[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 12 October 2015.]
Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti-CSDS writes that Bihar looks like a difficult, close contest, and we shouldn’t blame the opinion polls if they get it wrong. This seems to be a shift from his own survey data published in the Indian Express, which said that the National Democratic Alliance was a good 4% ahead of the Grand Alliance.
When this writer wrote in the Huffington Post that the details of Lokniti’s own data suggests that it’s advantage Grand Alliance, Sanjay Kumar and Suhash Palshikar responded saying that they stand by their assertion that the NDA was ahead.
What good is the survey methodology if it can’t give us clarity in a close contest? When it’s not a close contest, it’s clear as daylight which way the hawa is blowing. It is bizarre that Lokniti-CSDS is warning us in advance to not blame the surveys. Why not?
This change comes in the heels of the final opinion polls, some of which suggest the Grand Alliance is ahead. Ground assessment from Delhi-Patna journalists also seems to be suggesting that the Grand Alliance is ahead.
Based on recent travels in Bihar, here is this writer’s admittedly subjective view of why the Grand Alliance’s prospects look better than the NDA’s in Bihar:
1) Modi magic isn’t working: Everyone agrees there is no “hawa” or “wave” in favour of either the NDA or the GA. In other words, prime minister Narendra Modi’s rallies have not been able to develop a wave in favour of the BJP-led NDA. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, there was a clear Modi wave. The lack of a BJP wave despite numerous Modi rallies is proof that the BJP isn’t doing as well in Bihar as it expected to. The BJP has increased the number of Modi rallies, making him address 40 odd meetings in the election month. This could still make a difference–we’ll know on 8 November.
2) Central package didn’t work: Nitish Kumar has long demanded special status for Bihar, with a grant of Rs 50,000 crores to the state government. Narendra Modi had promised this in the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, and Nitish Kumar tried to make an issue out of this for the assembly elections. Modi accepted Nitish’s dare, and announced a package of thrice the amount–Rs 1.5 lakh crores. Nitish whined that this was not a grant to the state government, just a repackaging of existing central government projects. However, there is no resonance of any of this among voters. Facts and figures do not seem to capture the imagination of voters.
3) Growing rural disenchantment with Modi government: While Modi remains popular in urban areas, over 88% of Bihar’s population lives in rural areas, and most of them are not traditional Hindu upper caste supporters of the BJP. Poor rural voters complain of reduced money in central welfare schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojana, which builds rural homes, and the MGNREGA rural employment scheme. Despite low inflation figures, they complain that food prices continue to increase. While they haven’t written off Narendra Modi, one and a half years of his prime ministership has not won them enough to bring about a BJP wave for the state elections.
4) NDA’s ticket distribution: The NDA’s decision to give more than one-third tickets to upper caste candidates, even though their population is only 13%, helped the Nitish-Lalu combine make it an upper castes vs. OBCs election. This simple mistake is hurting the NDA more than RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a review of caste-based reservations.
5) Backward consolidation: The Lalu-Nitish combine has resulted in diverse sections among the OBCs coming together. The lower OBCs, called EBCs in Bihar, are assured that since Nitish Kumar will be chief minister, it won’t be a Yadav rule. Yadavs are happy voting for Nitish Kumar since they see this as their last chance at gaining power. The Grand Alliance has given more tickets to Yadavs and EBCs than the NDA.
6) No local faces: It is not just that the BJP does not have a chief ministerial candidate, but also that the BJP’s central leadership has been diminishing its own Bihar leadership. All the hoardings have images of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The campaign has been run completely by Amit Shah and his team, sidelining the Bihar state leadership, whose tallest leader is Sushil Modi. The BJP’s reluctance to promote Bihari leaders has become a barrier in voters being able to relate with the BJP as a party to rule Patna. This is not a Lok Sabha election. This has encouraged Nitish-Lalu to dub the BJP as ‘bahari’, meaning outsiders.
7) BJP’s inability to attack Nitish Kumar: The BJP has been spending more energy attacking Lalu Yadav rather than Nitish Kumar, simply because there isn’t much to attack Nitish Kumar with. In his opening salvo against Nitish Kumar, prime minister Modi had made more personal than issue-based attacks on Nitish Kumar. The BJP knows that despite ten years of rule, there isn’t much anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar. The BJP was able to exploit anti-incumbency against UPA-2 in 2014, but the pro-incumbency for Nitish Kumar is hard to fight.
8) Attacking Lalu helps backward consolidation: The more the BJP attacks Lalu Yadav, the more it furthers backward consolidation. As Backward vs. Forward has become the main theme of this election, Lalu Yadav is able to sell these attacks to OBCs and EBCs as upper caste attempts at displacing the OBCs from power.
9) No Hindu-Muslim polarization: Lalu Yadav’s self-goal in saying that Hindus also eat beef was a god-sent for the BJP, which appears to have made it the central issue this election. Yet the BJP has been unable to win more than a few backward voters over cow meat. That’s partly because there’s no Muslim angle involved here to show ‘minority appeasement’. The debate is over whether or not Hindus eat beef.
10) Nitish-Lalu alliance working well: To the surprise of many, the Lalu-Nitish-Congress alliance has been working smoothly. Lalu Yadav accepted Nitish Kumar as elder brother and chief ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar’s party quickly dropped its attempts to get a lion’s share of the tickets, and the campaign strategies of the two have been carefully calibrated to compliment each other.