Did you at any point feel the result of the Bihar election would turn out the way it did? I did not. Most people did not. In fact, the broad consensus was two-fold. First, the BJP led alliance was in a tight fight with the Mahagathbandhan (MGB). Second, no matter how the results turned out, the BJP would be the big winner due to its emergence as the single-largest party and hence an independent pole in Bihar politics. We all know what happened to the first consensus. The MGB led by Mr. Nitish Kumar won a decisive mandate, comprehensively beating the BJP-led alliance. The Prime Minister's hectic campaigning and Mr Amit Shah's supposed wizardry were no match for the MGB's combination of mathematics and chemistry. What about the second consensus? Interestingly, even that consensus has been turned on its head. The BJP's performance has been so dismal that it cannot even lay claim to its emergence as the "big boy" of Bihari politics. I say this for two purely data-driven reasons.
"The BJP's 'highest' vote-share is thanks to the highest number of seats the party contested. The BJP contested 157 and won only about a third of those seats."
First, the BJP is a far bigger loser than the overall numbers suggest. As expected, spokespersons tried to put up a brave face and suggested that the BJP has the biggest vote-share of 24.4% in this election. That type of shallow analysis may provide TV debating points but cannot hide the cruel data lurking beneath the surface. The BJP's "highest" vote-share is thanks to the highest number of seats the party contested. The BJP contested 157 and won only about a third of those seats. On the other hand, the JD(U) and RJD contested only 101 seats each. Their "strike rate" (number of seats won divided by number of seats contested) was in the 70-80% range. The Congress contested only 41 seats. Obviously, its vote-share is lower. However, the more appropriate way to look at vote-shares is by looking at the total vote share over total seats contested.
As you might have guessed, the BJP lags behind all three MGB parties on this count (see table below).
Second, instead of achieving the status of the single-largest party, we have seen a shrinking of the BJP in this election. In 2005, the BJP had 55 seats in the legislature. In 2010, in alliance with JD(U), it won 91 seats. In the Lok Sabha elections, it led in 122 segments with support of other parties and the crucial division of votes between JD(U) on the one hand and RJD-INC on the other. In this election, and despite a high-voltage and unprecedented campaign by the Prime Minister himself, the BJP garnered only 53 seats out of the 157 it contested. This relegated the BJP to a distant third place after the RJD and the JD(U), uncomfortably close to the fourth-placed Congress, which bagged 27 out of the 41 seats it contested. Yes, the BJP will be the main opposition party. No, it will not have the same aura that it would have had it emerged as the single largest party.
Finally, the comprehensive defeat in Bihar and the earlier rout in Delhi serve a simple message to the BJP. It cannot irritate the hell out of everybody and expect to form a winning coalition. Mr Modi's triumph in 2014 afflicted the Sangh Parivar with a degree of arrogance, hubris and aggression. That appears to have annoyed many sections of society and forced some political parties to come together. In our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, a party can get away with a lower vote-share and still win an election. But, that is when your opponents are divided. By running an utterly divisive campaign, the BJP inadvertently created chemistry in the MGB, which until then only had a mathematical advantage. That doomed the BJP.
There are some who suggest that polarisation of votes in the last few phases worked to the BJP's advantage. If that is the lesson the Prime Minister learns from this crushing defeat, he will fritter away his historic mandate and India will be worse for it. He has a choice to make. It is not a difficult one.
The author, formerly with the World Bank, is a spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. Views expressed are personal.
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