The elections in Bihar have implications beyond the state. With 42 members in the Lok Sabha and 16 in the Rajya Sabha, Bihar is a highly politicised state. Its transition from an agrarian feudal society has been slow and halting and identity politics have invariably dominated electoral outcomes.
Broadly speaking, the electorate comprises 15% upper caste voters, 51% OBC/EBC, 16.9% Muslim, 6% Dalit and 10% Mahadalits. For 15 long years, the famous M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination enabled Lalu Yadav and his family to govern the state. Thereafter, Nitish Kumar in the last 10 years sought to resurrect the development paralysis in multiple ways; for seven out of these 10 years, he was in a partnership with the BJP. Nitish broke off his alliance with the BJP in 2013 and paid heavily during the last Lok Sabha elections with the number of JD(U) MPs being reduced from 20 to just 2.
"Having attended all of Modi's large public rallies I saw for myself the special connect between him and the Bihar's very young population. "
So, why is the upcoming election so significant?
First in the unlikely event of the NDA not being able to form the government, the recalcitrance and obstructionist attitude of the Congress would be further emboldened. The functioning of Parliament and the passage of important pending legislations may be stymied. This would delay significant economic and social reforms. It may also validate the belief that the strategy of countering the BJP's momentum is to put up a united front. This may also have spillover effects on other important state-level elections in March in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Pondicherry. However, in the more likely event of the NDA forming the government the opposition tactics would stand discredited. A demoralised Congress would find it difficult to stall parliamentary proceedings. Normal functioning of Parliament would re-invigorate the stalled legislative agenda. It would bolster Modi's approach on development issues and the governance rubric.
Second, Modi has reiterated in his successful public rallies that the NDA seeks a mandate on a development agenda. Lalu Yadav has scarcely hidden that he is fighting on a Mandal-2 agenda - the narrowest form of identity politics. Will development triumph over identity politics? I believe it will. Looking at Bihar's demography prompts this conclusion. The median age in Bihar is between 18-20 years. The number of people who have enrolled as eligible voters in this age group over the last two years has gone up from 0.6% to 2.74%. Having attended all of Modi's large public rallies I saw for myself the special connect between him and the Bihar's very young population. This segment is looking beyond the identity politics engendered by their fathers and forefathers. The young seek a better quality of life and they invest their hope in the realisation of the Modi promise. The promise of better roads, improved educational outcomes, and greater broad-band connectivity. Listening to Modi talk about re-charging his cell phone batteries in a Digital Bihar and hopefully listening to his favorite Bollywood songs excites them. This young demographic gives development politics a decisive edge.
Third, electoral outcomes based on narrow calculations of caste and class assume the ability of regional leaders to transfer their votes to other supporting parties. This methodology is naïve and dated. The changing demographic composition has altered voters' psyche in a significant way. However, it should be noted that Yadavs have not forgotten the second-class treatment they received during the 10 years of Nitish's leadership and remain wary of accepting his leadership. In addition, Congress has allowed its organisation to remain emasculated for too long. Minorities are somewhat confused by the Third Front led by Tariq Anwar as well as the candidates set up by Owaisi. Given these inherent contradictions, the overarching theme of development has wider credibility.
It used to be rhetorically said that what Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow. In the present context it can be said that what Bihar decides today may shape the India of tomorrow. That is why this Bihar election is in some ways transformational.