As polling day approaches in Bihar, the Modi-led NDA seems to have steered clear of the Nitish-Lalu alliance.
“Nitish Kumar never misses an opportunity to tell his political friends how BJP’s then president Nitin Gadkari had apparently promised that Narendra Modi would never be the Prime Ministerial candidate of NDA, even if Kumar wished so” quips a local journalist in Patna. This story of how Nitish Kumar was led on a garden path by BJP only to finally surprise him in mid-2013 has now become almost folklorish in the political circles of Patna. Whatever the antecedents or veracity of that story, it does indeed enlighten us about the diametrically opposite paths that the two former allies seem to have taken since the last two years or thereabouts.
Nitish Kumar, the developmental messiah of Bihar for nearly all of last decade suddenly decided to embrace dated political tools like Mandal and ‘social justice’ along with falling back on the “secularism” platform. In this newly rediscovered path he even embraced the very reason against which brand Nitish was born in Bihar – Lalu’s thuggish governance model. This is where Kumar faltered. This is where bravest of men probably always falter. In that egotistical momentary blindness, bravest of men develop self-doubts which lead them to question the raison d’etre of their own existence in the first place.
Since embracing Lalu, the one problem for Nitish has been his fast decaying half-life – JDU diluted its own seat share, took significant cuts in its core vote-base of Mahadalits and MBCs whom they had assiduously wooed for many years and even conceded market-space of Bihar’s aspirational politics. Indeed, the biggest feedback that Prashant Kishor’s voter outreach received from core Nitish supporters across the state was the anger at brand dilution by JDU.
‘Voter intelligence’ is a strange organism that usually tends to reward the brave and punish the meek. For instance, the same Delhi voter who had overwhelmingly supported BJP in the summer of 2014, rewarded Kejriwal less than a year ago. Had Kejriwal lost his nerve before 2015 and instead aligned with Congress to defeat BJP, the result would probably have been completely different. This is where Nitish may have faltered; by choosing to inherit the meek and abandoning the brave.
If that is the path traversed by JDU, BJP’s is a path of sheer bravado. Since mid-2013, everything that BJP is doing has only one word written all over in saffron – audacious! In Bihar, to witness that audacity, one must traverse the so called Yadav-Muslim belt, the very core reactor of the MY nuclear submarine of the heartland.
The three divisions of Purnia, Bhagalpur and Kosi account for 50 assembly segments and 8 parliamentary seats in Bihar. This is strong OBC-Yadav-Muslim territory where NDA drew a blank by losing all 8 LS seats in the summer of 2014 while the rest of the state was in the midst of a Modi wave. Now that RJD, JDU and Congress parties have come together, political logic suggests that the anti-NDA strength may have only increased further. Such political logic also means that NDA would be well advised to refrain from wasting their political energies in these geographies.
This is where the new BJP is so different from the one that we have come to know over the last 3 decades. Modi-Shah team strongly believe in the concept of taking the battle to the enemy camp, so 2 of the 4 Parivartan Rallies that the Prime Minister addressed in the month of August were in this anti-NDA belt (Saharsa and Bhagalpur). It was in these rallies that Modi unleashed his capacity to alter the course of an election. Modi’s speeches in those rallies were a strong mix of exact counterattack and a clearly defined message of a tangible development model.
This was a two-pronged Modi counterattack on the MY nucleus of heartland – on the one hand it was a relentless attack on Lalu Jungle Raj while on the other hand Modi directly addressed the youth of Bihar when he talked about migration woes due to lack of educational and vocational opportunities in Bihar. This Modi counterattack had a huge impact across the state and especially more so in this MY belt.
“Yes, we have received a bicycle from Nitish, but that is just a sop, what about missing teachers in our college? And what will I do after completing my degree?” asks Sumitra Pandey who is studying in a ladies college in Bhagalpur. “When we ride that same bicycle in the evening to home, all these youth who make lewd comments are all Lalu’s goons (read as Yadavs). Won’t they be empowered if Nitish is voted back to power?” interjects Sumitra’s friend Malati Devi who belongs to Mahadalit community. It is in these assertions by young college students that we realize the true import of the Modi message.
In Amit Shah, Modi has a perfect alter ego to oil BJP’s political machinery and also create strategies in adverse electoral geographies. For instance, it is in this belt that Pappu Yadav is pitching himself as an alternate Yadav stream which can potentially damage the RJD-JDU-Congress alliance by trying to wean away a few thousand votes in some closely contested assembly segments. And Pappu Yadav is flush with funds to run a high voltage campaign in dozens of constituencies here – what are his funding sources is anybody’s guess. But it is not all cloak and dagger strategic fight by the Shah team, in fact, it is fundamentally definable through its simplicity.
What defines this new Modi-Shah’s BJP is really an uncompromising political organization that is neither willing to negotiate nor adjust with age old political ecosystems on the ground. We saw glimpses of this earlier as well, most importantly in Maharashtra elections last year. Anybody who understands Maharashtra politics will know that it is a big club of ‘give-and-take’ electoral organism wherein every political force strikes a compromise with the rival party in particular seats. For instance say, opposition parties would always put up weak candidates in Pawar hometowns while NCP would ‘allocate’ specific seats to opposition leaders etc. Thus some 25% of seats would usually get switched in this ‘friendly fight’ fashion while the real battle would only be in 75% seats. Such a template is not limited to Maharashtra alone and is in existence everywhere with varying degrees of effectiveness. In fact, this mutually beneficial political ecosystem is what enabled deal making bonhomie between opposition political parties in the past and this is how Indian administrative mechanism functioned since a long time.
The new BJP is not open to any such compromises. If anything, BJP now attempts to win as many seats as possible and is willing to risk resources even in impossible seats (Smriti Irani’s spirited fight in Amethi 2014 was one such example). This is probably one of the reasons why the atmosphere between the ruling party and the opposition is so acrimonious because the earlier electoral adjustments at the top are completely missing in the Modi era politics. This is also the reason probably why media describes Modi as a leader “not in the Vajpayee mold” and “unwilling to reach out to the opposition”, because at the ground level, in elections, this new BJP is unwilling to give up any quarter.
In Bihar too, this is what is happening. In fact, some of the new found allies of the BJP like RLSP are finding it difficult to adjust to this uncompromising stand of the Modi-Shah team. Once again, the Maharashtra election template of last year is repeating here in Bihar, for BJP’s allies are weighing down on NDA’s performance. Maybe BJP did give an extra dozen seats to its allies which should have been ideally fought on lotus symbol, but then the saffron alliance needed to stitch together its social coalition without leaving any loopholes so this concession was unavoidable.
At the very outset it is an extraordinary construct of social engineering in Bihar that BJP-NDA have attempted this time. This is probably how United Spectrum of Hindu Votes (USHV) would continue to evolve – by deepening internal pockets of support through both horizontal and vertical integration. In Bihar, for instance, BJP got overwhelming support of Upper Castes along with a section of Dalits (mainly Paswans & a portion of Chamars) but only got small segments of OBCs and EBC votes as addendums in 2014. Now the dual mode integration is at play in Bihar;
—Horizontal integration of Jitan Ram Manjhi and his Mahadalit voters into USHV
—Vertical integration of free floating MBC votes into USHV by occupying some of the space vacated by Nitish Kumar due to his alliance with OBC Yadavs
What we could observe in our survey is the deepening of MBC-Dalit saffron ties. Just a month ago, in late August, NDA was lagging behind Mahagathbandhan in both the social segments (as per our 1st pre-poll survey), but the former seem to have firmed up leads now. This may be happening because of four factors;
1. More evenly spaced out ticket distribution by NDA across the Hindu spectrum unlike the Mandal-heavy secular alliance strategy
2. Manjhi & Paswan’s importance in the NDA alliance may have attracted a larger section of Dalits towards NDA, especially the former CM’s followers who were confused a month ago and seem to be on more surer ground today
3. Strategic deployment of a large number of Backward BJP leaders from neighboring states, especially UP which has addressed some of the apprehensions that Bihari backward community had against BJP which was largely perceived as an upper caste entity
4. Most important factor has been Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party’s overtly militant Yadav campaign that has created a sort of fear psychosis across Bihari villages and is driving MBCs into NDA’s lap.
As one Dalit Sarpanch near Munger explained to me “Lalu’s return in Bihar means jis ki laathi uss ki bhains (the one who owns a stick also carries away the buffalo)”. This Yadav power matrix is what scares most of the marginalized segments of rural society and is also helping BJP consolidate its support base. “Modi should first garland Lalu Yadav on the 8th”, the Sarpanch concludes with a toothy smile explaining why NDA may emerge victorious on November 8th (the day of counting), because of the irony of Lalu Prasad Yadav being the biggest positive factor for NDA.
This is in fact the big dichotomy of Bihar election. Nitish Kumar’s core fan following of Mahadalits and MBCs whom he empowered through his decade long rule are the ones who are reluctantly abandoning him. Nitish is now aggressively campaigning and addressing scores of well attended rallies every week, but what we discover among the voters is an emotion bordering on sympathy for the CM. It is as if Nitish is a tragic hero in the absurd theatre of Bihar where his own subjects can only feel sad for him but have little hope of redemption from him in the company of Lalu.
I did attend a Nitish rally in Magadh just to gauge the mood of his support base and what I heard from the voters is a sort of skepticism-laden praise – skepticism for his politics of last two years and praise for his governance of 8 years. This is the gamble that Nitish Kumar had taken in 2013 when he broke away from the BJP. Such political gambles rarely produce winners, for the law of probability is simply too brutal in numbers. But if Nitish can somehow pull off this gamble, it would exponentially increase his political capital.
Nitish Kumar’s popularity has also taken a hit over the last one month. On August 30th when the Yadav chieftain was the last speaker while the state’s CM preceded him, it showed the whole of Bihar who would be the backseat driver if the secular alliance were to come to power. In fact, that rally in Patna was probably the turning point in Bihar’s election this winter because an otherwise struggling NDA found a perfect moment of traction among non-Yadav and non-Muslim voters of the state after the militant display of naked Yadav power on that day.
It would of course be futile to only apportion blame at the secular alliance for BJP’s rise in Bihar because at the end of the day Bihar is just merely a small reflection of what is happening across India. As a civilization we are probably going through a crucial demographic transition right now. Modi is no longer purely a political-electoral phenomenon. In such a new demographic paradigm, the likes of Lalu Yadav are as yet trying to invent old caste loyalties without offering any tangible developmental narrative.
“Yes, in Bihar never have we found so much of interest in our shakhas” an RSS Pracharak told me in Patna over a plate of khichdi and a cup of tea in his modest dwellings. “In the last few years youths of all castes are joining, not just the sawarnas” he further asserts. RSS has a strong network across Patna, Gaya and Bhagalpur divisions and is also working well in tandem with BJP during the election season. Although there is not enough hard data to quantify the support base of RSS, what we did observe in university campuses, colleges and various coaching institutes across the state was a certain ‘affinity’ to Hinduism which is trying to overpower other political currents like socialism and Mandal among India’s new youth. This is why Modi is leading the golden generation of India and one shudders to think about India’s fate if he falters.
In Modi most Biharis have reposed their trust. This is one of the telling commentaries that our survey found which is indicative of the wind that has been blowing across the heartland and not just in Bihar since late 2013. This is a data point that is heavily manipulated by Lutyens media and various poll survey organizations when they do comparative data analysis between the Nitish government at the state and central government of Modi. Such a comparison is not only futile but also insults the very intelligence of Indian voters who have always had the capacity to make minute differentiation between different elections.
For instance, in many elections of the past, voters have tended to vote differently for Lok Sabha and the state assembly even when polls are held simultaneously or immediately following one another. What our own survey shows is that overall, Modi enjoys a clear lead in the trust factor over Nitish Kumar. What is even more stunning is that on specific promises, Modi’s comparative trust ratings are further enhanced than Nitish. This is probably the reason why despite being very popular, Nitish Kumar is finding the going so tough in these elections. There is one caveat though, probably voters are showing greater trust in the PM’s promises than those of the CM because voter intelligence is deciphering that being in power at the centre, PM Modi has greater ability to deliver than CM Nitish Kumar who has been constantly harping about the problems that his state faces due to central government’s negligence. In this data point lies a clear feedback to BJP that it should constantly keep hammering the importance of having the same party government both at the centre as well as the state.
The vote-shift pattern is clearly indicative. What is happening on the ground is at three levels. At the first level, voter attrition from the Mahagatbandhan began to happen immediately after the alliance was announced (August poll) simply because the anti-votes could not reconcile with the inherent dichotomies. For instance, those Mahadalits who had voted for Nitish in 2014 against Lalu or those upper castes who had preferred Congress against regional parties in 2014 could not come to terms with this unnatural alliance. At the second level began a social coalition of interests wherein all non-Yadav and non-Muslim communities began to consolidate around NDA. Then, at the third level, development message of Modi and probably the ground campaign of BJP began to bring votes towards NDA.
So, what we are seeing is a classic pattern of consistent decline for UPA+ and sudden surge for NDA as voting day approaches. This electoral pattern was also observed in Maharashtra last year and Chhattisgarh in 2013 – both the times we at 5Forty3 were possibly the only pollsters who deciphered it with reasonable accuracy, here and here.
In such closely contested elections, the momentum usually becomes the sole deciding factor. The Bihar outcome therefore now depends purely on momentum. This momentum traverses top-down from a pan-Bihar political current to sub-regional variations and then across each assembly segment to finally culminate at respective polling booths (unlike classical election patterns like what happened in Delhi this year or Haryana last year, where electoral current travels organizationally in a bottom-up fashion starting from the polling booths all the way up to the whole geography). Thus, for Bihar, what is now crucial is the narrative construct.
We are already witnessing the change on the ground based on the larger narrative construct. While Lalu’s forward v/s backward pitch is faltering his party’s decline also is becoming apparent – from being the leading political party of Mahagathbandhan in August to being reduced to second fiddle in October, RJD is slowly melting down in Bihar – on the other hand, Nitish Kumar’s final ground campaign is gaining some sympathy from voters and JDU is slowly becoming the core opposition to Modi.
BJP is probably the most well equipped party among all to play the momentum game. Prime Minister Modi, early in the campaign, stressed on “Jungle Raj” which played on the “Yadav fear factor” among other castes. Now, after having achieved his first task of creating a non-Yadav mobilization, Modi’s message in his public rallies has started to stress on governance and more on what the central government can do for Bihar – if one observes his speeches this week, there was almost no mention of Jungle Raj anymore because his first goal was already achieved.
At the next level in the value chain of narrative construct, BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are now working towards sub-regional polarization of votes in favor of NDA. This is probably the weakest link in the BJP machinery as there are some discrepancies at this middle level among various factions of the party and the alliance. If Amit Shah can set right these mid-level transmission glitches, the saffron alliance would then be unstoppable. Finally, at the polling booth level, the party has anointed 12-15 karyakartas at each of the polling booth which is where the final part of the momentum will flow on the day of election and this is where BJP enjoys a big advantage over other parties.
At the sub-regional level, BJP is still maintaining a big lead in Bhojpur (25 seats). In August, our poll survey had shown that Mithila and Tirhut accounting for some 80 seats were the real battleground geographies, but now in October, NDA has established clear leads in both areas because of Lalu’s overtly casteist politics. What has really stumped us are our findings from Magadh and Seemanchal which together account for some 100 seats and were supposed to be NDA and RJD bastions respectively. Here there has been a great deal of churning over the last month or so. The advent of third front and Owaisi (in Seemanchal), ticket distribution and to some extent even Naxal diktats (especially in Magadh where Manjhi’s equations with Naxals is a talking point) seem to have churned the political pot. Thus, at the outset, the overall vote-share of different parties may be following a predictable mathematical curve, but within a month, the sub-regional upheavals are far more varying.
The 6 X factors of Bihar:
1. Usually we have seen that the leading party or an alliance gains further in the last 48 hours before polls to eventually end up winning big, so BJP-NDA’s chances of further increasing the lead are far higher, especially considering the fact that the saffron organizational strength is much better on the ground and a long 5 phase polling helps to improve the momentum. Yet, one important electoral aspect must be stressed here. Although India has been producing clear majorities with remarkable consistency in all the states since the dawn of the new millennium (96% of all elections since 2000 have produced nearly clear mandates), Bihar is one of those rare states which has produced an impossibly hung assembly in 2005.
2. Nitish Kumar is being handicapped by his alliance partners while on the other side of the divide BJP is being weighed down by its NDA allies. What could eventually prove to be crucial in Bihar are the 80 odd non-BJP seats and the 140 non-JDU battlegrounds (especially the 40 seats of Congress). Surprisingly, our October survey is showing that even Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Manjhi’s new outfit HAM are unable to convert votes into seats (in fact, Manjhi is struggling in both the seats that he is contesting). Similarly RLSP is proving to be another paper tiger – his own Koeri votes are not getting transmitted to NDA, especially the subsect of Dangis are backing RJD-JDU alliance and even Kushwahas seem to be with Nitish.
3. Cutting across caste-lines, young voters are still enamored by Modi and will play a crucial role if BJP has to rule Patna. In fact, this is an important data point that most pollsters have chosen to ignore but we at 5Forty3 have really given adequate weightage. The only question to ask now is would the 18-29 age group be as enthusiastically participative as in 2014? Turnout of youth is a crucial X factor that can alter the outcome of Bihar polls this winter.
4. One out of every two households in Bihar have at least one member of the family living outside the state. Yes, 50% of Bihari households have migrant members in their family and mostly this migrant member is also the decision maker in the family. Therefore no pre-poll of Bihar can truly be a representative sample frame because of this vital x factor (Our analysis of the migrant Bihari voter and his impact on the election outcome.
5. The sheer popularity of Nitish Kumar as a CM is also an X factor because no state CM with double the popularity of his nearest rival has lost a state election in recent memory.
6. As we showed in our August survey, drought is a crucial anti-incumbent factor. With Bihar facing 25% deficient rainfall, whether the average voter expresses his anger only against the local candidate or the whole of state government is something that we must closely watch out for.
Notes on survey on next page
*Note on Poll Survey
Clear and precise questionnaires for data collection have been prepared based on three criteria – preferences, opinions and factual information. All questionnaires are in 2 languages – Hindi and English. 30 individual data collection officers spread out across different districts from the 30th of September to 7th of October, covering different targets of sample sizes in three different groups. We completed the exercise by the 7th of October and finished data collection and number crunching by the 9th of October.
None of the data collection officers or fieldworkers are either directly or indirectly involved with any political party or organization to the best of our knowledge. The Data collection officers and fieldworkers travelled across 160 polling station areas of 96 villages, 15 towns and 6 cities for conducting this face-to-face survey with a sample size of 2790. One of the most important factors that decides the robustness of a poll survey is the selection process of the targeted population and this was the area that we concentrated on. All the targeted sample respondents were pre-chosen using our immensely successful VWISM technique (Voter Weightage Index Sampling Methodology) which provides adequate representation to all social groups.
All poll surveys are prone to error, but some are more prone and others are less prone to errors. Our Bihar survey falls in the third category of a relatively zero error system (although no survey is absolutely correct because of the inherent nature of poll surveys which depend on statistical selection of a subset of the population rather than surveying the whole population). Based on our long experience we can say that there are three main error zones for political poll surveys in India;
|SI No:||Survey done||Quantity|
|1||No: of Districts Targeted||20|
|2||No: of Assembly segments Covered||42|
|3||No: of Polling stations areas||117|
|4||Target sample size||3000|
|5||No: of Respondents achieved||2790|
|SI No:||Social Status||Census/Electoral Rolls (% of population)||Poll survey sample %|