The vitality and sustainability of large democracies were amply demonstrated in the last couple of weeks. Not only in US presidential elections which concluded on November 3, with their promise to put President-elect Joe Biden into the White House despite a keenly fought battle with outgoing President Donald Trump, but also in India’s third most-populous state, Bihar, where a three-phase poll ended on November 7.
Why are the Bihar elections important? For one, the state, with its population of more than100 million, larger than many independent European countries, puts 40 Members of Parliament into the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house. It is the party with a majority in the Lok Sabha which rules India. In the 2019 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) bagged 39 out of 40 seats, with the lone exception going to the opposition Congress party. Of NDA’s 39, the BJP won 17, while its two allies, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) came a close second with 16 seats, and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) got a creditable six.
In state-level Assembly elections, it is often discovered that the electorate votes differently than in the all-India general elections. Regional issues, with caste calculations and deeply entrenched local parties, often controlled by single families, dominate. Bihar is no exception. Pollsters predicted that the ruling NDA would be ousted, largely owing to anti-incumbency. They predicted that the opposition Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and the Left parties would win.
As in the US elections, where a Biden wave was belied by the closely contested election, the Bihar results proved the pollsters wrong. NDA is all set to return to power with 125 out 243 seats in the Assembly. The opposition Mahagathbandhan hasn’t fared too badly either, coming a close second with 110 seats in its kitty. The far Left, the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), has done surprisingly well, with 12 seats to its credit. Also significant is that the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) opened its account with five seats. These new configurations show how robust India’s electoral process is.
Coming to the mainstream, Nitish Kumar is to become the Chief Minister of Bihar for a record fourth time. For someone whose first term lasted just seven days, from March 3-10, 2000, this is a remarkable achievement. Though he has never had a majority on his own, Kumar is already the longest serving Bihar Chief Minister, with his previous two terms, November 24, 2005-May 20, 2014 and February 22, 2015 to the present totalling more than 14 years. If he finishes his coming five-year term, he will have served for close to 20 years as Chief Minister, quite an astonishing feat.
Kumar has proved himself an astute politician and repeated survivor, changing alliances and partners when required to save his gaddi (throne). His party, however, hasn’t fared that well. From 71 in the last elections to 43 this time, the JDU tally is down by 28. It is said Chirag Paswan, who took over the LJP after his father’s demise, cut into the JDU votes though his party only scored only one seat. The BJP won 74 seats, improving its performance by a staggering 21 seats, emerging as a clear winner. This is yet another proof that the Narendra Modi magic still works. Wherever he campaigned, the BJP won. Some say, the BJP’s success in Bihar is a prelude of what is to come in Bengal, which goes to the polls next year.
But the clear winner in the Bihar elections is Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD. With his father, the legendary Lalu Prasad Yadav, still in jail for corruption, the 31-year-old Tejashwi steered his party to the number one position by winning 75 seats, five less than in the last election, but one more than BJP. Tejashwi was mocked for being the 12th man in one of the Indian Premier League teams. Even his father reportedly poked fun at him wondering when he would graduate from supplying drinks and running errands to actually batting for his side.
Though Tejashwi didn’t reach the top as a cricketer, he has certainly proved his mettle in the rough and tumble of Bihar politics. Not only did he attract huge crowds at his rallies, but his message of a new Bihar led by the youth struck a chord in the electorate. Tejashwi, a dropout from Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, has now transformed himself to being the most charismatic youth Opposition leader in India. His ascent must be taken seriously because his father, Lalu, and his mother, Rabri Devi, have, between themselves, ruled Bihar for a total of almost 15 years. Neither the party RJD nor the Yadav clan, with their hold on the so-called backward castes and Muslim votes can be wished away.
Bihar’s voters are considered some of the most discerning and politically informed in India. Once again, they have proved why. The have voted for stability, continuity, and good governance in re-electing Nitish Kumar’s NDA government back to power. But they have also thrown up a credible regional and youthful alternative in Tejashwi Yadav.