The 2020 Bihar Assembly election has ended without any real winners. Political analyst and psephologist Yogendra Yadav had rightly observed on NDTV that no party or leader has got a mandate in this election. There is no hung Assembly, true, and the National Democratic Alliance comprising mainly the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP just managed to get past the winning line, even as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Mahagathbandhan lost a closely fought electoral battle. But the poll outcome has left the leaders in the battle in the lurch, as it were.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has lost the battle because his JD(U) fared rather badly, winning just 43 to the 70 seats his party had won in 2015, which was less than that of the JD(U)’s then ally, the RJD, which had won 80 seats then, but he retained his chief minister's post. And he will be doing so again this time as well. For more reasons than one, the BJP has decided that Nitish Kumar would remain the chief minister, even though the saffron party has now got many more seats than the JD(U) and has thus become the senior partner in the alliance. It is a strange situation, where a chief ministerial claimant in a coalition gets what he wants despite his party not commanding a majority. It remains to be debated whether this is due to the political stature of Nitish Kumar. But his position is a political anomaly, for all that.
For the second time in a row, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Midas touch failed to work as well as hoped in the Bihar Assembly election, the first time being in 2015. Somehow, his messianic zeal seems to leave the Bihari voter cold. And it has shown once again that the BJP cannot ever hope to win on its own, though it has struck a good strike rate winning 74 of the 101 seats it has contested in a House of 243.
Tejashwi Yadav, 31, heading the Rashtriya Janata Dal, is indeed the new star on Bihar’s political horizon, though the RJD’s limitations, as that of the BJP and JD(U), have become clear once again. The RJD had won 80 seats in 2015, though it had contested only 100-odd seats then. This time around, the party had contested 144 seats, but it has won a little more than half of them, 75.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party colleagues have declared themselves to be the winners in Bihar, which is technically true, and it is a fact that at the end of the day it is what matters. As the anchor of a major English television news channel crowed in approval of the BJP and NDA, more for the BJP than for the NDA, that winning even with a narrow margin is okay because “jo jeeta wahi sikandar”.
But Bihar’s political chequerboard remains defiant, where no one party or leader seems to find approval from the people in the state. Each party and each leader is confined to a demarcated sphere of influence. The challenge for any claimant to political leadership in the state is whether he or she can reach out to the people at large across the state. The BJP in 2015 tried to test its strength on its own, as a matter of fact it was forced to do so, and it had won just 54 seats, and that too after Mr Modi’s impressive performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. And it has happened again. Mr Modi’s success in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was not of much help for his party in the Assembly election a year later. It is an interesting political fact that Mr Modi seems to find acceptance across the state in a parliamentary, but not in an Assembly, election.
The voter in Bihar can be blamed for narrow-minded caste fidelity, but in a society where different castes or social groups jostle for power it also ensures a certain democratic balance of power. And the quality of democracy in Bihar is higher because of this untidy caste equilibrium, and unlike in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, no single party can hope to take the spoils home.
The BJP cannot be the domineering and divisive force in Bihar that it is in Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar, the BJP has no choice but to share political space with the Communist parties and minority-based ones like that of the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). The democratic space in Bihar is accommodative of political diversity.
There is no ignoring the disparity between a democratically savvy Bihar, and Mr Modi was right to recall the democratic heritage of Bihar which precedes the founders of Jainism and Buddhism, and the economically backward and socially retrogressive polity of today. The paradox cannot be explained away. Vaishali in ancient Bihar was not only a proud republic but it was also a prosperous city-state. And the province was also an enviable seat of Buddhist and Brahminical learning. Present-day Bihar, caught as it is in the throes of impoverishment and casteism, is a far cry from the old, sophisticated politics of the region.
The people of Bihar have shown in this election, as they have in previous ones, that they hold the overweening politicians through their voting power. And it is they who will have to transform Bihar in the economic and social spheres. While caste can be useful in keeping democracy alive because the political competition among the different caste groups keeps democracy vibrant, it becomes a barrier to achieve prosperity and well-being. They should keep away caste in the workplace and classroom but put it to good use in the political arena. Its political sophistication is of little use if the people remain poor. It is possible that politicians would perforce usher in economic and social modernisation in the state as Nitish Kumar has been trying to do in the past 15 years, and Lalu Prasad Yadav did, however erratically, in the 15 years before. But it is the people who have to take charge of the state’s economic development and direct the political leaders to do what needs to be done.