The key political message from Bihar, which is heading for a photo finish, is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic still works for the NDA. Though the final picture is still unclear with the race set to go down to the wire, the indications are in favour of the NDA crossing the half-way mark. In the polls held amidst a raging pandemic, palpable public anger against the State government and a resurgent opposition, it appears that Modi’s personal appeal saved the day for Nitish Kumar who is readying for a fourth term in office, though his JD(U) has now been reduced to the level of a junior partner. Defying the exit polls that predicted victory for the Tejashwi Yadav-led Mahagathbandhan, comprising Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress and Left parties, the JD (U)-BJP combine maintained a lead, though slender, in a tight race. The presence of the BSP and the AIMIM appears to have hurt the prospects of the opposition, resulting in a split in the anti-NDA votes. While the counting of votes is being delayed because of the Covid-19 protocols, the voting trend reveals that the BJP gained in all the constituencies where Modi had addressed rallies while the Congress has proved to be a weak link and ended up dragging down the opposition alliance with a poor strike rate. The victory in the politically crucial Hindi heartland State, against many odds, is sure to boost the morale of the saffron party ahead of the coming round of Assembly polls, particularly in West Bengal. The Bihar mandate, along with by-poll results in other States, will strengthen the BJP’s narrative that despite the pandemic and economic distress, Modi’s popularity remains intact.
The fallout of the tight electoral race is that the BJP, which was the junior partner in the NDA before the polls, will end up having the upper hand. Though the party leadership has made it clear that Nitish will be the NDA’s chief minister, irrespective of final seats tally, the friction between the two allies is likely to exacerbate in the changed power dynamics. In fact, a section of JD(U) leadership suspects the BJP of propping up Chirag Paswan to cut into the ruling party’s votes. Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and other smaller parties may wield greater influence in the post-poll scenario. The question remains whether the JD (U) can survive the diminished popularity of Nitish and the manoeuvres of BJP. While Tejashwi failed to turn the huge crowds attending his rallies into landslide, the 31-year-old has established himself as a key State leader in his own right. He has managed to push Nitish Kumar to third place. But giving the Congress 70 seats to contest may have been his biggest miscalculation.
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