It’s not about caste or beef, but vikas

This election will be decided by a large swathe of floating voters, and the outcome will likely turn on whether Nitish Kumar or Mr. Modi provides a more persuasive notion of development.

October 28, 2015 12:08 am | Updated March 24, 2016 11:17 pm IST

From this week, voters will queue up for the final three phases of the five-phase election in Bihar, choosing either the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the Janata Dal(United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress Mahagathbandhan . Over the past few weeks, we have been travelling extensively across Bihar to get a sense of how voters are making up their minds, focusing on constituencies that went to the polls in the first two phases of this election and the factors that are likely to swing the election in favour of one of the coalitions.

>Nitish Kumar’s model of development or vikas , implemented when he became Chief Minister in 2005, emphasised rapidly increasing the size of the State, from public works, to schools, to a number of benefits schemes. In >Jehanabad district , we spoke to three elderly women chatting with each other in a cluster of ramshackle homes, certain of their opinions. When asked whom they were voting for, one woman replied, “Of course I will vote for Nitish. I am getting an old age pension because of him.”

In the same district, we met a young woman studying history at a local private college. She had received a free bicycle (under the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna) and a scholarship from Mr. Kumar’s government that made attending college essentially free. Yet, she was heavily critical of Mr. Kumar for failing to generate jobs and would be supporting the NDA this time. We pushed her to explain her position. Mr. Kumar had given her so much, even if he wasn’t able to generate jobs. “What else matters?” she said firmly.

Notions of development These two experiences illustrate a debate over Mr. Kumar’s and Mr. Modi’s notions of vikas . Virtually everyone we met lauded Mr. Kumar for improving law and order and building roads. His notion of vikas is predicated upon increasing social protection by expanding State investment and benefits. According to fiscal year 2013-2014 Reserve Bank of India estimates, Bihar is the only State in which the sum of development expenditure, social sector expenditure, and capital outlays was more than 40 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP), compared to an average of 23.7 per cent across non-special category States in India. At the same time, recent estimates paint Bihar as a laggard in terms of jobs. According to Economic Census 2009-2010, there is a 73 per cent and 20 per cent unemployment rate in urban and rural Bihar, respectively, compared to 34 per cent and 16 cent across India.

>Mr. Modi’s notion of vikas , by contrast, includes promises of private investment and job creation instead of personal benefits, which particularly appeals to a class of “aspirational” voters in Bihar, aiming for urbanisation and economic growth.

NDA’s recent problems on the campaign trail have been well-documented, making issues of eating beef and caste reservations. These comments have particularly hurt the NDA because they have taken the coalition away from the message of vikas . At the same time, we found Mr. Modi’s notion of vikas very popular with voters under the age of 30 (more than 25 per cent of the electorate), which may still swing the election in NDA’s favour.

There is no doubt that caste weighs heavily on the minds of many voters, but caste groups have a significant “floating vote” that is more than large enough to swing the election. Party strategists have already factored those who vote purely on caste lines into calculations at the time of candidate selection. The “floating vote,” which cares less about narrow caste concerns, and more about vikas , can be convinced during the campaign and is the population that will ultimately decide this election. Thus, the election will likely be decided by who wins the vikas debate.

Phase-wise data and implications In 2014, the NDA won 36 out of 49 phase-1 constituencies (73 per cent), while it won 29 out of 32 phase-2 constituencies (91 per cent). In the previous piece, we characterised safer “landslide seats” for the NDA by calculating assembly constituencies (ACs) in which NDA had greater vote share than the combined vote share of JD(U) and the former UPA (Congress and RJD) in 2014, i.e., those constituencies the NDA would have won even if the Grand Alliance fielded two candidates. Of the 36 phase-1 constituencies and the 29 phase-2 constituencies that the NDA won, it won in a landslide fashion over the Grand Alliance in 6 and 11 constituencies, respectively. The low number of landslide constituencies implied that NDA was vulnerable in the first two phases due to consolidation of the non-NDA vote in the Grand Alliance.

In 2014, the NDA won 107 out of the 162 remaining constituencies which voted in the final three phases of this election. The NDA won 37 out of 51 phase-3 constituencies (73 per cent), and 53 out of 55 phase-4 constituencies (96 per cent), in 2014. The NDA had a very high rate of landslide wins in phase-3 and phase-4 constituencies. Of the 37 phase-3 constituencies and 53 phase-4 constituencies, the NDA won in 2014, it won 23 and 37 seats by landslide, respectively. In short, phases 3 and 4 comprise NDA’s strongest electoral base in Bihar with a higher proportion of landslide seats.

In 2014, NDA won 65 of 81 phase-1 and phase-2 constituencies. Even optimistic estimates by State BJP leader Sushil Modi put the NDA seat total in the first two phases only at 50-55 seats. Internally, we hear, the NDA is actually predicting significantly fewer seats than that number. Given that the NDA won 172 assembly constituencies in 2014, it may lose 50 as compared to 2014 and still form the government. Even with a large 50-seat cushion, if the NDA continues to lose ACs at this rate, it will likely lose the election. On the other hand, looking at the data, NDA was more vulnerable in the first two phases and is in a stronger position in phase 3 and 4 constituencies.

After the 2014 national election, the NDA held a sizable lead over the Grand Alliance in Bihar, but this lead seems to have narrowed, if not evaporated, after the first two phases of the election. Ultimately, the election will turn on how many voters supported NDA in 2014 and will switch to the Grand Alliance this time. For all of the noise around the election, about caste, beef, and reservation, each person we met who had switched to Grand Alliance did so because they were effectively convinced that Mr. Kumar would be better for vikas than Mr. Modi. In an election this close, aggregate caste calculus does little to predict outcomes. This election will be decided by a large swathe of floating voters, and the outcome will likely turn on whether Mr. Kumar or Mr. Modi provides a more persuasive notion of vikas .

(Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are all affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. This is the second article in a four-part series analysing the electoral situation in Bihar.)

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