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Mandate in a pandemic: NDA has many strengths. But Bihar can yet spring a surprise

The bugle has been sounded for India’s first assembly election in the Covid-19 era. Despite deciding who governs almost 125 million people in Bihar for the next five years, the biggest multi-faith festival will remain like other celebrations since March — subdued, albeit in campaign method. While people are making prophecies about low turnout, voter enthusiasm may match past polls if not set new records. After all, if the rising Covid-19 graph fails to keep people indoors, there is no reason for them to stay away due to fear. Yet, massive public meetings, nukkad sabhas and other elements of a cacophonous campaign shall be missing. Key will be how different parties interact with voters and get the message across. Much has also been stated about migrant voters — how they will carry grievances into booths and impact polls. But, there is little clarity on whether those who returned are still at their homes. Furthermore, little authentic data is available on where they are registered as voters — in Bihar or where they worked earlier? There, however, is certainty that if migrants were a major factor, PM Narendra Modi would have given greater mind space to them. In his assessment, possibly, their numbers are not large enough at the scale of an assembly poll.

Vikasshil Insaan Party floats their symbol, the boat, during a campaign.

Indian polls have increasingly banked on technology and social media in recent years. From the 2012 Gujarat assembly polls, when the BJP used 3-D holographic projection technology to “take” Narendra Modi, then chief minister, to people across the state, electioneering has increasingly had a tech component, comprising data miners and communication whiz kids adept at the art of political advertising. But while the BJP secured the early entrant benefit, other parties caught up after 2014.

Since 2017, social media is no longer the BJP’s exclusive domain. The number of messages in circulation now, which criticise or ridicule the party and its leaders, matches those that publicise the party’s positives. The Bihar poll, however, gives BJP an early-mover advantage once again because here technology will not be an add-on, but the essence. Having crunched data consistently, the party possesses profiles of individual voters at booth levels. In most seats, it has an extensive network to ensure committed voter turnout. Additionally, the BJP has an ace communicator in Modi, equally at ease before a sizeable audience, as well as cameras with no one else but him in the room. The comparatively greater resources at the party’s command are the icing on the cake.


Despite repeated assertions that the National Democratic Alliance is entering the fray with Nitish Kumar as its leader, Modi remains the primary campaigner for the coalition. Although not exactly payback time, BJP is possibly just an election away from reclaiming the “senior partner” tag, that was its prior to 2004 — from the time the Samata Party under George Fernandes allied with the BJP. To ensure the coalition was not jeopardised in these polls, the BJP leadership decisively nipped aspirations of its satraps and only local rivalries will fray the alliance.

Disjointed Opposition
In contrast to the cohesion in the Janata Dal (U)-BJP alliance, the split in the Mahagathbandhan is vertical and from the top. There is no knowing how many allies, factions or leaders will abandon ship between now and the last date for withdrawal of nominations. A leader with a mesmerising appeal and coarse abilities to deride opponents, which Lalu Yadav had in the mid 1990s, will be sorely missed. This is going to be particularly felt in a situation when questions remain if the government’s management of the pandemic and its economic fallout could have been better. In the absence of a credible alternative, the NDA will bank on people’s unwillingness to take a leap in the dark like the Indian electorate did during the 2004 parliamentary polls. It is helped by the fact that the situation is in complete contrast. Livelihood and survival concerns have never been acuter in Bihar, known for abysmal levels of poverty, deprivation and disparity. Yet, the known “imperfect” may well be considered a “better” option than the unknown.


The poster war heats up ahead of the assembly polls

While this appears on the surface, it is not borne out by an opinion poll that has the stamp of Rajesh Jain, once a key tech handler for Modi’s 2014 campaign who drifted apart and is now back with India’s “first AI-powered feedback engine that collects real opinions from real Indians” — prashnam. substack.com. The startling find of a survey claimed to have been conducted across 216 of 243 assembly constituencies earlier this month is that Tejashwi Yadav has a three percentage point lead over Nitish Kumar as the preferred CM. The finding defies logic, but elections do spring surprises and it is prudent to tuck every survey in the back of the mind instead of dismissing them outright.


RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav turns Bahubali in a poster

Despite NDA’s claims that it merits a renewed mandate on the basis of performance, the litany of pre-lockdown grievances cannot be dismissed. Added to this are accusations that the BJP is diverting attention from substantive issues. Efforts were made to leverage actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death. Rajya Sabha deputy chairman, Harivansh Narain Singh, who was at the receiving end of opposition protests in the Upper House, too, has been depicted as a beacon of Bihari pride. Modi tweeted that he was in “line with that wonderful ethos” of Bihar which taught India “values of democracy”. There is no certainty what will eventually work: caste or Covid, Sushant or Vikas. Will Bihari victimhood outside the state resonate among people who live there? Will people vote with their empty purses and torn lives in mind or will they be guided by trust in Modi and Bihar government’s post pandemic initiatives?


Tejashwi flags off RJD’s campaign in Patna

With more questions than answers, political narratives till polling day will be tracked minutely not just by parties locking horns here, but even by those in states going to polls next year and beyond. These elections will likely erect a framework of the new normal in elections.

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