The Bihar Pendulum Swings Again

by Praveen Patil - Oct 14, 2015 07:27 PM +05:30 IST
The Bihar Pendulum Swings Again

Has the pendulum of Bihar election swung against the BJP? If so, why?

Note: This article does not refer to any exit polls and is a summary of voter intelligence based on ground reports.

Every election has a central story which usually gets twisted and tailored by narrative builders and news media as per the ideological sunglasses they wear. For instance, the 2004 national election was all about the severe drought that vast parts of India had faced over the preceding two years, but the media narrative was totally built around the “India Shining” campaign of Advani and how he failed to enthuse the voters. Similarly, 2009 was billed as the NREGA election under the tutelage of Rahul Gandhi as youth icon while in reality it was all a positive vote for the preceding 6-7 years of unprecedented growth due to Vajpayee era economic liberalization.

Of course, 2014 is one of those rare elections when “NaMo wave” became such an overwhelming central theme that even the media could not ignore it. In that vein, Bihar this winter has all the hallmarks of being converted into a “beef election” (sic) by the media narrative in an attempt to show how the Modi wave is waning due to “intolerance” of the Majority Hindu community led by BJP and the larger Sangh Parivaar. Thus some are desperately hoping that somehow BJP loses Bihar so that they can legitimize the “Sahitya-Akademi award returnee’s anger” through democratic franchise of rural heartland.

Already adventurous ‘secular economists’ like Swaminathan Aiyer are clearly integrating their beef romance into Bihar electoral outcomes and more may soon follow suit. This is one of the primary reasons why we need to have independent narratives that can analyze both victories and defeats without being unnecessarily ‘secular’ or robustly ‘leftist’.

Bihar is indeed turning out to be a roller-coaster of an election where the pendulum seems to be swinging from one side to the other with remarkable alacrity. This is our humble attempt to narrate the story of Bihar election as dispassionately as possible.

When the election season began in around June-July this year, the sheer arithmetic of the newly formed Mahagathbandhan was so overwhelming that BJP-NDA was struggling to even put-up a fight, but then that tireless campaigner, Prime Minister Modi, entered the theatre of Bihar in August with his 4 back-to-back rallies which took the lead in setting the agenda for the state. His constant haranguing on the theme of “return of Jungle Raj” created the momentum for BJP in a big way and by late august, NDA which was nowhere in the race came within striking distance of Mahagathbandhan with merely a lag of 3%.

The first big turning point of Bihar election came when Mahagathbandhan held a joint rally of Sonia Gandhi, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav which was turned into a giant display of militant Yadav political comeback by Lalu and RJD (who addressed the rally at the very end in an attempt to show that he was the big boss of the alliance). This was a moment of realization that woke up all other marginalized castes like MBCs and Mahadalits into believing Modi’s message of a return of “Jungle Raj”. Two days after the Patna rally, Modi addressed a mammoth crowd in Bhagalpur which saw unprecedented attendance even by Modi-rally standards. Local media went berserk in reportage of how Modi had managed to only grow popular than what he was in the summer of 2014.

The Bihar Pendulum Swings Again

Over the next few weeks, BJP-NDA simply grew from strength to strength as there began a massive consolidation of non-Yadav and non-Muslim votes in favour of the saffron alliance against the return of the Yadav Jungle Raj. Amit Shah, BJP party president, also managed to sort out the crucial seat-sharing deal with its restive NDA allies causing as little damage as possible. Indeed by late September it was amply clear that NDA was running ahead of the race. Our own last pre-poll survey showed that the pendulum had swung in favour of NDA with nearly 4 percentage point lead. This is when there was a twist in the central story of Bihar probably for one final time.

The first phase of Bihar election was made up of 49 seats spread across 10 districts of south-east Bihar which is known in Bihar political circles as “Nitish territory”. It was here that JDU had won 29 of the seats in 2010. It was here that JDU in the company of RJD and Congress together had a whopping lead of 34% in 2010 (although JDU was then in alliance with BJP) and nearly 9% even in the Modi-wave election of 2014. Thus, even as per our pre-poll survey the newly formed UPA+ alliance was supposed to do well in these 49 seats.

As polling began on Monday, we at 5forty3 also began to monitor voter behavior by deploying our data-political tools on the ground. Although no sampling tools are 100% accurate, we have found that some of these statistical findings on actual polling days have the ability to gauge trends with reasonable clarity of nearly 90% accuracy. What we were able to observe on the 12th were spread across three levels;

– In terms of raw numbers, UPA+ was definitely ahead by about 2 percentage points over NDA. This did not come as a surprise at all, in fact, if anything, the lead of UPA+ over NDA had only seemingly declined from the last two elections and the saffron alliance was actually doing better than previous elections. But once these raw numbers were extrapolated to derive weighted averages based on caste-social matrix and the age-specific demographics, UPA’s lead more than doubled to 5%. This was the first worrying sign for NDA because it meant that UPA had not suffered any voter attrition and that all the constituent parties were holding on to their respective votes. Even more worryingly, NDA led by BJP had actually lost a small fraction of vote (about 1%) from its 2014 share despite having visibly added Jitan Ram Manjhi as the addendum to enlarge their social base

– For one of our most reliable tools to gauge general trends of an election, we usually measure ‘Swing Polling Booths’ as an important metric to understand voter behavior in an electoral scenario. Thus out of the 80 polling station areas that we were monitoring on Monday, 31 were specially chosen Swing Polling Booth locations. Of these 31, UPA+ led in 22 while NDA was able to manage lead positions in only 9. To give a comparative analysis, during the 2014 LS polls, BJP would routinely carry 3/4th of all Swing Polling Booths on voting days in the heartland which generally enabled us to be confident about the saffron performance. The past accuracy of this tool in predicting overall electoral patterns of a particular geography has been nearly 9.3 out of every 10 elections!

– The third and possibly the most worrying factor for NDA was the quality of “vote-share” that UPA+ was able to muster on the first day of polling. What was clearly visible was something like this – among OBC as well as MBC voters, JDU-RJD alliance was the clear first choice whereas BJP was a distant second choice while NDA allies were the last choice. Among Mahadalit voters, BJP-HAM were the first choice followed by JDU as a close second choice and then came the rest as a distant third. Among Upper Caste voters, BJP was a clear first choice but even JDU got some traction at low levels, especially were BJP was not an opponent. What such a vote pattern means is that the JDU alliance had a clear social advantage in the biggest chunk of 51% of votes belonging to OBCs and MBCs while BJP-NDA only enjoyed a marginal advantage in their own vote-base of 33% (Upper Castes & Dalits).

Although all these three findings were limited only to the first phase of the election and the remaining 4 phases may vary from these mean averages what one must bear in mind is the fact that alarm bells are ringing for the NDA. Firstly the trend has become apparent, because usually within a state even with sub-regional variations, general trends remain more-or-less intact with varying degrees of strength. Secondly, NDA now does not have the cushion of underperforming in future phases which means that the saffron alliance has to do extremely well in at least 3 of the next 4 phases of Bihar elections.

As election analysts we also need to analyze and understand proper reasons for any demographic trends. If the pendulum of Bihar election has actually swung (to whatever degree) on day 1, it is obligatory on our part to explain them with cold logic.

The primary reason for NDA’s underperformance on day one of Bihar seems to have come from that ill-timed statement of Mohan Bhagwat on “Reservations”. Here we must concede that we grossly underestimated the ability of RJD-JDU strategists and planners in creating hara-kiri around this issue by tapping an undercurrent of distrust.

What will forever remain a mystery is why did the RSS Sarsanghchalak actually make those observations on “Reservations” in a charged election environment of Bihar while the opposition’s main plank was “Mandal v/s Kamandal”. What is no longer a mystery is how RJD-JDU tapped the issue brilliantly. Just 48 hours before polling day, across all villages, many of the backward caste groups began meeting secretly to discuss “rumors” which indicated that if BJP came to power, they are not averse to “tinkering with the reservations because RSS has commanded the party to do so”. Upper Caste youths bragging about how BJP, once in power, would create a more level playing field in “Reservations” did not help matters at all.

In fact, by the day of polling the issue had grown into a wild fire in many districts, so much so that the Prime Minister himself had to intervene to make a statement condemning such rumors. By then it was probably too late. Those MBC and non-Yadav OBC voters who were consolidating behind NDA had suddenly developed enough doubt to alter their voting decisions on polling day.

The second reason for the pendulum swing comes from Nitish Kumar himself. Ever since the Modi campaign had altered Bihar electoral trends in August, one kept wondering as to why Nitish was not counter-campaigning across the state, for he was simply too ensconced in Patna and not travelling to rural Bihar. Then suddenly, in very late September, Nitish hit the campaign trail with a vengeance. It was a great strategy by Prashant Kishore (who probably understands BJP strategies very well and has adequate counter strategic protection) to preserve the most popular Bihari leader only to unleash him at the very last moment in a campaign rush that helped create a late swing in favor of the Mahagathbandhan, especially among women voters who had a sympathetic view about their CM.

The third reason was the sheer timing of the Dadri Beef-Murder incident which was so heavily highlighted by the media that Bihar was massively polarized to such an extent that virtually all Muslims simply came out to vote Nitish to power in order to “survive” under a “Hindu onslaught led by BJP”. Whatever little chance there was of third front and other parties getting even a fraction of Muslim votes totally disappeared after the Dadri event. One has to simply glance at Urdu Newspapers of Bihar like “Inquilab”, “Rashtriye Sahara”, “Qaumi Tanzeem” or “Pindar” to understand how the Dadri event was particularly highlighted by the Urdu press.

It must be noted here that poor and backward Muslims are the primary readers of Urdu Newspapers in Bihar (while the elite Muslims read English & Hindi). These poorer Muslims were also the ones who were not averse to adopt Owaisi or even vote for NDA allies like LJP and HAM, but after Dadri they all turned en mass towards RJD-JDU without any doubt. Also, the timing of Dadri coverage ensured that Muslim voters had extra incentive to turnout in large numbers, purely as a ‘survival instinct’ unlike in 2014 when Muslim voters were mostly disinterested.

In fact, the Dadri event’s timing and the media coverage was so perfect that it left BJP almost completely exposed to massive polarization. Over the last couple of years, BJP has been insured against such communal polarization by counter-polarization (which mainly depends on the degree of enthusiastic backward & Dalit participation), but this time BJP was already exposed due to self-doubts among backwards created by Mohan Ji Bhagwat’s ill-timed “Reservations” comments.

The fourth and final reason is the way BJP mishandled the whole ticket distribution fiasco which has created many deep divisions within the party fold. Bad ticket distribution is an elementary mistake that should have been avoided and one really doesn’t understand what pulls and pressures forced the party managers to make these compromises. Whatever the reasons, this ticket issue has had a direct impact in at least 15-18 seats but has had an indirect impact on party cadre morale in more than 50 seats which showed clearly on first day’s polling.

What all of this means to eventual outcome of Bihar is anybody’s guess, but some broad pointers can now be deducted after the first round of polling;

– JDU is now definitely likely to do much better than anticipated and its worst case scenario now cannot go below 60 seats

– BJP’s best case scenario now is to emerge as the single largest party and cross at least 80 seats to then somehow form the government in the state by leveraging internal differences of the opposition alliance and its own power at the center

– RJD has to perform extremely badly to end up winning less than 40 seats, but with a strong MY combo backing it and also a section of other OBCs and MBCs supporting it, such a scenario looks less likely now than a week ago

– Drought is now the single biggest X factor that BJP must depend on to hope that hapless drought victims of those 23 districts with less than 80% mean rainfall would bury all their self-doubts to vote for BJP

– Modi, the tireless campaigner may yet manage to change the whole narrative process of Bihar campaign and bring back development to the center stage to once again alter the electoral course

– Bihar BJP’s umpteen CM aspirants and their internal contradictions may end up hurting BJP further in the coming phases of election

As per some BJP-Sangh insiders, Party President, Amit Bhai Shah, has really staked his entire political career on Bihar elections, so one hopes for his sake that somehow BJP could pull off a difficult victory or at least fulfil the task of emerging clearly as the single largest party in a hung assembly. The amount of media cacophony in case Mahagathbandhan manages to win would be deadly to say the least.

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.
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