If you are a news junkie, you are by now sick of the slow-moving story that is the Bihar elections. It will take six weeks for us to know the results. Until then, we will be bombarded with the minutiae of Bihar politics.
A bi-polar contest, in which there are only two players, is a relatively simple one. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. The difficult part is understanding why one side won and the other lost. There are 243 constituencies in Bihar, and what ultimately determines the result may have 243 different reasons. That will not prevent the pundits from making reductive big-picture arguments on the basis of the Bihar results. Why must we wait that long? It may be hard to predict the results but very easy to predict the gazillion opinion pieces we will read after 8 November.
On Narendra Modi
If the BJP wins the election, Modi supporters and sympathisers will say that this is proof that people approve of Modi’s performance as prime minister. Modi critics will say Bihar isn’t all of India. If the BJP loses, the same critics will say Modi’s popularity is dipping.
If the BJP wins, it will be said that the party is right to not announce a chief ministerial candidate in advance, and learnt the right lesson from Delhi. If the BJP loses, it will be said that the lesson for the BJP is to have a chief ministerial candidate before the polls.
The Bihar election will definitely be a test of Modi’s popularity before the Bihari electorate, given that he and his party have pitched it as a Modi election. However, it will be more accurate to say that this election will test Modi’s ability to use his performance at the centre, and his charisma, to make Bihari voters give the BJP a chance at the state level, despite knowing that Modi won’t be the chief minister. If Modi can make this happen, it will be a huge game changer for Bihar politics because unlike Uttar Pradesh, Bihar has never had a BJP chief minister.
On Nitish Kumar
If Nitish Kumar wins this election, he will be called only the second person to have made Modi taste defeat, after Arvind Kejriwal. It will be said that Nitish has won against the BJP juggernaut because he’s been a good administrator. It will be said that this is proof that people vote for good governance.
If Nitish Kumar loses, the BJP’s supporters will say he was a good administrator who lost his way because of his personal animosity with Narendra Modi, that egotism is bad in politics, that Bihari voters rejected his opportunism of joining hands with his bête noire, Lalu Yadav.
Even though the BJP won 32 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2014, CSDS found in surveys at the time that 64% respondents were satisfied with his performance as chief minister. It is important to note that this view was being expressed after Nitish had broken his alliance with the BJP, and while voters were voting for the BJP.
Except for the BJP-aligned upper caste voters, people in Bihar have good things to say about Nitish Kumar, but there may be good reasons why this may not convert into votes. They may want to give the BJP a chance after having seen Nitish govern Bihar for two terms, they may not like the Lalu alliance, the BJP’s communal polarization may have a role to play, and finally, the BJP is doing a good job with caste arithmetic.
Despite all those reasons, Nitish Kumar could win this election precisely because he is popular with voters. Should he lose, it will not change the truth that there is no huge anti-Nitish sentiment amongst voters in Bihar. The good things voters have to say about his two terms will keep him alive and kicking in Bihar politics.
The impact on the central government
If the BJP loses, pundits will say this will prevent them from getting a majority in the Rajya Sabha before 2019, and thus not give Modi a free hand with policy. If the BJP wins, pundits will say the BJP is about to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha in a year or two.
They would be wrong either way. No matter how many state assembly elections the BJP wins, it won’t get a majority in the Rajya Sabha by the summer of 2019.
In other words, the Bihar election results will not strengthen the central government’s hand with legislation and policy. Victories in states like Haryana and Maharashtra didn’t change anything at the centre. The Bombay Sensex will cheer, but that's neither there nor here.
A victory or loss in Bihar will not substantively change anything for the office of the prime minister.
On Lalu Yadav
If the grand alliance loses, some will say that it lost because of Lalu. There will be those who will say that the Bihar electorate punished Nitish Kumar for allying with Lalu Yadav of Jungle Raj fame. People will wonder if Nitish would have done better on his own.
However, it is more likely that whatever seats the grand alliance gets, Nitish might get even fewer seats without Lalu. Nitish has a very small caste base of his own, and besides, non-BJP votes would be divided between Lalu and Nitish. Muslim voters in particular would be divided.
If the grand alliance wins, it will be said that Lalu Yadav has revived himself. Truth is that Lalu had continued to be popular with his core vote base of Yadavs, and the Yadavs who had voted for Modi in 2014 had done so only to get rid of UPA-2. Lalu had lost Bihar to Nitish because Nitish had been able to cut away Lalu’s Muslim voters by exploiting caste divisions among Muslims.
On caste politics
The most banal, and the most untrue thing pundits will say if the BJP wins Bihar is that voters have chosen to rise above caste and vote for development. An hour in a village in north India will tell you caste politics is nothing but an assertion of the same development demands through the prism of caste. The BJP is doing as much caste politics in Bihar right now as the Nitish Kumar-led grand alliance. “What’s your caste?” will remain the most frequently asked question in Bihari society.