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India’s Ruling Party Narrowly Wins in Bihar

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India’s Ruling Party Narrowly Wins in Bihar

What do the Bihar elections tell us about the direction of Indian national politics?

India’s Ruling Party Narrowly Wins in Bihar

Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, left, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters following victory in Bihar state election in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, November 11 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

The elections have been a really close call, with the counting of votes turning out to be a nail-biting race, while recounts and claims about irregularities could have changed the final result. The U.S. presidential elections? Not quite. In the shadow of the Biden-Trump showdown, the Indian state of Bihar went through its assembly elections. It counted its votes faster than Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, and Alaska, despite having a population much larger than all of those states combined (by this year, the number of Bihar’s citizens has possibly crossed 100 million).

While far from being a make-or-break election for India’s ruling party, the Bihar election may be seen as indicative of certain national trends and a detour from others. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi’s party, is currently ruling both in Bihar and in India. While its dominance in the federal parliament is unsurpassed and secure, its popularity on the state level has been declining in the last few years. Thus, the Bihar polls represent fresh tea leaves worth reading.

In one of my previous articles for The Diplomat, I pointed out that the BJP has reached a strange imbalance between how strong it is in the center and how many states it is not ruling (or ruling with crucial assistance of its allies). Is the party heading toward a bewildering disparity in which it will be the only true national party of India but will be ruling independently in only a handful of states? 

The Bihar elections do not provide a clear answer. The BJP has won, but on a narrow margin. A regional opposition party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has achieved a slightly better result than the BJP in terms of the seats won (75 to 74), and a visibly better one in terms of the percentage of votes (23.11 percent to 19.46 percent), relegating Modi’s party to the second spot in the party ranking. The BJP retained power only because overall its coalition has done better than the alliance of opposition forces: The BJP’s most important ally scored more seats than the RJD’s allies. Yet the comparison of the two coalition results also points to an unconvincing victory: The BJP’s alliance got 125 seats (just two seats above the majority bar of 123), while the opposition coalition got 110. The difference between the two coalitions’ vote percentages is minute: 37.26 percent for the BJP alliance, 37.21 percent for the opposition coalition.

Thus, the Bihar result is perhaps a red flag for BJP strategists given the party’s recent track record in regional polls. In 2018, it lost elections in the larger states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan (the latter two narrowly), and was eventually unable to form a government in Karnataka despite emerging as the largest party there. In 2019, the BJP lost Jharkhand, retained rule in Haryana only with the helping hand of a local ally, and lost its government in Maharashtra despite winning the largest number of seats. In 2020, it was soundly defeated in Delhi as well.

But the narrow Bihar result with its peculiar circumstances does not fit in easily with this trend of defeats and lost chances. The BJP result this time in Bihar was actually better than in the previous polls (by 21 seats). In 2015, Modi’s party lost the Bihar poll to a wide coalition but in 2017 one part of that alliance, Janata Dal (United) or the JD(U), betrayed its partners and joined hands with the BJP, causing a government change midway through the term. Since then, the BJP has been a part of the government but as a junior partner. It was the JD(U)’s leader, Nitish Kumar, who was given the role of the chief minister of Bihar. This seems to have shielded the BJP from the cold season of anti-incumbency, as the electorate directed its dissatisfaction toward Kumar and his JD(U). The results show this: While both parties were responsible for governing Bihar, in 2020, the JD(U)’s seats tally decreased (by 28) while that of the BJP grew.

This makes the case of Bihar even harder to extrapolate to the national level. As of writing, it is unclear who will be the next chief minister of Bihar. But given that the tables have turned in the elections, the BJP will likely take a leading role in the government. It may, however, woo Nitish Kumar to come to the forefront, offering him the chief minister role again and thereby allowing most of the dust of anti-incumbency to gather on the face of his statue, again.

So how do these particular circumstances translate to the reality of national politics? If they do, it is perhaps in only one way: They show that the magic of Narendra Modi’s charisma still works. As pointed out by Indian journalist Asim Ali for the Print, many voters do not blame Modi for the shortcomings of BJP governments – the state ones but also the central one. Such an electorate still upholds Modi’s cult while blaming other BJP ministers or chief ministers for any problems. The same may be true for some of the BJP’s regional allies. Never mind the fact that recent central government decisions have clearly affected the situation in Bihar for good and for worse. For instance, the lockdown in India has hit Bihari migrant workers very hard. And yet, as professor Neelanjan Sircar wrote for the Hindustan Times, “it is the state-level leader in Nitish Kumar that bore the brunt of voter anger with little cost to Modi and the BJP.”

In many circles, Modi’s image is like the representation of deities in ancient Indian epics – to show their celestial status, the gods, when acting on Earth, were described as slightly levitating above the ground but not touching it, contrary to humans. So it is with Modi, whose image seems to be largely unaffected by the failures of his party. Whatever goes wrong, the electorate may punish the BJP’s allies or the BJP itself on the state level, but Modi, being the party’s face on the national level, may still lead it to victories in elections for the federal parliament. Thus, even if Nitish Kumar does not fall for the BJP’s trap and refuses to become Bihar’s chief minister (should he be offered the post), and if the BJP’s chief minister and his cabinet perform poorly and the party lose the next election in the state, it is still unclear how much that would affect the BJP on the national level.

Do the results in Bihar, then, confirm that the BJP is becoming a lone giant in the field of Indian politics, a powerful party with no significant allies? Not yet. In another of my recent commentaries for The Diplomat, I argued that the alliance that surrounds Modi’s party – the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA – is hardly “national” anymore. In recent years, it has been abandoned by three significant parties from Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, and Maharashtra. Most of the remaining allies are small fish. This is another gaping disparity that the BJP faces: While its independent standing on the national level has kept growing since 2014, its alliance has shrunk. 

Just before the Bihar elections, the BJP was abandoned by yet another of its allies, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which is active in the state. Yet, just as in the case of Bihar’s electorate, the LJP grudge was reportedly against the JD(U), not the BJP. As observed by Sajjan Kumar for Times of India, the LJP mainly fielded candidates against the JD(U). In a kamikaze-like attack, the LJP undercut the JD(U)’s vote share in particular constituencies but paid a heavy price for its strategy: It won just one seat. On the state level, this was an important development – as it probably adversely affected the number of seats won by the JD(U)-BJP-led coalition – but it is yet unclear what it means for the NDA as a national alliance. For now, the position of the LJP is bizarre – it has left the BJP’s coalition in Bihar but remains a part of the BJP’s coalition on the national level (but it also hardly matters in the latter one). Once again, this shows a growing disparity between the BJP’s standing on the national and state levels.

The latter level cannot be ignored. The BJP is left with only two important regional allies now – the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the JD(U) in Bihar. The support of both is crucial for Modi’s party in the upper house of the Indian federal parliament, the Rajya Sabha. It does not matter in the lower house, the Lok Sabha, as the BJP hold a majority there by itself. Thus, a break up with the JD(U), should it happen, would hurt the BJP both in the Rajya Sabha and in Bihar. The elections in Bihar show that the JD(U) is an ally the BJP cannot afford to alienate, not until it grows to a point where it will be able to hold a majority in the Rajya Sabha and win elections in Bihar by itself. 

Finally, does the good showing of opposition forces in Bihar mean that a viable alternative to the BJP is emerging? And does the fact that the BJP lost some of its powerful allies mean that the ranks of the national opposition have grown? The answer to both of these questions is no.

The four main corners of the political landscape in the Bihar polls were two pairings of a national party with a regional party. On the incumbent side, there were the BJP and the JD(U), while in the opposition were the Indian National Congress and the RJD. As mentioned above, within the government coalition the national party (BJP) did better in the polls than the regional party, the JD(U). In case of the opposition, however, the outcome was the reverse. The Congress took just 19 seats in the state legislative assembly, a much shorter run than its partner the RJD’s 75 seats. It can be assumed that had the Congress won more seats, the opposition alliance could have won the election.

Some are already arguing that the RJD was too benign toward the Congress when the allies were distributing constituencies for their candidates between themselves. With hindsight, the RJD could have kept more seats to contest for itself, rather than share it with the Congress, and perhaps could have achieved a better result than its partner in some of these constituencies. The same was argued about the 2017 elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh where the regional Samajwadi Party left many seats for the Congress to contest, being in partnership with it. The Congress candidates emerged victorious in only seven constituencies, while the Samajwadi Party took 47 seats. At the same time, the Congress is, and always was, the only proper rival to the BJP on the national level. How can the Indian national opposition thus hope to defeat Modi’s party if even some of Congress’ regional partners would have been better off giving less political space to the Congress in their states?

There are two national party alliances in India that matter now: the already-mentioned BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). While this is a simplification, in practice the NDA is one very powerful and popular national party with hardly any allies left, while the UPA is an alliance of a few strong regional parties but with its leading national party lingering in a deep crisis.

At the moment, the UPA certainly consists of more of important regional parties than one finds in the NDA. These include the RJD in Bihar, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the NCP in Maharashtra, the JMM in Jharkhand, and the JD(S) in Karnataka. Given that the Congress also rules in some of these states (though not many), this looks like a sound basis to rebuild the national opposition against the BJP and Modi – but only on paper.

In practice, such an alliance would need more members and a strong leader, and the Congress is still unable to achieve both, being utterly unable to convince more parties to join its front. Some crucial regional parties do not want to formally join the Congress, despite being clearly against the BJP. Moreover, none of the allies that left the BJP’s alliance in the last few years decided to join the Congress-led UPA. The same happened with the LJP in Bihar. What the Bihar elections have shown, therefore, is that the BJP can be defeated in a populous and politically crucial Indian state (as that could have happened in Bihar) but also that even this may not strengthen the national alliance against Modi’s party.