The Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was set to return to power in Bihar, scraping past the majority mark with 124 seats in the state assembly, but with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the senior partner in the alliance for the first time with 73 seats, in a mandate that appeared to mark both continuity and change.
The closely fought election — results were declared late on Tuesday night — saw the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) run an energetic campaign and emerge as the single largest party with 76 seats in the 243-member assembly. But its wider alliance, the Mahagatbandhan (MGB), failed to become the largest pre-poll formation, with the Congress winning only 19 of the 70 seats it contested, though the Left forces put up their best performance in the state in the last two-and-a-half decades, with 16 seats. In all, the alliance won 111 seats.
All numbers are wins plus leads at 11:45pm Tuesday. by which time, according to the Election Commision's website. 99.5% of the votes had been counted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose rallies played a part in ensuring the NDA returned to power in the state, tweeted: "Voters in Bihar have made it clear that development is their only aspiration and priority... People's blessings to NDA's good governance even after 15 years of rule show what Bihar's dreams and expectations are. The youth of the state have made it clear that the new decade will be of Bihar and for a self-reliant Bihar."
He added in another tweet: "...from farmers to traders, from businessmen to shopkeepers, every section has trusted NDA's sabka vikas, sabka vishwas. I assure each person that we will continue to work towards development of the state."
The election also witnessed a key role being played by forces outside the framework of the two alliances, with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) winning just one seat but hurting the Janata Dal (United)'s prospects in 26, and the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) winning five seats to affect the MGB's prospects in the Seemanchal region.
The fierce nature of the election, and the consolidation of support behind the major forces in the state, was reflected more sharply in the vote share, with the MGB winning around 8,000 votes more than the NDA (as of 11:45 pm) .
Political leaders offered their interpretation of the result, with the BJP claiming this was a vote in favour of the double engine model — with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre and chief minister Nitish Kumar in the state — while the RJD said there were attempts to change the "people's mandate". The JD(U) said the party's performance may have been affected due to anti-incumbency while the Congress claimed it did a creditable job given it was contesting on tough seats. "It was a bad deal for us. Our negotiators should not have accepted the choice of seats. Out of the 70 seats given to us, 30-35 were extremely tough. These were the seats where we had no base and even the RJD was weak," said senior Congress leader Kishore Kumar Jha. Experts, however, suggested that the outcome reflected the popularity of PM Modi, the consolidation of non-Yadav castes behind the NDA as Yadav-Muslim consolidation behind the RJD became apparent with Tejashwi Yadav's rallies, and the memory of the misgovernance of the Lalu Prasad years overwhelming the more recent post-lockdown distress.
At the same time, the RJD's performance was seen as marking the arrival of Yadav as a key Opposition figure, growing out of the shadow of his father even if he could not translate the energy of his campaign into enough seats for a victory, but only just. The results of the first state-level election held in the middle of the pandemic took longer than usual to tabulate, with the day witnessing constant ups and downs in the fortunes of political parties in the fray — the MGB led when early leads emerged on Tuesday only to see the NDA edge past it, a trend that stayed till the end though it became close on several occasions. The MGB alleged irregularities in the last rounds of counting in seats with tight margins -- a charge that the poll panel has denied.
The big takeaway from the election, however, is the return of Nitish Kumar as chief minister for a fourth term. His close aide and minister in the Bihar government, Sanjay Jha, said, "We were shocked at the media narrative against Nitish Kumar in the run up to the election. The results show that the ground reality was different. The CM's past record of governance, his tremendous appeal among women voters, and the resilience of our social coalition has proved many people wrong."
While Kumar has indeed returned after what appeared to be deep anti-incumbency, his seats have reduced from 71 in 2015 to 43 in 2020. The JD(U)'s strike rate (seats won in proportion to the seats contested) was just over 35% while the BJP's strike rate was close to 70%. He will, thus, have to reconcile with the BJP as a senior partner, and suspicions that the BJP did not do enough to stop the LJP continue to mark the dynamic between the two leading NDA partners. A second JD(U) leader, familiar with the thinking in the party, said, "The BJP unnecessarily created confusion initially. If the LJP was within the NDA, or if the BJP had spoken more strongly against LJP, the NDA would have crossed 160 seats." But this, he insisted, will not impair future ties. "Both parties are clear that the mandate is for a Nitish Kumar-led NDA government."
For its part, the BJP is pleased at both emerging as the single largest party in the state for the first time in political history and returning to power. A top leader involved in the campaign said, "You should take into account the fact that there was anti-incumbency. Covid-19 has caused difficulties for people. But the results have shown that there is complete support for PM Modi and recognition that BJP is needed for the state's development." When asked if they would stick to supporting Kumar, despite his depleted numbers, the BJP leader said there was no doubt about that, and that BJP would fulfil its promise and "coalition dharma".
For the RJD, the campaign reflected a big comeback after the 2019 Lok Sabha election rout, when it failed to win a single seat of the 40 in the state. But a top RJD leader claimed that the party had begun working quietly soon after — building booth committees on the ground on the same lines as the BJP, launching an outreach campaign on employment early in the year that got interrupted by the pandemic, providing support to migrant workers seeking to return home during the lockdown, and then launching a campaign that focused on key economic and livelihood themes with Tejashwi Yadav leading the charge.
But a second leader of the Opposition alliance acknowledged that the campaign had errors. "Our support base became too vocal and aggressive. As news channels began talking about RJD's return, the other social groups — who still resent Lalu Prasad's rule — began to get worried. They were silent but turned out in substantial numbers to vote for NDA." The second reason for the upset — since the MGB was expecting a majority on its own — was the Congress's performance, which got 19 seats with a strike rate of just over 25%. In comparison, the RJD's strike rate was over 50%.
Experts believe the result is a boost to the BJP. Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, "The Bihar result — read with the bypoll outcomes — is positive affirmation for 'brand BJP'. Despite a prolonged economic slowdown, ongoing pandemic and the migrant crisis, Modi's image remains undeniably strong. The voters have directed the brunt of their anger at the BJP's coalition ally JD(U) and chief minister Nitish Kumar. Within the NDA, this victory puts the BJP in the driver's seat in Bihar."
Rahul Verma of the Centre for Policy Research agreed said that the outcome of the election would bring relief to the BJP leadership since there were questions after 2019 over its political prospects in the wake of setbacks in state polls. "The BJP has consolidated further and is another pole of Bihar politics now. The outcome also shows that elections are won and lost during the campaign. A deeper analysis of data will reveal the X factor, but it seems MGB got complacent, while the NDA, like seasoned players, came from behind and clinched the game."