Bihar polls: the shifting goalposts

Parties will have to rely on much more than a simple caste calculus, as the translation of caste into votes is complicated

October 07, 2015 02:17 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

The election season is underway in Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to continue its momentum from a sweeping victory in the 2014 national election, while once bitter enemies, >Janata Dal United (JD[U]) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), have come together to try to stop the BJP’s ascent. A loss in Bihar for the BJP would signal a serious weakening of its grip on power at the national level. A big loss for the other side could end political careers for one or both of the seasoned politicians — Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.

In the first of four articles, we analyse the electoral situation in Bihar, using existing data to understand trends in the electorate and focussing on the role of caste in electoral outcomes.

In the 2014 election, >the BJP (and its National Democratic Alliance or NDA) performed well in Bihar , as in much of India. Using Election Commission (ECI) data, we break parliamentary constituencies into assembly constituencies (ACs). The NDA, which included the BJP, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), won the most votes in 172 out of 243 ACs in Bihar. Of these 172 ACs, RLSP won 17, LJP won 34, and BJP won 121 ACs (almost a majority by itself). By contrast, RJD, JD(U), and Congress won 32, 18, and 14 ACs, respectively. To understand relative party performance, we calculate strike rates in 2014, i.e., the percentage of ACs contested by the party in which the party won the most votes.

The strike rates of each of the parties in the current UPA (or “maha gathabandhan”) challenging NDA fell below 20 per cent in 2014, with RJD and Congress displaying strike rates of 19.5 per cent and 19.2 per cent respectively, and JD(U) winning only 7.8 per cent of the ACs in which it contested. NDA parties in 2014 (all of which have returned to NDA) had strike rates of at least 65 per cent with BJP and LJP displaying strike rates of 66.5 per cent and 79.1 per cent, respectively, and RLSP winning a nearly perfect 94.4 per cent of the constituencies in which it contested.

Split votes In most constituencies both JD(U), which contested alone, and either the RJD or Congress, who were in coalition (UPA), each fielded a candidate. Voters may have split their votes across these two NDA-opposing candidates. In order to test this hypothesis, we coded whether or not the vote share of the NDA candidate was greater than the sum of the vote shares of JD(U) and UPA in the constituency. If the current UPA (including JD[U]) were allowed to field two candidates and take their combined vote share, they still would have lost to NDA in 83 constituencies in 2014. If the current UPA fielded two candidates each in 2014, they would have won 145 constituencies.

Unless there is a perfect transfer of votes across JD(U), RJD, and Congress within each constituency, one would expect the aggregate vote share of these three parties to go down, now that they are in a coalition. If NDA can continue its electoral dominance in a significant share of its 83 constituencies, it will be tough to beat. NDA’s success in 2014 is not a simple case of vote-splitting. The UPA in Bihar must make inroads into NDA’s electoral base and must work together to efficiently transfer votes across parties in its coalition.

The >standard caste narrative posits that there are “dominant castes” at the constituency level who act as kingmakers. While these castes may switch parties, we expect strong caste-party linkages such as Yadav support for RJD and upper caste support for BJP. This implies that parties like RJD and BJP should consistently stand for election and win in the same sets of constituencies, displaying significant incumbency advantages. When we compare the electoral results in 2010 to the AC-level data in 2014, the immense amount of electoral volatility in Bihar becomes apparent. Only 30.9 per cent of ACs were won by the same party in 2010 and 2014, challenging the narrative of caste-party linkages.

One of the key players in this election, RJD increased its share of ACs from 22 in 2010 to 32 in 2014, but it only held on to 7 of the 22 ACs it had won in 2010. By contrast, 23 of the ACs the RJD won in 2014 were actually won by NDA in 2010. The BJP had a strike rate of over 50 per cent in constituencies where RJD had won in 2010, significantly higher than RJD’s strike rate in the same constituencies. In 2014, BJP had a strike rate of 70.1 per cent in constituencies it won in 2010, but this was not significantly higher than its overall strike rate of 66.5 per cent. In short, constituencies won by RJD and BJP in 2010 did not carry a discernible caste advantage for re-election.

There could be three explanations for weak caste-party linkages in the data. One, although voters may prefer to vote for someone of their own caste, many parties select candidates from the same dominant caste group at the constituency level, thereby splitting the caste vote. This may be one reason the BJP has selected many Yadav candidates in the upcoming election. Even if there are not significant splits within caste groups, it is necessary to create a multi-caste coalition to win an election. At the State level, coalitions try to appeal to and absorb a broad collection of caste groups, even if such groups may not intuitively be aligned with each other. This caste absorption principle explains why the NDA is simultaneously appealing to upper castes and Dalits, while the UPA is appealing to Kurmis and Yadavs. Third, more than a quarter of the electorate in Bihar is under the age of 30, and these young voters are seemingly less driven strictly by caste concerns.

A big fight Our data suggests that NDA is in a stronger position going into the 2015 Bihar election, but things could easily go the other way. First, Bihar has serious electoral volatility. Constituencies won by parties in 2010 were often not won again by the same parties in 2014, and a similar shift may occur this time. Second, national parties like the BJP may be more appealing in a national election, but this appeal may not translate as cleanly to the State level. People in Bihar seem satisfied with Nitish Kumar’s tenure as Chief Minister, and NDA will have to make a convincing argument that it can govern better.

At the same time, our analysis suggests that parties will have to rely on much more than a simple caste calculus, as the translation of caste into votes is complicated. The goalposts in Bihar have shifted, and people are talking about vikas more than ever before.

>Latest on Bihar Elections

(Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are all affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. )

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