In Bihar, the subdued narrative of the silent voter

As the final outcome of the Bihar election remains confusing at the time of writing this piece, with both the political alliances — the Mahagathbandan and the National Democratic Alliance — competing to attain a majority, there is one factor which reveals the sources of the confusion unambiguously: the status quoism of the silent voter in the State. Here, seen from the vantage point of the silent voter, the status quo-ism may not be a pejorative term. However, this brings us to the task of defining the social location and the psychology of the silent voter which seem to have a decisive influence in the ongoing electoral outcome in Bihar.

In the electoral arena, generally, it is the non-dominant and vulnerable social groups such as the lower castes and a large section of Dalits that prefer to remain silent when the narrative is championed by the dominant communities in their locality. Their silence becomes all the more profound when a leader who they relate to seems to be at the receiving end. In any electoral analysis, an inadequate factoring in of this silent narrative leads to seeing a wave which was never there in the first place.

Bihar Assembly Elections 2020 results | Updates

In the case of Bihar, while the signs of anti-incumbency were visible against Nitish Kumar, its translation into a vote against him/the Janata Dal (United), or the JD(U), was not as seamless as it seemed to be. Rather, it was layered around the identitarian lines of castes and communities, the dominance of material issues notwithstanding.

Narratives and players

In hindsight, the social base of the electoral narratives resonating across Bihar had three distinct takers. One, while there was a general sense of disappointment with Nitish Kumar, not every section wanted to desert him. While a significant section of upper castes deserted him, the lower backward castes and Mahadalits did not seem to have shared the enthusiasm of a ‘pro-change’ narrative. Rather, they remained silent on the question of leadership.

Two, while a majority of upper castes turning their backs on Nitish Kumar ensured the JD(U)’s defeat in as many as 30 seats by voting for rebel candidates from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded by regional parties such as Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), they were wary of the prospect of Tejashwi Yadav (of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, or the RJD) becoming the alternative. This is despite the fact that he attempted to consciously shift the prevailing perception of the RJD, from being a particular caste-centric to an umbrella party.

Bihar Assembly Elections 2020 | Full coverage

Three, the demographically significant intermediary caste such as the Yadavs were over-enthusiastically consolidated behind the RJD and peddled the pro-Tejaswi narrative fervently. In this backdrop, the anti-Nitish Kumar narrative had a larger support base as compared to a pro-Tejashwi narrative. However,since the anchors of these electoral narratives were primarily the dominant communities from both the upper and intermediary castes, the core support base of Nitish Kumar, the preference of the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes and Mahadalits got subdued in the process.

Nitish Kumar is still relevant

Irrespective of the electoral outcome, it is unambiguously clear that Nitish Kumar still holds ground despite his dwindling electoral performance.

Bihar Assembly Elections 2020 | Constituency-wise results

Let us take a closer look at this election and compare it with the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar. For instance, in 2015 when the RJD was in alliance with JD(U), the former contested 101 seats and won 81 seats, a colossal improvement from a mere 24 seats in the 2010 election. Now, in 2020, the RJD contested a total of 145 seats and is expected to win around 75 seats, despite the entire electoral narrative revolving around the agenda set by Tejashwi Yadav, wherein he emerged as the biggest crowd-puller. Certainly, Tejashwi Yadav has emerged as a leader to be reckoned with, and yet the strike rate of RJD is poor as compared to the 2015 election.

Similarly, this time, the better strike rate of the BJP within the NDA should be analysed in terms of the additional support base that Nitish Kumar brought to the NDA fold. With the fewer number of seats that the BJP contested in 2020 as compared to 2015, it is winning more seats, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning less intensely than in 2015.

Bihar Assembly Elections | Quiet satisfaction in BJP over results

Hence, the centrality of Nitish Kumar in the electoral arena of Bihar remains intact. What has changed significantly in this election has been the political miscommunication that he faced from within the NDA, primarily on account of the silence and milder approach of the BJP leadership vis-à-vis the LJP and its leader, Chirag Paswan.

In the backdrop of the current trend, it is no one’s guess that minus the LJP factor, the tally of the JD(U) would have been much better as it is now, and the prime responsibility for the same lies as much with the BJP as with the stubbornness of Nitish Kumar not to accommodate the demands of young leaders.

Bihar Assembly Elections | What lies ahead for JD(U) with a diminished Nitish Kumar

Key issues

Further, a welcome shift which Bihar has brought to the political realm is the primacy of the material issues dominating the electoral arena. While the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the consequent centrality of the issue of jobs and economic security was expected, one must take cognisance of the point that in Bihar, the primacy of material politics has been signified by Nitish Kumar for the last 15 years. Hence, both Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan were attempting to inherit the developmental mantle from Nitish Kumar.

In a State which has been signified by the assertive masculinised political culture, the presence of Nitish Kumar, a non-polarising personality and an accommodative approach led to the changing political common sense of Bihar so much so that both the RJD and the BJP, and the Left had made the politics of accommodation their central plank.

Bihar Assembly Elections | Claiming to be ‘Hanuman’ of Modi during campaign, Chirag Paswan hurts NDA

The RJD’s outreach

To see every party appealing to the youth, women, the vulnerable castes such as Extremely Backward Classes, or the EBCs, and Mahadalits in an aspirational and inclusive language is bound to have the imprint of Nitish Kumar. To the credit of Tejashwi Yadav, the RJD has attempted to adapt itself to the new aspirational plank. For the first time, the party has given significant representation to EBCs, has appealed to every section rather than going to the familiar plank of ‘forward versus backward’, and shifted to the narrative of economic justice to account for the emerging vulnerabilities among all sections.

Also, the role played by the Left parties has been significant in terms of restoring the primacy of the material and civic issues of everyday life.

Bihar Assembly Elections | Left under-represented in Mahagathbandhan: CPI(ML)

The fact that the vulnerable sections constituting the social base of the silent voters chose to support the NDA in significant numbers on account of the Nitish Kumar factor, thereby making it a waveless election, is testimony to the fact that the anchor of political change needs to resonate with the aspirations and anxieties of the vulnerable sections more prominently rather than enthusing the dominant communities supporting them. Hence, it is time to take cognisance of the subdued narratives of the silent voter which tends to get lost in the domineering rhetoric anchored by the politically entitled sections. This is the most desirable takeaway from Bihar.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 12:17:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-bihar-the-subdued-narrative-of-the-silent-voter/article33069264.ece

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