The verdict of Bihar on who would rule it for the next five years will become clear as counting of votes begin later this morning. The choice is between a fourth term for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and a first one for his former deputy, 31-year-old Tejashwi Yadav, candidate of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress and the Left alliance. Most exit polls have predicted a majority for the latter. Exit polls often get it wrong. The election took place amid a bitter campaign that saw the Chief Minister battling anti-incumbency, a rebellion by Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan against his leadership – seen by many as being backed by the BJP – and Prime Minister Narendra Modi replacing Mr Kumar as the de facto face of the NDA in the state.
An aggregate of opinion polls by NDTV indicates that the opposition coalition will win 128 of Bihar’s 243 seats and the NDA, 99. Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party is given six seats. The exit polls, though, have often got it wrong. An India Today-Axis poll on the preferred chief minister says 44 per cent picked Tejashwi Yadav and Nitish Kumar is second to his former deputy with 35 per cent.
The campaign saw Tejashwi Yadav – who took the reins of the party as his father Lalu Yadav was jailed in a string of corruption cases– come of age, drawing huge crowds at his rallies across the state.
Tejashwi Yadav has been conducting an issue-based campaign. But his promise of signing off on 10 lakh jobs was the big hook, his party said, in the backdrop of the widespread unemployment in the state since the lockdown started in March.
Alongside the opposition campaign, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has faced jibes, slogan-shouting crowds and on one occasion, an onion attack. In several instances, he is seen to have lost his cool.
In his campaign, Mr Kumar has focused increasingly on jibes against the opposition, targeting Tejashwi Yadav repeatedly over the law and order issues during the 15-year tenure of his parents Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had referred to him as the “Jungle Raj ka Yujraj (Crown Prince of Jungle Raj).
Tejashwi Yadav has refused to be goaded into any angry retort. Instead, he has repeatedly said the ruling alliance was targeting him as they were not willing to respond to the burning issues in the state — unemployment, migrant crisis, corruption and prohibition-related problems.
On the last day of the campaign, Nitish Kumar made a shock announcement that this would be his last election. Though his supporters tried to explain it saying he only meant it was the last day, the opposition was not convinced.
While Tejashwi Yadav said proved his assessment that the 69-year-old Chief Minister was “tired”, Chirag Paswan warned people against voting for anyone who would not be answerable to them again.
Chirag Paswan, whose party is contesting solo in this election, is expected to be a key factor – and one that might prove costly for Nitish Kumar. With a declared aim of a “Nitish-Mukt Bihar (Nitish-free Bihar)” he is expected to eat into the votes of the ruling Janata Dal United. The situation is expected to benefit the BJP in case no clear majority emerges – Mr Paswan has repeatedly underscored his loyalty to the party.
An upset in Bihar will be a huge reversal for the NDA, which won 39 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in last year’s general elections. Already, the NDA’s lacklustre campaign has fueled speculation that the BJP’s master strategist, Amit Shah, is preoccupied with neighbouring Bengal, where assembly elections are due next year.