Swarajya-5Forty3 Pre-Poll Survey: Neck To Neck In Bihar
Posted on 2015-09-07 00:00:00
Exclusive report on the Swarajya-5Forty3 Pre-poll survey, conducted in the politically crucial state of Bihar barely two months before it goes into elections.
Barely 6 students are shouting slogans carrying the effigy of the Vice Chancellor while other youngsters hardly give them a second glance. After a few minutes of sloganeering under the banner of AIDSO (All India Democratic Students Organization, a communist trade union style students group that once attracted a lot of youth), finally they manage to burn the effigy before dispersing.
In a nearby makeshift tent, some 30 odd university employees are squatting in lazy camaraderie. They have been striking for the last 12 days without appearing for work. “Each day this strike prolongs, our syllabus backlog piles up three times”, explains Madan Kumar, an OBC student, about his reason for not joining the AIDSO protest march a few minutes ago. “Once this Godforsaken strike comes to an end, we have the state assembly elections, then followed by the festive season, so effectively, we will end up wasting the last 4-5 months of 2015 doing nothing” Kumar concludes with a strange sense of irony in his voice.
It is indeed hard to believe that one is hearing such a lecture from a student of Patna University which boasts of changing the course of history some 40 odd years ago. It was here in PU (as Patna University is known fondly) that the students unions first invited Jayaprakash Narayan to address a protest gathering which eventually led to a revolution. It was here in PU that young student leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi first discovered their penchant for politics in the mid-70s. Today, in the same PU environment, students are more worried about their piling syllabus rather than commanding a revolution. Is this the new India that we often talk about these days?
Few minutes away from the campus, there are thousands of Anganwadi women social workers sitting on another strike for the past few days. They are demanding better pay scale from the government and show remarkable grit to spend entire day and night out in the open. A little further down the road is another group of Madrassa teachers sitting on another dharna for another grievance. Today Patna resembles an India of a million mutinies in the air. How could this be the new India that we often talk about these days?
But Patna may not represent India or even Bihar for that matter. Long, long ago, almost a century ago, the Mahatma had effectively concluded that “India lives in her villages”. This Gandhian doctrine holds true for Bihar much more than any other state in India today as 90% of Bihari population subsists in the rural hinterland beyond the million mutinies of Patna. “Do not underestimate the power of these agitating Anganwadi workers” warns Prakash Mishra, a small time trader who is helping our team in the city, “They will take the message of Nitish Kumar’s insensitivity to every village in the state once they return back to their natives”.
In Patna, one senses the mood of “political change” in the air, or maybe it is because of all these agitations and strikes against the state government in the capital that one is blindsided by the surroundings. In Patna, one can see hundreds of hoardings of Nitish Kumar in yellow background majestically proclaiming the progress of this inherently backward state while we travel through impossibly dilapidated roads filled with potholes. In Patna, one wonders if this is what we so eloquently describe as “anti-incumbency” – this giant portrait of a Chief Minister proclaiming progress while thousands of people are agitating and angry.
In the Indian electoral context, the most abused beast has to be this strange organism known as “anti-incumbency”. Politicians, commentators, columnists, TV anchors, Karyakartas and even astrologers keep mentioning this beast at the drop of a hat in every election, but nobody really knows how it exactly looks like. In fact, more often than not, this beast is a post-facto afterthought used to explain an electoral outcome. So, when Rahul Gandhi manages to take Congress to a historic low of 44 parliamentarians, we get to hear eloquently that it was a result of a 10 year anti-incumbency. When BJP loses its southern gateway of Karnataka, we are again told that it was due to anti-incumbency. When Mayawati bites the dust and SP achieves a surprise victory in Uttar Pradesh, once again pundits blame this anti-incumbency beast for defeating a Dalit Czarina.
Whatever be the mood of Patna, in order to finally cage this anti-incumbency beast, we have to travel to the hinterland. Pollsters often use the easy template of offering basal choices to their sample population in order to understand their grievances which is why we find that every poll in India almost always proclaims “price rise” and “corruption” as the twin evils facing the society. One suspects that no matter when or how you ask Indians about inflation and corruption, they would have a litany of complaints regarding these two problems.
In fact, since the 1970’s, almost every electoral loss of an incumbent government has been attributed to either inflation or corruption to varying degrees of ugliness. Surely, this anti-incumbency beast cannot be so boringly two-dimensional in nature? Surely, there have to be more substantial features to define this beast. It is precisely in this quest that our hunting party carefully chooses 9 districts of Bihar to search for this beast along with a strict rule to go beyond the two dimensional search engine of inflation and corruption.
A group of 5 research students and a dozen data collection fieldworkers travelled across nine districts of Bihar between July 28th and August 11th to understand what really matters to the Bihari voters. Their job was to simply quantify the Bihari voter’s mind beyond the easy construct of inflation & corruption and also in the process to define anti-incumbency in a clear structured manner.
The first thing that strikes you as one travels beyond Patna, into the villages, is the abject, gut wrenching poverty of inhuman proportions. It is here that you realize the futility of those million political mutinies in Patna because life itself is a mutiny every day. It is here that you also realize the importance of every rupee, for ordinary people somehow subsist on such impossibly low wages that one would have never thought possible. What could these people want beyond a meal every day? As we dig deeper, we realize that these very poor and ordinary Biharis do have some very simple basic needs and they are indeed articulate enough to quantify them. It is through this quantification that we are able to define the beast of anti-incumbency in Bihar this winter.
Five clear factors emerged from our study which helped us flesh out the beast with clear contours. Three of these factors are systemic while the fourth factor is localized. We also discovered that anti-incumbency is not a force travelling in a straight line but instead it is a state of equilibrium. Voters usually tend to weigh their rulers with different scales of balance before making up their minds. Thus anti-incumbency is a sum total of various positive, negative and neutral factors.
Surprisingly, contrary to popular belief, Law & Order is not the top concern of Bihari citizens, so BJP may build its campaign around Jungle-Raj, but actual voters have their own calculations about every day subsistence when they walk into a polling booth. As everywhere else, in Bihar too, most problems that voters identify with are basically economic in nature.
Since 90% of Bihar lives in her villages, agriculture and allied activities are the primary feeders of rural economy. No wonder 33% of Biharis chose various agrarian issues as their area of concern. In India, agricultural distress almost always acts as the single biggest factor contributing to anti-incumbency. This factor gets even more heavily accentuated in a state like Bihar.
The mighty Lalu Prasad Yadav who had ruled Bihar for 15 years either directly or by proxy, finally lost power in 2005. Over the last decade or so, we have heard umpteen theories about social engineering of the Nitish-BJP alliance that had finally managed to dislodge Yadav in 2005, but frankly most of them are bunkum. The biggest and most important reason was a simple act of God – rainfall!
In 2005, Bihar received only 88% of regular rainfall which was the lowest in half a decade and put the rural economy in deep stress. This low rainfall led to a negative growth in agricultural economy in the state which eventually led to the fall of Lalu-Rabri power couple after two back-to-back elections within 6 months.
Over the next 10 years since 2005, Nitish Kumar led governments have ruled Bihar with consummate ease, in fact winning an unprecedented mandate in 2010 in alliance with the BJP. Again, in all these years we have heard innumerable theories to explain these election verdicts ranging from how Nitish has created an impossible coalition of extremes and how the jungle-raj has slowly disappeared to how the economy of the state has finally found traction. The truth though lies in the villages of Bihar.
The stupendous success of Nitish Kumar led NDA in 2010 was primarily because of stellar agricultural growth after 5 years of negative growth during the previous RJD regime. The big worry for Nitish Kumar is that the Bihari agronomy has shown sluggish growth in the last 4-5 years after the relative outperformance before 2010. This slowing down of agricultural growth is clearly visible in our survey as most people identify this as their primary problem.
The last 2 years have witnessed successive seasons of poor rainfall in the state. In 2012-13 the rainfall was 79% while in 2013-14 it had dipped further to 76% below normal which created a near drought-like situation in the state. This dip in rainfall played havoc in the hinterland of the state which in turn led to political churning. As Nitish Kumar broke his long standing alliance with the BJP and contested the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 on his own, his state was going through an agrarian distress.
Modi wave may have sunk opposition political fortunes in the summer of 2014, but in Bihar, data clearly shows that it was agricultural slowdown that created the wave like conditions in favor of the NDA. After 3 years of stellar growth, for the first time, in 2013-14, agricultural growth had gone into negative territory by a huge margin of -9%. This is what contributed to total washout of Nitish Kumar in the parliamentary elections.
The average annual rainfall in Bihar is 1013 mm, but there are wide fluctuations to this norm which creates all the problems. For instance, in the year 2013-14, about 20 out of the 38 districts received deficient rains. For a state that overwhelmingly depends on rains for agrarian subsistence, these deficit districts faced the maximum brunt of economic slowdown which in turn created anger against the government.
In fact, minute district-wise rain data analysis clearly shows that NDA’s performance was overwhelmingly better in districts which received rainfall below the state average whereas the ‘secular’ parties who are all now allies in the Mahagathbandhan won 8 out of 9 seats where rainfall was higher than the state average. The only seat where NDA did not register a victory despite deficient rainfall was Nalanda which happens to be Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s home district. This rainfall data analysis clearly shows that BJP and NDA reaped the benefit of anti-incumbency while the ‘secular’ parties secured the pro-incumbency votes in the summer of 2014.
With such clear data correlating to political fortunes, Nitish Kumar must be a worried man today as until third week of August, 30 out of 38 districts of Bihar had received a deficit rainfall up to a whopping 32%. Till 20th of August, Bihar had received only 433 mm of rain against a norm of 653 mm which had created a drought-like situation in 223 of the 533 blocks in the state.
In the last week of August, Bihar did receive incessant rainfall which has managed to reduce the overall deficit to around 20% now. But the hapless farmer is not off the hooks yet. As Manoj Kumar Yadav, a young Madhubani farmer explained to us, “North Bihar has seen very little rains till now, especially in the month of July, which has damaged all our paddy saplings because it is in July that 60% of the farmers undertake the crucial transplantation phase. These late August rains are useless as our paddy has already dried up now”.
Northern Bihar, till last update on August 30th, had a huge deficit of 35% rainfall which ensured that most farmers had given up hope of a normal crop year. This is the reason why large swaths of rural Bihar are going through an undercurrent of anti-incumbency. In our study, a huge 59% of the people believed that NDA and Modi were best suited to solve the agrarian woes of the state while only 28% reposed their faith in the Nitish Kumar-led alliance. An intriguing finding of the survey was that 7 out of 10 people who had chosen agrarian problems as their primary complaint against the government belonged either to the upper castes or Dalits (including Mahadalits) which indicates that the landed upper castes and Dalit agrarian labor class face the maximum brunt of rural slowdown.
The Power of Electricity
“Not a single MW or unit of electricity is generated by Bihar Government owned power plants. The entire power supply to Bihar is being met by the Centre,” thundered the union power minister, Piyush Goyal, on the 22nd of August in a press conference in Patna. He also reiterated the well-known fact that Bihar’s per capita electricity consumption is merely one-fifth of the national average at about 200 units as against 1000 units at the all-India level.
Even Prime Minister Modi has constantly questioned the Bihar CM on his repeated promise made since 2010 about not seeking reelection if he fails to provide 100% electrification of the state. Indeed, the power situation in Bihar is dismal by any standards. In village after village all that one encounters is darkness. 12 to 18 hour power cuts are not uncommon in most rural areas while electricity hasn’t even reached many geographies.
Yet, in our study, we found that 48% of Bihari voters repose faith in the Nitish Kumar-led alliance to solve the power woes of the state, while only 33% of them trust the Modi led NDA on this issue. For an outside observer this might come across as a baffling data point simply because of the pathetic power scenario prevailing all around. But, as we found out this has been a “work in progress”. In Indian democracy, voters seem to even reward honest intentions when governments are seen to be working even if the intended results are not yet visible on the ground.
“The situation was very bad just 2-3 years ago and it has improved to a great extent” is the common refrain we heard throughout our study, despite of long hours of power cuts, which should give us an idea as to what kind of a power status has Bihar emerged from. It is thus true, at least on paper, that the power deficit situation has steadily improved in the last year or so.
Unlike the uniformity of our agrarian findings, there are sub-regional variations to the amount of trust reposed by people on different political formations to solve the bijlee problems. This is where the data becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser’. In sub-regions with greater electrification, we found that there is greater trust in NDA whereas in geographies with lesser electrification, the trust was more towards Nitish Kumar. The one possible reason for this strange voter behavior could be due to “bijlee” having become an aspirational tool in a dilapidated state like Bihar because it opens doors to a whole new world by providing access to other aspirational tools like television, mobile and internet. Since one of the contributing factors for BJP’s historic victory in 2014 had been Modi’s effective utilization of the electronic media and the internet which could again be at play here.
The Education Primer
One of Nitish Kumar’s really big blunders has been the unabashed politicization of the education sector in the state. In the last five years, education system has literally collapsed at all levels in Bihar. The biggest casualty of this systemic mismanagement is of course the state of primary education. Principal reason for this has been the blind recruitment of substandard primary school teachers by the state government.
On July 29th this year, the state government notified the Patna High Court that about 3000 teachers having fake degrees have resigned from their jobs. The bench was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Ranjeet Pandit and others complaining that more than 25,000 teachers having invalid degrees were working in different government schools across the state. This is the pathetic state of Bihar’s primary education which found resonance on the ground in our study.
“They go only for two hours during lunch and then return back to work with me here” says Rafique Alam pointing out at his two young sons aged 12 and 9. Rafique is a poor farmer in a village near Jamalpur and he tells us the story of how the mid-day meal scheme, a government program introduced to bring kids to the school, has managed to destroy the education system in Bihar. “Two different types of food is cooked every day, the spicy high quality version is for the staff and the bland starchy version is for the students. The headmaster is busy in arranging the mid-day meal while other teachers are illiterate with fake degrees who cannot teach anything, so what is the point of sending kids to the school?” asks Rafique with feeling, “instead, they just visit the school for the meal and then return back to help me with work”.
This deterioration of primary school education is one of the major reasons of anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar across Bihar as we found out in almost every village that our team visited. Every village school has a horror tale of an almost illiterate teacher with fake degree getting a job either because of his or her relationship with the Mukhiya of the village or due to political patronage of local JDU leaders. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming 67% of the respondents believe only Modi can solve this systemic problem, but somehow the Prime Minister has not talked much on this topic in his three rallies so far.
When we take a holistic look at the four major reasons of anti-incumbency, we realize that Nitish Kumar is virtually hanging there by a thin wire of Bijlee and a hope that rain Gods would finally smile upon the hapless Bihari villages sometime before the polls this winter. In order to escape these high levels of anti-incumbency, the sole pathway in front of Nitish Kumar is to build a strong coalition of secularism and caste loyalties, but will this be enough to stop the powerful Modi victory Rathremains to be seen.
The Modi Electoral Juggernaut
On June 9th 2013, in the Goa national conclave, Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed Narendra Modi as the first among equals by announcing that he would head the party in the 2014 elections. Within days of this announcement, Nitish Kumar walked out of the NDA alliance after 8 fruitful years of governing the state of Bihar. Some 3 months later, Modi became the official Prime Ministerial nominee of the NDA and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the last 2 years, since 2013, Modi’s has been a meteoric rise in the electoral arena of India. Even Rajiv Gandhi at his peak had not managed to achieve such stellar electoral success as within a year after 1984, the Congress party had managed to lose two southern strongholds of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to Rama Krishna Hegde’s Janata Dal and N.T. Rama Rao’s TDP respectively. What is more, even Prafulla Kumar Mohanta was able to dislodge the Congress party in Assam in 1985.
Modi first led the BJP in a stunning near 4-0 victory against the Congress party in the winter of 2013 when BJP won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh while emerging as the single largest party in the small city-state of Delhi. Since then, the saffron surge has been at a historic pedestal as election after election has managed to create newer BJP governments everywhere.
This phenomenal success of the BJP is as much a construct of Modi’s charismatic leadership as it has also been about a fortuitous electoral calendar. In states where BJP has been in power (like MP and Chhattisgarh), the NaMo factor has crucially added to the pro-incumbency while in other states Modi has effectively harnessed the anti-incumbency. States like Odisha and Telanagana, where BJP has little presence, have managed to give non-BJP governments, but they have been virtually swept away in the larger 2014 narrative.
Thus one crucial friend of the BJP and Modi in the last two years has been anti-incumbency. From Rajasthan to Maharashtra to Haryana to Jharkhand to Jammu of J&K to the national election, the electoral calendar has been tilted in favor of the BJP because of anti-incumbency. It is in this backdrop that Bihar is going to the polls and we have seen that here too there is considerable level of anti-incumbency against the 10 year rule of Nitish Kumar.
One smart way to deal with pockets of unpopularity in governance is to mitigate anti-incumbency by aligning with external political forces. Nitish has done exactly that. Going against past electoral convention despite being a ruling party, JDU is only contesting 100 seats in the upcoming assembly elections while leaving out 140 seats to its newfound allies. This may not be the best possible alliance, but it definitely is effective enough to threaten the Modi electoral juggernaut as we found out in our Swarajya-5Forty3 pre-poll survey conducted between August 19th and August 28th.
*Unclassified polling station locations are those semi-rural areas adjoining large towns/cities.
Caste v/s Governance
The first and foremost achievement of the Mahagathbandhan (JDU-Congress-RJD alliance) is that it has managed to stem the tide of anti-incumbency by sheer arithmetic. The second success is that it has streamlined their similar vote banks into a single entity with fewer leaks; especially among Muslims and OBC voters. The third and final aspect of this alliance is that it has managed to bring together disparate anti-Modi/BJP forces under a single umbrella by sacrificing their individual ambitions and surrendering their defined political spaces.
In the last two years, if Modi’s rise is the primary force of action then the equal opposition force of reaction has not yet been formulated. Bihar is possibly the first opportunity to discover that opposing reaction in full steam. Bihar’s political landscape is neatly divided into two primary segments and three secondary segments. Upper castes and OBCs are the two primary segments while MBCs (Most Backward Castes), Dalits and Muslims formulate the three secondary segments. Traditionally in rural Bihar, many sections of secondary segments amalgamate around one of the primary segments to create an electoral force. For example, this is how Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled the state for 15 years by amalgamating the secondary Muslim vote with his primary Yadav (OBC) vote-base.
No doubt Modi had emerged as a pan-caste Hindu developmental icon in the summer of 2014, but this is probably the biggest stress that his United Spectrum of Hindu Votes is facing in Bihar. Structurally, BJP has been primarily an upper-caste segment party here unlike the neighboring heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where the saffron indulgence into OBC and Dalit territory has been a longstanding tradition even predating the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan. Thus, even in the 2014 wave election, BJP, which had managed to get a whopping 54% and 43% vote-shares in MP and UP respectively, could only secure a sedate 30% here in Bihar.
It is this structural upper-casteism that is hampering the vertical transmission of the Modi electoral current in the Bihar state election. In village after village, one discovers that BJP’s core support base and the karyakarta network has been traditionally upper-caste in nature which had been complimentary in their past alliance with Nitish Kumar but is now proving to be an obstacle in micro-expansion. Bihar has been a core Mandal state, so backward castes and Dalits have an uneasy relationship at best with the upper castes. That got somewhat obliterated in 2014 but is again finding expression to some extent. There is even a danger of backward-castes consolidation against the BJP at the villages unless the party takes effective measures to change the micro-narrative.
There are four interesting features of this caste-wise vote spread across Bihar:
- As of now neither Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi nor Upendra Kushwaha seem to have had a meaningful impact on the Dalit-MBC voters
- There is a substantial section of Dalit and most-backward vote which is still either undecided or confused
- Nearly 8 out of 10 Muslims do prefer the secular alliance, but surprisingly BJP-led NDA’s Muslim support is in double digits while even other smaller Muslim parties do get small traction
- Young and first time voters, especially more so among Dalit and backward castes seem to prefer NDA over established state parties
Bihar is one of the youngest states in India with a median age of 20 and young voters constitute almost 56% of Bihar’s electorate according to the latest rolls released by the Election Commission. As per this revised voter list, 3.8 Crore voters out of a total of 6.6 Crore are in the age group of 18-40. Of these, 24.13 lakh are first time voters below the age of 20 and a majority of this section seems to prefer the Modi-led NDA. Even when we expand the young voters to include all the demography between the age of 18 and 29 which roughly constitutes 2.04 crore voters, NDA still remains the number one choice. In fact, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s popularity among Dalit voters below the age of 30 is a whopping 51% and he is the key for the saffron alliance to win Bihar.
BJP does realize the importance of younger voters, especially the role of younger Dalit voters in their conquest of Patna. One highly placed source within the BJP camp alluded that “the appointment of Ramnath Kovind as the governor of Bihar was indeed a step in the direction of wooing Dalit and Mahadalit voters. In fact, our plan B; in case we do not see greater traction among Mahadalit voters; is to anoint Jitan Ram Manjhi as the face of the NDA campaign in Bihar provided he breaks all contact with Lalu Prasad Yadav”. It is rumored in Patna that Lalu and Manjhi have continuing backroom negotiations and the latter has used this as a bargaining tactic to get the maximum out of his alliance with the BJP.
In fact, we can safely state that BJP-NDA’s vote share rise is indirectly proportional to the age of the voters. Even a small section of Muslim voters, especially backward class Muslim voters, is not averse to supporting the NDA. This surprising finding by our survey team has two tangible reasons. Primary reason is that the NDA partner parties like Paswan’s LJP and Kushwaha’s RLSP or even Manjhi’s HAM(S) have residual Muslim support bases which they have nurtured for a long time now. The secondary reason is a bit more fascinating.
In many villages, BJP seems to have engaged some out-of-work Muslim youth in party activities who vociferously lecture about the benefits of supporting Modi over other secular parties who have “only used their community for political gains”. We encountered many such “Modi’s Muslims” across Bihar who seem to have a ready reckoner on everything from Bhagalpur riots to Nitish Kumar government’s inability to pay almost 2000 Madrasa teachers. One such articulate young Muslim leader explained the electoral secularism of Bihar brilliantly, “We Muslims have always voted for these so called secular parties even when a non-Muslim is given a ticket, but what happens when a Muslim is given a ticket by these secular parties in a Yadav dominated polling booth? All the Yadavs abandon their own party and vote for BJP. It is time for this unidirectional secularism to change.”
This is indeed the strength of NDA. Young voters who are less enamored by caste or socialism are the key to Modi’s march to Patna. Young Indians are also increasingly becoming the decision makers in Indian families and Bihar is no exception to this change, so the saffron outreach strategy seems to be designed along these lines as is evident by the hi-tech campaign run by team Amit Shah. As long as caste remains dormant, it could be advantage BJP, but for the RJD-JDU alliance caste fault-lines are crucial this winter.
Nitish Kumar, assisted by Prashant Kishore started the Bihar campaign in June with much fanfare along the “Badh Chala Bihar” (Progressing Bihar) and “Parche pe Charcha” (Debate on a Leaflet) lines, but soon realized the depth of anti-incumbency when there were no takers among ordinary voters for such an engagement by the government so late in the day. Once Nitish’s campaign managers realized the ground problems, they promptly decided to contest only in 100 seats in order to try and work out the caste calculus in their favour.
While both BJP and JDU are extensively using technology to man their campaigns, Lalu Prasad Yadav seems to be stuck in a time warp. His initial use of hundreds of Tongas created enough amusement among onlookers but he had to withdraw the Tonga campaign due to objections by animal rights activists. RJD campaign is unique in many ways as most of its discourse is built purely on caste and Biradri lines with almost no promise of progress or development. Lalu may not address mammoth rallies like Modi or may not use GPS laden trucks to sweep Bihar, but he is still running a quietly efficient election machinery. He addresses small but more frequent public gatherings at multiple locations with just a couple of thousand people in attendance where his message is almost always the same. He stresses on keeping the backward-Muslim unity and warns against powerful forces trying to wean away the Yadavs (a warning mostly directed against youngsters). It is this hectic campaigning by the Yadav warhorse that is slowly solidifying the backwards towards the Mahagathbandhan, much to the dismay of BJP and Amit Shah.
A section of Yadavs may yet vote for the BJP, especially where RJD is not contesting, but slowly those prospects are weakening as BJP’s local leaders are unable to build on the fever created by Modi speeches. There is a powerful and vocal section of OBC and Yadav populace who wants to support Modi but is dismayed by the lack of enthusiasm among local BJP leaders in wooing them.
The Battle Lines
With anti-incumbency, caste and development politics all vying for political space, the electoral battle is currently in an equilibrium in the state. While there is a strong undercurrent of anti-incumbency, the same is not getting converted into a decisive vote in favor of the BJP because of some inherent weaknesses of the saffron campaign. On the development aspects the verdict seems to be nearly split evenly between both Nitish and Modi although the latter may enjoy a slight advantage after the announcement of the 1.25 lakh crore rupees package for the state. In fact, the Bihar package announcement by the PM in Saharsa was one political googly for which the opposition camp had no answer. For instance, in our survey, an overwhelming 67% of the people positively approved the Bihar package by the Prime Minister, while only 21% thought it was merely an election jumla.
“The momentum is slowly building in our favor” argues one BJP leader who is closely associated with the saffron election campaign, “in fact, the big difference between Delhi and Bihar is that we never saw any upswing in the former once we fell behind AAP, but here in Bihar, despite the huge initial lead by the Janata alliance, we have come back in a big way over the last month” he concludes.
One of the biggest problems for the BJP is the lack of a secondary leader beyond Narendra Modi. In the Delhi election too, BJP faced a similar problem in its face-off against a locally popular face of Kejriwal. In Bihar, Nitish’s popularity is more than double his nearest rival, Sushil Kumar Modi which is a big gap despite of the fact that incumbent Chief Ministers do have a higher recall value among voters.
The one silver lining for the BJP is the presence of Jitan Ram Manjhi among the pantheon of locally popular leaders. The task for BJP seems to be cutout – how best to utilize the Manjhi factor. Interestingly, a substantial portion of voters who had chosen Manjhi as the most popular leader haven’t voted for the NDA in our survey. This indicates a certain lack of cohesion and communication from the NDA to their voters which needs urgent rectification.
With more than a month to go before Bihar actually goes to polls (presumably sometime in the middle of October), this poll survey is merely a demographic snapshot as it appears today. For instance, a great deal of how this snapshot fructifies eventually depends on the candidate selection of different parties because there is also a lot of micro-anti-incumbency against various sitting legislators in both BJP as well as JDU. In fact, there is a section within the BJP which believes that a large number of sitting MLAs must be axed if the party has to win Bihar. In JDU and RJD, the problem of allocating tickets is already acute due to availability of much fewer seats than last time which could create a lot of heartburn and a mini exodus from the rank and file.
There is also a much underrated “others” section which could eventually play a crucial role in the elections. We often see that smaller sub-regional parties tend to get much lower representation in poll surveys but end up deciding the winners and losers due to micro-drift of voters. There are almost a dozen smaller parties like Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party, Haji Noor Madani’s Awami Insaaf Party, Owaisi’s AIMIM, Nagamani’s Samaras Samaaj Party and the NCP represented by Tariq Anwar along with the Communist parties which found small mention during our poll survey. There is also talk of many of these smaller parties coming together to form a third front of sorts which could create interesting vote tractions. At the outset, we observed that these smaller parties are hurting the ‘secular’ alliance far more than the NDA.
Of the five sub-regions of Bihar, NDA has a big lead in Bhojpur and Magadh while Mahagathbandhan is leading in a big way in Seemanchal region dominated by Yadavs, OBCs and Muslims. Mithilanchal and Tirhut are the real battleground areas where both political formations seem to be evenly poised right now.
One can discern how close the fight for Bihar has turned out be so far by looking at the small gap between Mahagathbandhan and NDA which is within the internationally accepted margin of error of a pre-poll survey (i.e.) 3%. BJP and NDA are still holding on to their 2014 support base because the Manjhi factor hasn’t yet kicked in, while the Janata alliance may have suffered some attrition due to reasons of anti-incumbency. The real surprise is the narrowing of the gap between RJD and JDU within the Mahagathbandhan which essentially means that even while their votes are coalescing, it is increasingly resembling like a Lalu social coalition of purely OBC-Muslim combination rather than the Nitish demographic experiment of micro-engineering different social groups. If there is further attrition of Mahadalits and MBCs from the Janata alliance, Nitish could face a bigger trouble.
It is widely believed among saffron circles that BJP would contest 150 seats, leaving the remaining 93 to its allies. RJD and JDU are already contesting 100 seats each while Congress is contesting 40 seats. Thus while converting these vote-shares into seats, a pollster has to also keep an additional X factor of the strike rates of different political parties in mind which only further adds up the complexities to the statistical model.
In the Janata alliance, Congress is the weak link as it is unlikely to have a strike rate beyond 25% which means that both RJD and JDU should come-up with a strike rate of 60% each. This could prove to be the biggest stumbling block for the Mahagathbandhan as winning more than every alternate seat could prove to be a very difficult prospect for a party like RJD which has quite a lot of localized antipathy towards both its leadership and style of functioning. For the last decade or so, there has been a strong undercurrent against RJD across many regions of Bihar which has not subsided even today. In such a scenario, it is hard to imagine a strike rate beyond 50 for the RJD this winter. Similarly, JDU, facing anti-incumbency and lacking the structured cadre support of the RSS and BJP, will find it very difficult to come anywhere near its 2010 strike rate, especially more so because the party doesn’t have a core vote base of its own.
Mathematically, NDA seems to have far better cohesion and a much better strike rate possibility. BJP had a whopping strike rate of 90% in the 2010 assembly election and maintained it at around 73% in the 2014 LS polls. Even in the upcoming assembly elections, it is unlikely that BJP’s strike rate may fall below 60% which means a haul of roughly 90 odd seats. The real question for the NDA is can the non-BJP allies achieve a strike rate of up to 30-35%?
Ever since Narendra Modi has assumed the Prime Ministerial office in May 2014, he has been subjected to a continuous and critical scrutiny at every minor civic poll. Modi’s rise has come as an antithesis to the powers that had ruled India for more than 60 years and therefore the intellectual chattering class seeks continual approval from voters each and every day. The Delhi-based editorial class cannot come to terms with the fact that Modi has a mandate to rule India for 5 years and instead wants that his popularity should be tested in every municipal election in every nook and corner of the country.
For instance, such is the hypocrisy of most commentators that they strongly believe that Kejriwal’s victory in the small city-state of Delhi was a greater mandate than Modi’s victory all over India in the summer of 2014 because it was perceived as a rejection by the voters of the Modi government within a span of one year. For the Dilli commentariat, Bihar is the next big opportunity to belittle Modi and if BJP loses this state there could well be an avalanche of anti-Modi rhetoric sweeping through our TV studios and editorial spaces.
It is time to wonder if a national government must be faced with such critical electoral appraisal on a daily basis. Haven’t the voters chosen the Modi government at the centre for the next 5 years in 2014? Then why should every state election be a referendum against the central government?
There are lessons for BJP too. Why is the party falling into the editorial trap of considering every next electoral verdict as the Agnipareeksha that it has to pass through? Instead it is time for the BJP to concentrate on providing the best possible governance at the centre and let the state units handle the party in those limited geographies.
"We do understand the dangers of putting all our eggs in one basket" a very highly placed source in the BJP election campaign tells me, "in fact, the party has decided as of now that the September 1st rally would be the last Modi campaign rally in Bihar, now the local unit must carry forward the fight and build upon the wave that Modi has created". This is indeed a stunning decision if the party can stick to it.
Bihar is also a do-or-die battle for the so called secular political forces in India. If BJP wins Bihar, it would be the ultimate slap on the collective cheeks of the entire opposition and the intellectual brigade combined. If the entire opposition having come together by sacrificing their own political planks and ceding political space fails to defeat Modi, it would be a death knell for any opposition for the next few years. Ever since the stunning 2014 result, Delhi-based intelligentsia has carefully floated a theory of opposition disunity having caused the almost impossible rise of a former chaiwala. If Bihar doesn’t play to the secular script, the entire theory of a combined opposition being able to challenge Modi in 2019 would go into a tailspin!
See next page for note on poll survey method and data collection.
*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. 21 individual data collection officers spread out across different districts from the 19th of August to 28th of August, covering different targets of sample sizes in three different groups. We completed the exercise by the 28th of August and finished data collection and number crunching by the 30th of August.
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 105 polling station areas of 68 villages, 18 towns and 5 cities for conducting this face-to-face survey. 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;
- Selection bias: Our methodology has possibly a near perfect selection probability, therefore this poll survey has produced one of the most robust results.
- Random Sampling Error: Since we have used a controlled random sampling methodology this problem has been almost completely negated; for instance, most pollsters simply use a randomized sample across the geography to arrive at findings, but our system has extensively used electoral rolls in conjecture with our own ethnic (caste) database as the sampling frame.
- Non-Response evaluation error: Most poll surveys completely ignore “no responses” and simply concentrate on the positive responses, which artificially inflates findings. Our system actually treats “no responses” as positive findings and assigns value to them, which adds a whole new dimension to understanding people’s choices.
Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.