Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday narrowly escaped a political setback and won by a whisker the prestigious electoral battle in Bihar, India’s third most populous state of around 100 million people. The elections in Bihar were a major test of Modi’s popularity after his government came under criticism for his handling of coronavirus crisis and the economy.
Tejashwi Yadav, Modi’s opponent — the son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, a maverick politician and a bitter critic of the prime minister — was strongly favoured by exit polls to win the elections. But Modi’s coalition just about managed to retain power by winning 125 seats against Yadav’s 110 in the 243-member state assembly.
Tuesday’s counting of over 40 million votes, slowed down by the pandemic protocols, saw a tight see-saw race as the process lingered on through the day and continued till early Wednesday morning.
Now that he has won this electoral battle, Modi must take steps to mitigate the misery of the migrants who are still without jobs. Pulling India out of this economic crisis will require a lot more than delivering impressive election speeches
The victory in Bihar is especially sweet for Modi because it came after a series of setbacks in state elections since 2018. This victory has proven that Modi’s support base remains intact and Indians continue to trust him despite growing unemployment, economic slowdown and a raging pandemic.
Impact of the pandemic
The economic slowdown and the pandemic have badly affected Bihar, home to tens of millions of migrant workers who run factories in India’s industrialised states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and also the national capital, New Delhi.
These migrants were the worst hit when the government suddenly announced a national lockdown in March. As India came to a grinding halt, the hapless workers who lost jobs in big cities began a long arduous march home. With train and bus services suspended, millions of workers, men and women — carrying meagre belongings and children on their frail shoulders — were seen walking hundreds of miles on sleek Indian highways, a spectacle that shocked the world.
The walk of these migrants — many died of exhaustion and run over by trains — was widely reported in domestic as well as foreign media, exposing an uncomfortable secret: India’s impressive economic growth rested on the back of cheap labour. Not surprisingly, many of them were angry with Modi and voted for his opponent.
Now that he has won this electoral battle, Modi must take steps to mitigate the woes of the migrants who are still without jobs. Pulling India out of this economic crisis will require a lot of work by the federal government, which seems to be getting the infection rate down, compared to a couple of months ago.
The Indian economy is also showing some green shoots as consumer demand is slowly picking up during the festive season. The challenge before Modi government is to ensure that this momentum is sustained and businesses — both in organised and unorganised sectors — recover quickly.