Counting is scheduled on Tuesday in the first mass elections in the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the results expected to determine the fate of Bihar, possibly set the agenda for the evolution of the politics of “social justice”, and perhaps herald the emergence of a new generation of leaders in the state.
Exit polls have given either a decisive lead or an edge to the Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance) of Opposition parties led by Tejashwi Yadav, and shown the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) struggling to retain power. To be sure, exit polls got the verdict wrong in 2015, when the Grand Alliance won the elections and ruled for 18 months, until Nitish Kumar switched to the NDA.
Parties across the political spectrum on Monday publicly talked up the prospects of their respective parties — a tool often used to motivate workers on counting day and keep up the morale of supporters — while privately beginning efforts to ensure that their respective alliances would have the edge in case of fragmented verdict for the 243-member assembly.
Janata Dal (United) executive president Ashok Choudhary dismissed the findings of the exit polls and said that all predictions would go wrong, as they did in 2015, and suggested that Nitish Kumar would return to power.
On the other side, Tejashwi Yadav, who turned 31 on Monday, received birthday greetings from his father Lalu Prasad and several colleagues, many of whom offered their congratulations even before the results, while Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) state president Jagdanand Singh asked all the district presidents to stay put outside strong rooms and keep watch over electronic voting machines (EVMs) until the counting is finished.
Among the national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been witnessing an internal debate on whether sticking to Nitish Kumar was the wise course in this election, projected confidence about the outcome.The party’s national media co in-charge Sanjay Mayukh said that the party was confident of a convincing majority in Bihar again. “There is nothing to be worried about,” he said.
The Congress, for its part, predicted the end of the incumbent government, and a person familiar with the party’s internal assessment claimed that the Mahagathbandhan was likely to win between 130 and 150 seats and the Congress was hopeful of bagging 40 seats on its own. As a precautionary step to prevent any “poaching” attempt, the Congress has asked all its winning candidates to gather at a hotel in Patna and report to general secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala for further instructions.
But experts believe that the real importance of the election lies in its broader message — of how citizens have assessed the response of the government to the pandemic, the possible eclipse of the era of Mandal politics and leaders born out of that moment, the perception of Kumar’s third full term, and the attention that Tejashwi Yadav has got because of his new vocabulary of politics, shifting focus from “social justice” to “economic justice”.
Rahul Verma, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said, “The 2020 elections bring closure to the patterns of competition set forth in the 1990s. There is a shelf-life to any kind of politics — be it socialist-Mandal politics of Lalu Prasad or provision of basic necessities of Nitish Kumar. Leaders must continue to reinvent their narrative to respond to new aspirations.” This, Verma suggested, happened with Yadav understanding the limits of the social justice plank and constructing the economic justice plank. “Kumar’s campaign was wrapped in the past, with no focussed line of attack, no new promise.”
Chandrachur Singh, a political scientist at Delhi University’s Hindu College, agreed and said that while caste-based strategies for political mobilisations may have deepened/widened or even bridged democratic deficits and conferred democratic legitimacy on Bihar’s polity, this had reached its limits. “The mindless application of policies of social justice overlooking issues of governance, all-round-development and rule of law has had its own costs — harshly impacting the youth in the state across caste divides. Whatever may be the outcome, the agenda of education and employment opportunities will become stronger in the times to come.”
Political scientist Manisha Priyam said that the elections had played a significant role in bringing forth the voices of the poor in general and labour in particular. “In these elections, the world’s poorest have used the opportunity of voting to express their views on political change but, even more so, to express their voice and vulnerability as labour that was hanging on to insecure work opportunities at the fringes of in few urban centres”. Tuesday’s results, she suggested, is also a moment to watch out for the assertion of young citizens, and their ability to think as a new generation and critique prior pathways of politics.