How Modi surrendered Bihar

The BJP-led NDA could have won this election easily, by repeating Modi, vikas and naukri over and over again. A recap of how they lost the script entirely

November 09, 2015 01:55 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:31 pm IST

>The Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) has received a massive mandate from the people of Bihar, absolutely crushing the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2015 State Assembly elections. According to numbers on the Election Commission of India (ECI) website at 4.55 p.m. on November 8, the NDA was leading or winning in just 59 Assembly constituencies (ACs), whereas it had won 172 ACs in the 2014 national election. In a matter of 18 months, the NDA has lost nearly two-thirds of its seat share. Even accounting for shifting alliances, the NDA was in a position to win if it played its cards right. As the NDA tries to pick up the pieces, it must reflect on what went wrong and how it can do better in future elections. Narendra Modi no longer seems like the juggernaut we saw when he came to power in 2014.

Neelanjan Sircar
Bhanu Joshi
Ashish Ranjan

Truth be told, given its commanding lead in 2014, the NDA should have won this election easily. All it had to do was to repeat Modi, vikas, naukri (Modi, development, jobs) over and over again to win. But the NDA lost the script; too often it started talking about reservations, >beef and >Pakistan instead of vikas , shooting itself in the foot.

After a difficult first two phases in this five-phase election, the NDA sought to retool its campaign. We were in Buxar, where Narendra Modi unveiled the new campaign strategy just before the third-phase polls. >Mr. Modi, in his usual thunderous tone, declared , “Nitish and Lalu are conspiring to take away five per cent of reservation of the OBCs, EBCs and Dalits and give it away to a particular community (that is, Muslims).” We looked at each other incredulously; only a bahari (outsider) would think this tactic would work. We knew then and there that the NDA was dead in Bihar. The NDA ran, quite simply, one of the worst State-level election campaigns in recent memory.

This election started with a large reservoir of “floating voters”, who were looking to be convinced during the campaign. Issues like beef do not convince floating voters; a person for whom beef was an important issue was already likely voting for the NDA. As we argued previously, Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi represent competing models of vikas; Mr Kumar’s notion of vikas envisions an expansive state through benefits schemes, while Mr Modi’s notion promises private investment and job creation. We opined that the person who won the vikas debate would also win the floating voters and the election. But, too often the NDA got sidetracked and failed to engage in the debate. Internal divisions within the party made the BJP refrain from taking credit for recent progress in Bihar and publicising state >BJP leader Sushil Mod i, even though he was Finance Minister for much of Mr Kumar’s tenure as Chief Minister. In short, the NDA handed the vikas debate to Mr Kumar on a platter, and the Grand Alliance won the lion’s share of floating voters.

Initial Look at the Data

We now discuss the phase-wise data in this 5 phase election, as given by the ECI website at 4.55 p.m. on November 8. It is important to remember that these are not final counts, just a calculation of who is leading. However, they give an indication of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the NDA’s campaign strategy.

As had been widely reported, the NDA campaign faltered severely in the first two phases of the election, in which 81 constituencies went to the polls; this is borne out in the data. Of these 81 constituencies, the NDA won 65 constituencies in 2014 (36 of 49 phase 1 constituencies and 29 of 32 phase 2 constituencies) for an overall strike rate of 80 per cent. In this election, the NDA was leading or winning in just six phase 1 constituencies and nine phase 2 constituencies, for a paltry overall strike rate of 19 per cent in the first two phases.

There was almost a two-week gap between the phase 2 and phase 3 polling dates. In this period, the NDA completely retooled its campaign, but the data show that the NDA’s strike rate only rose slightly to 27 per cent in the final three phases. In the final three phases, 162 constituencies went to the polls, and in 2014, the NDA won 107 of these constituencies (37 of 50 phase 3 constituencies, 53 of 55 phase 4 constituencies, and 15 of 57 phase 5 constituencies) for an overall strike rate of 66 per cent. In this election, the NDA was leading or winning in just 13 constituencies in phase 3, 20 constituencies in phase 4, and 11 constituencies in phase 5.

Of particular interest is whether the NDA’s strategy to >manufacture Hindu consolidation in Muslim-heavy areas (phases 4 and 5) yielded electoral benefits. It seems to have been an abject failure. In phase 5 constituencies, the tally dropped from the 2014 national election to this election, but the NDA was never seriously challenging for many seats in this region. In phase 4 constituencies, in what had been a stronghold for the NDA in 2014, the strategy seems to have severely backfired by leading to a huge erosion of votes.

Any way one slices the data, the NDA performed poorly across the board. Its attempts to retool its campaign strategy had only a small impact on the electorate. Worse yet, a last minute attempt to polarise the electorate along religious lines seems to have hurt their vote share even further.

A barren electoral patch

The BJP had hoped to do well in Bihar, so it could swing the Rajya Sabha in its favour to unclog the current the deadlock taking place at the Centre. The most immediate impact of this election is that the deadlock is likely to remain in place. But Bihar means much more to the BJP. In 2014, the BJP won 22 of its 282 seats (8 per cent) from Bihar, and this loss in Bihar may have a carry-on effect to assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 71 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. In short, the drubbing in Bihar significantly weakens the BJP’s position at the Centre. Many policies that it had hoped to push through are now likely to be blocked or compromised.

Adding to the misery, the BJP is unlikely to do well in the 2016 State assembly elections. In 2016, Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will have elections. Of these States, the BJP only has a chance to have a reasonable seat share in Assam (which will likely go to the polls in October 2016), although it has not fared well recently. This means that the BJP could go at least two years without winning a State election, and likely will go longer without winning. This will severely weaken the party as it heads into the all-important 2017 State assembly election in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP needs to do some soul searching. It has now been routed in two straight State/Union territory elections, Delhi and Bihar. Delhi could be explained away by the charisma of Arvind Kejriwal, but the thrashing in Bihar can only be explained by incompetence in designing the campaign. Mr Modi’s mandate is predicated on fixing the economy and generating employment, not religious division. The “side actors” are spoiling it for the BJP; if they continue to behave in this manner, the party must rebuke them publicly. Ultimately, the BJP must decide if it is more interested in talking about beef and Pakistan, or if it wants to win elections.

(Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are all affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. Special thanks to the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, for providing electoral data in real time.)

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