Of the four protagonists who are at the forefront of the poll theatre that will soon play out with the Bihar elections, the character with the least to lose and gain from the results seems to be the most determined to win. Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is not placed in a formal position of power at the moment, will probably not have one even if he emerges on the winning side. Nonetheless, he has successfully managed to push both his competitors and ally on the fringe and claim the limelight for himself. Among his rivals, two are armed with the assurance of remaining in office no matter what the outcome of the election. The fourth, Janata Dal’s (United) Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, stands to lose the most—both his job as the current chief minister of Bihar and his political clout.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah will probably not face any significant threat to their positions even if the dice does not roll in their favour. After all, it is too early to call for a change in leadership in the Sangh Parivar. However, in the event of a loss, there will definitely be raised eyebrows and Modi may be forced to devolve more power to ministers who were hitherto toothless. It is possible, that Shah too will be nudged intoacceding greater authorityto other leaders within the party and removingthe layers of insulation that surround his office. In such a situation, power will no longer be used indiscriminately. It will instead, be used as a form of checks and balances. This shift in the balance would perhaps represent the “best-case scenario” that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership had hoped for before May 16 2014: a reined Modi and not a rampant one. Modi after all was not the first choice of the RSS’s top leadership and agreed to his anointment only when faced with pressure from below.”
The fanfare notwithstanding, the BJP’s prospects in the upcoming assembly election do not look very bright. The odds in Bihar, even by conservative estimates, are definitely not stacked in Modi’s favour. It would be difficult—though not impossible—for the BJP to reach anywhere close to its parliamentary performance last year. Back then, the party had established its superiority in 121 assembly segments on its own and with its allies, the tally was a redoubtable 172. The arithmetic of the Bihar election will make replicating that victory an uphill task. In the 2014 parliamentary polls, the anti-BJP vote was divided between JD(U) that got 16 percent of the total votes, the Rashtriya Janata Dal that got 20 percent and the Congress with 8 percent. Consequently, the BJP and its allies picked up 31 out of 40 seats in Bihar with nearly 39 percent of the total votes. This time the combined vote share of the Grand Alliance—comprising the Congress, the RJD and JD(U)—will not exactly be a sum total of what they polled last year, but would definitely be close to the 44 percent mark of that time. Meanwhile, it is probable that the BJP’s vote share will not go up, at least on paper.
If the BJP fails to win, it would be because Modi has tended to overvalue his capacity to transcend identity and local sentiments. Conversely, a BJP victory would indicate that electoral choices are being shaped more by personality than by identity. It is in pursuit of its belief in the dominance of the latter trend that the BJP appears to have opted for a campaign that centres on Modi. Despite the erosion in Modi’s popularity, his ability to draw people in remains unparalleled. However, the number of people in his rallies does not provide any evidence of the electoral support he will get. While Modi was able to win the popular mandate as a proxy nominee in states such as Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand that held elections last year, there is no certainty that he would be able to do the same in Bihar.
The anti-incumbent sentiment against Nitish Kumar in Bihar is not as strong as it was in the case of the states that held elections last year and witnessed a change in guard. This only deepens the prime minister’s challenge. As a consequence, Modi’s campaign appears to have been crafted by keeping an assortment of factors in mind. These include the fear of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s return, continued emphasis on the failings of his old bête noire and the peddling of that deceptive Bihar package. The party has been citing its package of Rs1.25 lakh as evidence that Modi will “give a lot” to Bihar. However, his adversaries argue that this declaration is merely the repackaging of existing schemes, a craft that Modi is skilled at.