimated half of the total electorate (66.82 million) of Bihar is below 40 years. 18 million of them are below 30 and 2.41 million are first time voters. It has been reckoned around 20 to 30 thousand first time voters are in each constituency who could tilt the electoral fate of any candidate.
The final election result will show if these young "aspirational" voters have listened to the call of change and development or responded to all politics, local.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He has authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.