The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to find explanations for its electoral debacle in Bihar. While introspection may indeed be taking place within the party, initial public pronouncements are not encouraging. The day after the results were announced, rather than pointing to mistakes in the BJP’s electoral campaign, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declared that the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) performed poorly due to the “social arithmetic” in favour of the opposing Grand Alliance.
As we have stated in our previous pieces, the magnitude of the NDA’s losses in Bihar was due in large part to a wayward campaign strategy. Rather than focussing on putting forward its own ideas on development, the BJP entered the caste game and attempted “Hindu consolidation” from the very beginning, effectively ceding the mantle of development to Nitish Kumar and the Grand Alliance.
This is perhaps most evident in the way State BJP leader Sushil Modi was used during the campaign. On October 5, a week before the first phase of the five-phase election, Mr. Modi began pushing on the issue of beef in responding to a barb from Lalu Prasad. Rather than playing up his role as the Finance Minister for much of Mr. Kumar’s government, and legitimately claiming some responsibility for many of its successes, the party marshalled Mr. Modi for the cause of Hindu consolidation in a back-and-forth with Mr. Prasad. This was certainly not the most effective use of the BJP’s resources.
Social arithmetic In the 2014 national election, the NDA had won 172 out of 243 Assembly constituency (AC) segments, with an average of 39.4 per cent vote share per constituency. The NDA added one more party this time, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) ,HAM,, and won 58 ACs with an average of 34.0 per cent vote share per constituency, losing more than 5 per cent vote share in the 18 months between the 2014 national election and the 2015 Bihar State election.
In 2014, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), consisting of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the National Congress Party (NCP), and the Indian National Congress (INC), contested separately from Mr. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), JD(U). In the 2014 national election, the average aggregate vote share for these parties per constituency was 46.0 per cent. In 2015, with these parties joining forces under the Grand Alliance, minus NCP, the average vote share per constituency was 41.8 per cent, a drop of over 4 per cent from the aggregate vote share in 2014. Despite what has been written in the media, the vote transferring across parties in the Grand Alliance was far from perfect.
Most importantly, these numbers suggest that had the NDA been able to perform near 2014 levels, it would likely have won the election. In this bipolar contest between two large coalitions, the vast majority of voters chose to support one of the two major coalitions. That is, when a voter decided not to vote for one of the major coalitions, it very often switched to the other coalition. Between 2014 and 2015, the NDA experienced a 5.4 per cent drop in vote share. We project that those switching from NDA to the Grand Alliance over this period added around 4 per cent vote share to the Grand Alliance (given that the two major coalitions received a combined average of 75.8 per cent vote share per constituency).
Less this added 4 per cent, the Grand Alliance vote share would have dipped below 38 per cent in 2015. Had the NDA been able to hold near 39 per cent vote share as it did in 2014, it would likely have won this election. In fact, when the JD(U)-BJP coalition swept the 2010 Bihar election, winning 206 of 243 seats, it had a combined vote share of 39.1 per cent.
Many felt that the NDA was actually ahead of the Grand Alliance in the months leading up the election, and the numbers suggest that the NDA’s defeat was less about “social arithmetic” and more about a poor campaign.
BJP's coalition gap The strike rate for a party, that is, the percentage of seats won among those that the party contested, is a very useful way to characterise the effectiveness of a party during the election. Overall, the strike rate for the NDA was a dismal 23.9 per cent. Of the 58 seats the NDA won, 53 were won by the BJP, and only five seats were won by the other three coalition partners, which led to a huge disparity in strike rates. The BJP had a strike rate of 33.8 per cent, while the other three partners combined had a paltry 5.8 per cent strike rate.
While the first instinct might be to blame BJP’s coalition partners for poor performance, something more problematic seems to have been at play. In the 157 seats contested by the BJP this time, the average 2014 NDA vote share was 40.6 per cent against an average 2014 opposition vote share of 44.9 per cent, a gap of 4.3 per cent. In the 86 seats contested by other NDA partners, the average 2014 NDA vote share was 37.3 per cent against an average opposition vote share of 47.9 per cent, a gap of 10.6 per cent vote share. It is evident that the BJP’s coalition partners were placed in seats that were disproportionately difficult to win.
In the seats contested by the BJP, the NDA received an average vote share of 37.2 per cent, whereas the other NDA coalition partners received an average vote share of 28 per cent. This kind of gap between coalition partners suggests that in many places BJP supporters did not vote for other coalition partners, which is consistent with comments we heard in our travels in Bihar (as documented in our previous pieces). The BJP’s relationship to coalition partners may have exacerbated the scale of NDA’s defeat in this election.
Two main points bear repeating. One, if the NDA had held on to its 2014 vote share, it could well have formed the next government in Bihar. Two, the BJP put its coalition partners in a difficult position. It wasn’t the caste arithmetic; a poor campaign and bad relations with coalition partners may have cost the BJP a very important election.
The road ahead Undoubtedly, the BJP has a difficult road ahead in the upcoming year, with State elections in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal — States where it is still weak. It will need to get its act together before the all-important 2017 Uttar Pradesh election. The BJP must focus its message back on the economy and development, instead of caste and religion, and perhaps become a more magnanimous coalition partner. The Grand Alliance may have laid a blueprint for the defeat of the NDA, although such a strategy depends on the ability of the NDA’s Opposition to coalesce in each State. However, ultimately, for this “grand opposition” strategy to be successful, Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad, long bitter foes and now coalition partners, will have to demonstrate that they effectively govern together.
(Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are all affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ashoka University. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, provided the electoral data. This is the last piece of a series on the Bihar polls.)