It's D-day, 243 seats to go: Numbers favour the BJP in Bihar's 'wave' election

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the days leading up to the election.

With the first phase of the Bihar elections just five days away, the first of the major pre-election voter surveys is out, this one being conducted by the fairly credible Lokniti-CSDS, and published by The Indian Express.

While the survey shows the BJP-led four-party coalition four percentage points ahead, the 42-38 split between it and the rival Nitish-Lalu-Congress alliance suggests that this is fight between two strong forces. The BJP coalition certainly has the edge, but the four percent overall lead should be read with caution at this stage in a multi-phase election where voter behaviour in the early phases tends to have some impact on voters in subsequent phases. All parties will claim victory after 12 October, when the first phase is due.

But some plausible conclusions can be drawn even at this early stage.

First, this is likely to be a "wave" election, where the winner will take a clean majority. If late-September voting intentions hold, the BJP coalition will win hands down as a four percent lead will get it a disproportionate share of seats.

 Its D-day, 243 seats to go: Numbers favour the BJP in Bihars wave election

Prime Minister Narendra Modi Jitan Ram Manjhi, LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan, RLSP supremo Upendra Kushwaha and other NDA leaders during an election rally in Banka in Bihar. PTI

Less likely, but something which cannot be ruled out, is a smaller wave in favour of the JDU-RJD-Congress "Mahaganthbandhan". The reason why this outcome must also be considered is the possibility of undecided voters switching to what they consider the winning side. Remember, in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav got a clear majority with a vote share gap of just 3 percent with the BSP.

Second, this election will be significant for India because it will test, perhaps for the first time, the importance voters attach to the compatibility of coalition partners. The Mahaganthbandhan is a coalition of incompatibles, while the BJP-led one is a more logical one of upper castes and Dalits, with a smattering of economically backward OBCs thrown in for good measure.

The voter knows the distribution of seats in the Mahaganthbandhan does not lend itself to stability, especially given the known personality clashes between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in the past. The chances are voters, if they want governance, will ultimately choose a combo with better internal chemistry than one that has been built purely to stop the BJP. If chemistry trumps arithmetic, Nitish Kumar is a goner.

Third, this election will crucially be decided by the relative strength of the "spoilers" —  and there are at least three of them this time. The first spoiler is the third front, the Mulayam Singh-NCP one. Given the bipolar nature of this contest, the third front is unlikely to influence the outcome too much, but to the extent it does, it will impact the Mahaganthbandhan more than the BJP.

The second spoiler is Asaduddin Owaisi's Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which is making a pitch in the Muslim-dominated constituencies of Seemanchal. Owaisi is a fiery Muslim rabble-rouser, and - at least this time - looks unlikely to deter his community from its goal of voting against the BJP. But even if he gets 10-20 percent of the Muslim vote, the Mahaganthbandhan should be worried about its "sure" seats where there could be a anti-minority polarisation among Hindus as well.

The last "spoiler" will be Pappu Yadav, who could take away some of Lalu Yadav's sheen in his Yadav strongholds. But the chances are Pappu Yadav will not have an impact beyond one or two seats.

Put another way, if the spoilers are capable of spoiling anything, it is the Mahaganthbandhan's chances of getting a majority on its own.

Fourth, Bihar is a rural state - less than 15 percent urban. The BJP-led coalition will probably sweep the urban areas, but the rural vote of the Mahaganthbandhan is stronger, according to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, though still trailing the BJP. The latter's lead in rural areas is just about 2 percent compared to the Nitish-Lalu score. The rural vote could thus split down the middle based on caste and arithmetic logic. Given the impact of first-past-the-post idiosyncrecies, the BJP's real challenge is in rural Bihar. The wave will determine outcomes here.

Fifth, the Congress is likely to be the biggest loser in Bihar, unless the Mahaganthbandhan wins. Given the nature of upper caste-Dalit-Mahadalit consolidation - earlier the Congress' key support base - Rahul Gandhi's party faces a wipeout even with the backing of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. Congress is the passenger on their ship, and the BJP may make mincemeat of the party wherever the Congress faces the BJP as rival. One wonders what Nitish and Lalu saw in the Congress to give it 40 seats. Perhaps Rahul got all the seats Nitish and Lalu could never have hoped to win.

Net-net, this is an election that is Amit Shah's to lose. If he has got his planning and candidate selections right, he has a 3:1 chance of carrying the day.

Updated Date: Nov 08, 2015 07:17:39 IST