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The Missed Opportunities And 'Self-Goals' That Led To BJP's Bihar Debacle

16/11/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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People walk past Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags on bamboo poles in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India, on Saturday, July 25, 2015. More than anywhere, Bihar reflects the challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces in overhauling modern India. A vast, landlocked plain bordering the Himalayan nation of Nepal to the north and bisected by the Ganges, India's holiest river, the state is home to about one in 12 Indians. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Bihar elections of 2015 may just have altered the course of the political narrative in India. The poll outcome seems to have provided a template to stop NDA's juggernaut. While the BJP's top brass gets into a post-poll assessment huddle, a host of factors are being implicated for this electoral humiliation. These range from electoral arithmetic and the lack of a chief ministerial candidate to the overly aggressive campaigning pitch and pro-incumbency for Nitish Kumar.

The relative effect of many of these factors will be ascertained in the coming days, as disaggregate data becomes available. An analysis of the preliminary data, however, indicates that a concoction of missed opportunities and self-goals from the BJP contributed to its poll debacle.

The "Jungle Raj" campaign lacked credibility

The BJP positioned the Bihar election as a decision between development and the return of "jungle raj". The party campaign played up the rampant crime during the RJD years "when kidnappings and loot were the order of the day".

If ensuring a secure climate was the BJP's projected goal, its candidate choice faltered badly. According to Shekhar Gupta, senior journalist, the BJP's alliance with LJP, "a party deeply involved with the underworld", hurt its credibility. Perhaps more agonisingly, the party failed to set a moral standard by selecting a high proportion of candidates with criminal background. It is telling that amongst the main parties BJP had the highest share of candidates with criminal records (Figure 1).

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Empirical evidence shows that informed voters are better at evaluating candidate credentials. Due to improving information accessibility, campaign pitches which are incoherent with observed outcomes are less likely to cut ice with the marginal voter than before.

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A failure to woo female voters

The Bihar election saw an unprecedented turnout of female voters. More women came out to vote this time than both the 2014 and 2010 elections. The turnout of female voters was 4% greater than male voters, much higher than the 2% difference on average.

The Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance benefited significantly from the higher turnout amongst female voters. The alliance won 87 out of the 98 assembly constituencies where the gap between the turnout of women and men was more than 10%.

Political analysts attribute the preference for the Grand Alliance among women to the positive image of Nitish Kumar, as well as the alliance's campaign strategy targeted towards women.

Wooing female voters definitively away from the Nitish Kumar-led alliance might have been a tall order for the BJP. However, the party could have improved its chances by selecting a higher share of female candidates. Empirical evidence has shown that female candidates secure greater support from their own gender.

Amongst the key parties in the fray, however, BJP allocated the lowest share of seats to women (Figure 2). In fact, most of the major political parties gave fewer seats to women in comparison to 2010. Considering the strike rate of female candidates was higher than men in this election, BJP might have missed a trick in not giving greater representation to women.

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The religious polarisation strategy backfired

The BJP had to fight a stiff battle in Bihar due to a consolidated opposition. The stakes were highest in the fifth phase, which accounted for the biggest chunk of seats as well as a higher than average proportion of Muslim voters. The BJP required a consolidation of Hindu votes for success in this phase. The party unleashed a campaign of religious polarisation signified by questionable remarks from its leaders. Empirical evidence shows that religious polarisation has been a viable strategy for the party in the past.

However, this time, the BJP-led alliance failed to benefit from polarisation, as results from the fifth phase indicate (Figure 3). In fact the alliance performed its worst in the fifth round, compared to the 2010 assembly election. This indicates that their strategy of using religious polarisation as a means to unite Hindus across caste lines did not work.

The RSS chief's comment on reservation, as well as the follow-up hype created by the opposition, may have dissuaded the SCs and EBCs to vote in favour of the BJP-led alliance. The vicious campaign pitch might also have united the Muslim votes and prevented AIMIM from making a significant dent in the Grand Alliance's vote base.

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What lessons can BJP draw from the Bihar debacle? First, the average voter is better informed than before. Second, the party is yet to firmly entrench itself outside its traditional vote base. It becomes even more imperative for the party to stick to the development agenda. Any further deviation from that may lead to withering away of the massive mandate it received in 2014 elections.

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