High women turnout suggests it may still be growth
It is ironical that while both prime minister Narendra Modiand Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar have a good track record in development, the battle for the Bihar assembly elections has primarily centred around caste. If the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad combine chose to highlight RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statements about reservations to frighten voters into believing the BJP wanted to end reservations, the BJP chose to focus on how, if Nitish-Lalu were elected, 5% of the reservations quota may be diverted towards Muslims—in other words, both sides were playing the caste card of the 1990s. The BJP, in addition, hoped to capitalise on the Lalu factor denting Nitish’s pro-development appeal, to point out that Bihar’s politics would now be run along caste lines, never mind whatever Nitish may have stood for earlier—both Lalu’s RJD and Nitish’s JD(U) are contesting 100 seats each in the assembly. The results of the Lok Sabha election last year, of course, are what drove Nitish into Lalu’s arms, with JD(U) down to just 2 seats in the elections and a 16% vote share. And though the Lok Sabha and assembly elections are very different, in the assembly seats that comprised the Lok Sabha constituencies, Nitish’s potential seats came down dramatically—that is, assuming the results of the Lok Sabha elections were directly translated into the assembly seats. In such a situation, the mahagatbandhan was aimed at reducing the fight from a multi-cornered one to a two-cornered one where the BJP would find it harder to win.
With even exit polls getting it wrong in the past, it is wise to wait for the results on Sunday, but the large turnout of women voters—the women outnumber the men—suggests the vote may, after all, be about development. Analysts, who could of course end up with egg on their faces, point to how women are coming out in droves to vote for Nitish who did a lot to champion their cause—50% reservation in panchayats and, among others, the lakhs of bicycles for girls to help them get to school. In the last 5 years, Bihar has grown by upwards of 10% a year and while the improvement in social indicators has been modest, the improvement in electricity output has been the most significant with availability rising from 1,500MW in 2010 to about 2,700MW in 2015—per capita consumption of electricity, though, is still around a sixth that of the country. Whether greater electricity, roads and women’s empowerment will be enough will be known on Sunday. And while the clinching role of caste will always remain the great unknown, if Nitish loses, it will be because the voters are more frightened of what the partnership with Lalu will mean for the future; and that first-time voters in particular are more convinced of Modi’s ability to deliver the goods in Bihar. If the BJP loses, it will suggest local governance matters more and that, the BJP doesn’t do well in a two-cornered contest—the ghost of the Delhi elections will get a new life, and there will be questions raised as to whether Modi should have allowed his development agenda to be hijacked by the old casteist/communal agenda.