A Guide to the 2015 Bihar Elections

If you have regularly been reading this blog (thank you, if that is the case!), you have probably seen many mentions of the upcoming Bihar elections. You might be wondering what these elections are, or why this blog has been discussing them so much. This post is meant to provide someone with no knowledge of Indian politics the proper information to understand the Bihar elections.

Before we begin, it will be best for you to familiarize yourself with the names of two alliances: the Grand Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). These are the two main party alliances contesting the elections in Bihar.

You should also familiarize yourself with the three following Indian politicians. Their names will come up frequently in this article.


Narendra Modi

This is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. He led his party, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to victory in the Lok Sabha (national parliamentary) elections last year with a majority of seats. This was a big deal, because no party has won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha since 1984. The BJP did well in the national elections, but has also been on a roll in the state elections, winning many major state elections over the past three years.

Mr. Modi is a very charismatic speaker, and quite popular across India. He’s also popular in Bihar; his NDA alliance won a plurality of the vote and 31 of Bihar’s 40 seats in the Lok Sabha in last year’s national elections. Even though he is not running for any office, he will be regularly visiting Bihar to hold campaign rallies and is very much a factor in this election.nitish1

Nitish Kumar

This is Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)). He is the current Chief Minister of Bihar, and has served in that position since winning the Vidhan Sabha (legislative assembly) elections in 2005–with the exception of one short period which will be discussed later. For the first eight years of his chief ministership, he governed in a coalition with the BJP. However, when Modi was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, he ended the JD(U)’s alliance with the party. In the current elections, he is leading the Grand Alliance with the support of two other parties, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Indian National Congress. He will be referred to just as Nitish below.


Lalu Prasad Yadav

This is Lalu Prasad Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). He was Chief Minister of Bihar from 1990 to 1997, and effectively ran the state from 1997 to 2005. Though his wife, Rabri Devi, was technically Chief Minister during this second period, Lalu was effectively running the show (Lalu was barred from being Chief Minister after his conviction for embezzlement of the Bihar government treasury). He and Nitish were longtime political foes but are now part of the same alliance, the Grand Alliance, for these elections. He will be referred to just as Lalu below.

Modi’s BJP versus Nitish’s JD(U) and Lalu’s RJD. That’s the simplest summary of theelection, if it could be stated in just eight words. There are a lot of political parties, changing alliances, and complex caste dynamics at play in Bihar, so stay focused on those eight words to not lose sight of the big picture.

Now let’s dig into the details.


  • What is Bihar?

Bihar is a state in northern India. In terms of population, it is the third largest state in the country, with a total population of 104 million, according to the 2011 census. It is located in the easternmost part of the Hindi belt, the chunk of north-central India where Hindi is predominantly spoken. Bihar’s capital city is Patna.



Bihar is known for being a poor state that struggles with maintaining law and order. It has something of a reputation as India’s equivalent of the “Wild West.” Since the 1970s, the state has lagged behind the rest of India on a number of economic and development indicators. According to 2011 census data, Bihar is the state with the lowest literacy rate; more than one in three Biharis (36%) is illiterate. Bihar also consistently ranks as the poorest state in terms of income per capita. From 2013-2014, the years for which data are available for all states, net state domestic product (the equivalent to GDP) per capita was $235, the lowest of all states, compared to an all-India average of $605. Bihar is primarily an agricultural state, with 88% of its population living in rural areas. Of this rural population, 98% do not have access to a toilet. Many Biharis emigrate to other states in search of work.

Bihar has had an impressive record of economic growth over the past decade. Between Nitish’s election in 2005 and 2014, the economy has been growing at 14% a year. However, Bihar is starting from such a high level of poverty that it still remains far behind most of India’s states. It is widely assumed that it will take decades for Bihar to catch up to the rest of India.

At the same time, Bihar has played a central role in India’s political and cultural history, both ancient and modern. It was in Bihar that the Buddha found enlightenment, Mahavira founded Jainism, Chandragupta and Ashoka were born and governed over the Mauryan empire, and classical texts like the Ramayana and Kama Sutra were written. Bihar was at the center of Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and the politicization of caste after the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations in the early 1990s. As the poster below illustrates, Biharis have a great deal of pride in their state.


Bihar is known for being an extremely caste-conscious state. As will be discussed below, it is impossible to understand the politics of Bihar without some level of familiarity with the caste system. Bihar is also known for being a very politically minded state. Or as one colleague told me, “In Bihar, you can ask the rickshaw puller what he think about theelections, and he will give you a three hour seminar about the voting patterns of different castes.”

  • Why is Bihar having elections?

Every five years, India’s states have new elections for their Vidhan Sabhas, or legislative assemblies. These elections happen on a staggered schedule so that every six months or so there are Vidhan Sabha elections in one or more states. The Vidhan Sabhas are structured similarly to the Lok Sabha or the House of Commons in the UK, that is, they are parliamentary systems in which the party or party alliance that wins a majority of seats elects the government for the state. Members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) areelected from delimited assembly constituencies, and only need to receive a plurality of votes — not a majority — to win the seat. The Vidhan Sabha elects a Chief Minister for the state, who then picks his or her ministers that make up the state government.

The Vidhan Sabha also elects representatives for the Rajya Sabha, which is India’s upper house of the national parliament. The winner of the Vidhan Sabha elections therefore governs the state and chooses who will represent the state in New Delhi.

  • When are the elections being held?

The elections are being held over five phases on five separate dates: October 12, 16, and 28, and November 1 and 5. The results will be announced on November 8.

The reason the elections are held over this period of time is that conducting elections inBihar is a massive logistical exercise. The Electoral Commission of India needs to move its voting machines and staff around the state to supervise voting. Security forces also need to be placed in some areas where the Naxal movement, a Maoist low-level insurgency, poses security threats.

  • What are the stakes of this election?

At the simplest level, control of Bihar’s Vidhan Sabha and the appointment of some representatives to the Rajya Sabha are what are up for grabs here. But as with any country with a federal political system, the outcomes of state elections often have broader meaning for national politics.

The Bihar elections are being seen primarily as a test of the BJP’s and Modi’s strength. The BJP has pulled off an impressive string of wins in national elections last year but also in the state elections of many major states over the past three years. Their string of wins was cut short by the Delhi state elections earlier this year, in which the anti-corruption Aam Adami Party (AAP) pulled off an impressive win. Winning in populous Bihar would continue their series of wins and be a major coup for the BJP.

Looking forward on the election calendar is also important to understanding the significance of the Bihar elections. Next year, India’s fourth and sixth largest states, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, will be holding Vidhan Sabha elections. While West Bengal has long been dominated by leftist or left-leaning parties and Tamil Nadu has long been governed by regional parties, the BJP is looking to make inroads in both states. It is also looking to compete in Assam and Kerala, which will be holding Vidhan Sabha elections at the same time next year.

A win in Bihar would also bode well for the BJP’s prospects in the Vidhan Sabha electionsof neighboring Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, which is to be held in 2017. All of this would be favorable for the BJP in the run-up to the next national elections, which will be held in 2019.

The Bihar elections are also very much a test of the BJP’s opposition. If the Grand Alliance of Lalu, Nitish, and Indian National Congress coming together are enough to stop the BJP, then perhaps such grand alliances can serve as a model for the BJP’s opposition in other state elections. If the Grand Alliance in Bihar is not able to hold a majority, then the BJP’s opposition will have to do some soul-searching, and perhaps adopt an alternative strategy to take on the BJP in future elections.

Caste and Religious Groups

  • You’ve mentioned that caste is very central to Bihar’s politics. What are the major caste groups in Bihar?

Within the Hindu segment of the population, which together comprises 83% of Bihar’s electorate, the three main caste groups are the upper castes, the Other Backwards Classes (OBCs), and the Scheduled Castes (SCs).

The upper castes comprise about one-sixth (15%) of the Bihari electorate. The Brahmins (5%), Bhumihars (4%), Rajputs (5%), and Kayasthas (<1%) make up most of the upper castes, though there are others as well.

The OBC castes make up 50% of Bihar’s population, the largest bloc by caste category. Within the OBCs, there are three castes that are more politically powerful and generally more socially and economically advantaged than the other OBCs. The first of these are the Yadavs, who make up about 15% of the electorate. The second and third are the Kurmis and Koeris, who together make up about 11% of the electorate (Kurmis and Koeris are technically separate castes but closely related, and their voting behavior is often similar). Lastly are the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), those OBCs who are not Yadavs, Kurmis, or Koeris. They together constitute about 24% of the electorate.

The SCs, or dalits, are the most socially and economically disadvantaged of caste groups. Dalits make up 16% of the Bihari electorate. Within dalits, the Bihar government under Nitish created a separate category for mahadalits, the poorest of the dalit castes, who would be targeted for special welfare schemes. However, the mahadalit category was expanded to included all but the Paswan caste. The Paswans and Pasis–who are closely related to the Paswans, but are categorized as mahadalits–are among the least disadvantaged of the dalit castes, and together comprise 5% of the electorate. The Chamars, another mahadalit caste that is relatively advantaged as compared with other mahadalits, constitute 6% of the electorate. Nineteen other mahadalit castes make up the remaining 5% of the dalit share of the electorate.

This categorization leaves out Muslims, who make up 17% of Bihar’s electorate, and the Scheduled Tribes (STs), which are aboriginal tribes that make up just 2% of Bihar’s electorate (Figures for specific castes are based on the results of previous CSDS post-poll surveys of Bihar. Census data only provides information on the share of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Muslims within each state. ).

Caste Percent of Electorate inBihar
Upper Castes Brahmin 5 15
Bhumihar 4
Rajput 5
Other Upper Castes (Kayasthas, etc.) 1
Other Backwards Classes (OBCs) Yadav 15 50
Kurmi and Koeri 11
Extremely Backwards Classes (EBCs) 24
Scheduled Castes (SCs) / Dalits Pasis (Mahadalit) and Paswans 5 16
Chamars (Mahadalit) 6
Other Mahadalits 5
Muslims 17
Scheduled Tribes (STs) 2
  • Do these caste groups traditionally vote as blocs? If so, how do these caste groups traditionally vote?

Some of them have, while other have not, and their allegiances have often shifted over time. To understand why these caste groups have voted the way they did, it is important to understand a little about Bihar’s political history.

Bihar has been through three political phases since India’s independence: 1) 1947-1967, when a Congress led by upper caste leaders governed, 2) 1967-1990, during which Congress’ and the upper castes’ support base declined and middle castes’ influence grew, and 3) 1990-present, during which Congress and the upper castes were marginalized, OBCs were empowered, and OBC leaders like Lalu and Nitish governed.

As this third phase was ushered in by Lalu’s 1990 victory, upper castes have tended to resent Lalu in particular. Since then, the upper castes traditionally have supported theBJP. In the 2014 elections, the BJP won the upper caste vote by large margins. Lokniti colleagues Nitin Mehta and Pranav Gupta have examined the voting patterns of upper castes in Bihar in an Indian Express article. They did not find significant differences in voting patterns between the different castes in this category. They found that the BJP won the upper caste vote heavily in last year’s national elections, and performed strongly with these groups in the 2000, October 2005, and 2010 Vidhan Sabha elections.

The Yadavs have traditionally backed Lalu, one of their own, and his RJD. They constitute the Y in what people called Lalu’s M-Y base (the M stands for Muslims). They have consolidated quite strongly behind the RJD in most state and national elections over the past twenty-five years. Lokniti colleagues Sanjay Kumar and Vibha Attri have found that a majority of Yadavs have supported the RJD in the 2000, October 2005, and 2010 Vidhan Sabha elections, as well as the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections. In 2014, a plurality of Yadavs backed the RJD.

The Kurmis and Koeris have generally backed Nitish, a Kurmi, and his JD(U), though his party has not consolidated their vote to the same extent that Lalu’s RJD has consolidated Yadavs. Kumar’s and Attri’s analysis from the aforementioned article finds that the JD(U) has won a plurality but not a majority of Kurmi / Koeri votes in the 2000, October 2005, and 2010 Vidhan Sabha elections, as well as the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Only in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections did Nitish win more than half of the Kurmi / Koeri vote. The Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), a party started by Koeri former JD(U) politician Upendra Kushwaha in 2013, will be competing for the Koeri vote in alliance with the BJP. The RLSP is not expected to win a majority or even a plurality of Koeri votes in the upcoming elections. But any votes they do win are likely a loss for the JD(U) and the Grand Alliance.

The EBC vote has often split in different directions and has not consolidated behind one party in the last fifteen years. Since 2005, the JD(U) and the BJP have won the largest share of EBC votes in state and national elections, with the JD(U) slightly outperforming the BJP, except for the 2014 BJP blowout, according to Kumar’s and Attri’s analysis in an Indian Express article. However, the two parties’ combined total has not exceeded 65% of the EBC vote in the past fifteen years, and it is unclear how the breaking of the JD(U)-BJP alliance will play with the EBCs this year. For that reason, many commentators are saying that the EBC vote could determine the winner of the elections next month.

The Dalit vote has also split in different directions. Lokniti colleague Shreyas Sardesai has extensively explored patterns in Dalit castes’ voting behaviors in an Indian Express article. He finds that Pasis’ and Paswans’ votes have tended to go to whichever electoral alliance that Ram Vilas Paswan, a Paswan politician who leads the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), ties himself to. When Paswan was allied with RJD and Congress, a majority of Pasi and Paswan votes went to the RJD. When Paswan allied himself to the BJP in last year’s national elections, a plurality backed the BJP. Given that Paswan is contesting these elections with the BJP, it is expected that many will back the BJP again this time.

Indian Election Rally

Ram Vilas Paswan

The Chamars have moved away from Lalu’s RJD over the past fifteen years and hardly been consolidated by another party. In the past ten years, a plurality have backed the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati, the Dalit leader who was Chief Minister of neighboring Uttar Pradesh four times between 1995 and 2012 (and whose face adorns the banner of this blog). Sardesai writes that Mayawati’s support among Chamars may be an impediment to the NDA’s efforts to consolidate the dalit vote.

The remaining mahadalit castes, which once strongly supported the RJD, have steadily shifted their support to the JD(U) and BJP over the past fifteen years. Jitan Ram Manjhi, a dalit leader who has been tied to multiple parties in the past, is now trying to win their support with his own party. In 2014, after the JD(U) won only 2 of Bihar’s 40 seats in the Lok Sabha election, Nitish stepped down as chief minister and named Manjhi, then in the JD(U), as chief minister. Only ten months later, in February of this year, Nitish asked Manjhi to step down so Nitish could resume his chief ministership. Manjhi refused, and as a result, the JD(U) expelled Manjhi, Nitish became chief minister again, and an infuriated Manjhi started his own party, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), which in these elections will be contesting as part of the NDA.


Jitan Ram Manjhi (left) meets with Narendra Modi

  • Isn’t it a bit reductive to say that some castes will vote one way and other castes will vote another? What about the parties’ respective policies?

It is a bit reductive. It’s probably more precise to say that some political parties derive their support from a strong affiliation with caste, while others draw support from more diverse coalitions. Lalu’s electoral power very much comes from his ability to draw Yadav and Muslim votes. Nitish’s base of support has been broader–he has tried to build his resume off economic development policies, not his caste–but he has still relied on a relatively strong showing among Kurmis and Koeris. Paswan’s backing by Paswans and Pasis has certainly been caste-based, while Manjhi is now trying to pitch himself as the leader of the mahadalits to win their vote. Modi’s BJP has traditionally drawn on the support of upper castes, especially in Bihar, but it is trying to increase its votes among all Hindu voters in the hope of repeating its 2014 performance.

  • What about the Muslim vote?

Muslim voters have not always voted as a unified bloc, as Lokniti colleague Hilal Ahmed points out in an Indian Express article, but Lalu’s RJD has typically won the greatest share of Muslim votes. His coalition was labeled the M-Y coalition, for Muslim and Yadav voters (though this omits dalits, who also provided him with support). In the 2014 elections, Ahmed finds, the RJD won about half of Muslim votes, while in the 2010 Vidhan Sabha elections their votes were split between the RJD, JD(U), Congress, and other parties. The most consistent trend that can be found in these data is Muslim voters voting against the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party. This dynamic will work to the benefit of the grand alliance, if, as expected, it holds.

There is a potential X factor in this year’s Bihar elections. Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of parliament from Hyderabad who leads the All-India Muslim-e-Majles (AIMIM), a party whose purpose is to protect and advance the rights of Muslim communities in India, has announced that the AIMIM will get into the Bihar race for the first time. Frustrated with how he says the JD(U), RJD, and Congress are not focusing enough on improving the well-being of Muslim communities, he is fielding candidates in the legislative assembly seats in Seemanchal, the eastern part of Bihar where Muslims constitute a majority in 10 of 24 constituencies.


Asaduddin Owaisi

If AIMIM wins a significant or even marginal share of the Muslim vote in these regions, they are almost certainly to be at the expense of the Grand Alliance. For this reason, it is being said that his presence in the race will help the BJP in the Bihar polls, in two ways. First, as described above, any votes or seats that he wins are likely to be votes and seats that the Grand Alliance would otherwise have won. Second, if AIMIM’s presence in the race polarizes voters along religious lines, then Hindu voters of different castes may be more likely to vote for the BJP. Owaisi has strongly denied claims that he is being supported by the BJP.

Political Parties and Leaders

  • What are the main political parties and alliances contesting the elections in Bihar? Who are their leaders?

The Grand Alliance includes these parties:

— The JD(U), led by Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s chief minister. The JD(U) is contesting 101 of Bihar’s 243 assembly constituencies. Nitish is the chief ministerial candidate for the Grand Alliance.

— The RJD, led by former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, is also contesting 101 of 243 constituencies.

— Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi at the national level and by Ashok Chaudhury in Bihar, will be contesting the remaining 41 constituencies.


Sonia Gandhi

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) includes these parties:

— The BJP, led by Narendra Modi at the national level and by former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi (no relation to Narendra Modi) in Bihar, is contesting 160 of Bihar’s 243 assembly constituencies. The BJP has not officially named a chief ministerial candidate so as to avoid offending any particular caste grouping, but it is widely expected that Sushil Modi would become Chief Minister were the BJP-led alliance to win.

— The LJP, led by Ram Vilas Paswan, is contesting 40 of 243 constituencies.

— The RLSP, led by Upendra Kushwaha, is contesting 23 of 243 constituencies.

— The HAM, led by Jitan Ram Manjhi, is contesting 20 of 243 constituencies, and 4-5 of its members must contest as members of the BJP.


Sushil Modi

Those are the main sides: JD(U) + RJD + Congress vs. BJP + LJP + RLSP + HAM.

  • Who else is contesting the election? How do they help or hurt either of the main alliances?

There are other parties and party alliances that are contesting the elections as well. None are expected to win enough seats to form a government, but they can influence the elections by winning seats of their own or taking away votes from the other two alliances. If neither major alliance wins the necessary 122 seats to form a government, they will need to invite one of these other parties to govern with them, or new elections will have to be held.

A third front, the Secular Socialist Morcha, has been formed to contest all 243 seats. The main partners in this coalition were in negotiations to contest elections as part of the Grant Alliance, but were dissatisfied with the number of seats being offered to them. The Samajwadi Party (SP), which governs in neighboring Uttar Pradesh and is led by Mulayam Singh Yadav (whose grandnephew is married to Lalu’s daughter), was dissatisfied that it was offered only five seats as part of the Grand Alliance and walked out of negotiations. It is ironic that he is now fighting the Lalu-Nitish alliance, since he was the one to bring Nitish and Lalu together in the first place. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — not to be confused with the Indian National Congress — also broke off negotiations after being offered only three seats. The SP and NCP then teamed up with the Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) of Pappu Yadav, an MP who was expelled from the RJD, and three other small parties to forge a new alliance.

This alliance consists of the SP, contesting 85 seats; the JAP, contesting 64 seats; the NCP, contesting 40 seats; the Samras Samaj Party (SSP), contesting 28 seats; the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP), contesting 23 seats; and the National People’s Party (NPP), contesting 3 seats. None of these parties won any seats in the 2010 Bihar Vidhan Sabha election, though the NCP did win one Lok Sabha seat in Bihar during the 2014elections and the SP won four seats in the 2005 Vidhan Sabha elections. However, only the NCP, SJP, and SP existed in 2010; all the other parties broke off from larger parties.

The presence of the Secular Socialist Morcha could take votes away from both the Grand Alliance and the NDA, but the fact that they are all secular parties who have opposed the BJP in the past means their presence is more likely to hurt the Grand Alliance. The NCP, SP, and SJP together won a little more than 2% of the vote in 2010.

The Left Front will also be contesting all 243 seats. This alliance is made up of the Communist Party of India (CPI), contesting 91 seats; the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI (M-L)L), contesting 78 seats; the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), contesting 38 seats; the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) (SUCI(C)), contesting 6 seats; the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), contesting 5 seats; and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), contesting 3 seats. Which parties within the Left Front will contest the remaining 22 seats have not yet been settled.

The Left Front is opposed to the BJP, and therefore could take away vote share that would go to the grand alliance. Historically, leftist parties have had a strong social base in Bihar, especially in the Naxal-affected areas in the southeast. Their popularity among dalits means that their support in this community could come at the expense of the dalit parties in the NDA. Together these parties won a little more than 4% of the vote in the 2010 Vidhan Sabha election.

Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will be contesting all 243 seats as well. The BSP’s support derives primarily from the Chamar caste within the dalits in Bihar. As stated in Sardesai’s article, the rise in support among Chamars for the BSP has come at the expense of Lalu’s RJD. In this way, votes for the BSP hurt the Grand Alliance. However, the BJP’s alliance with the dalit parties of HAM and LJP this election mean that votes for the BSP could potentially hurt the NDA’s efforts to consolidate the dalit vote. The BSP won 3% of the vote in the 2010 Vidhan Sabha elections, and 2% of the vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The Shiv Sena, a far-right Marathi Hindu nationalist party that is a coalition party to theBJP in Maharashtra’s Vidhan Sabha, will also be contesting 150 of 243 seats. They have never contested elections in Bihar before, and are trying to expand their presence into the Hindi belt. Their vote share is expected to be nominal, and to come largely at the expense of the BJP.

Lastly, as stated above, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), is contesting the 24 seats of the Seemanchel region where Bihar’s Muslim population is concentrated. AIMIM’s presence in the race is widely expected to help the NDA by winning Muslim votes that otherwise would have went to the Grand Alliance, and potentially polarizing the electorate along religious lines, which would be a boon to the BJP.

Alliance Party Seats Contested
Grand Alliance Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) 101
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) 101
Indian National Congress (INC) 41
National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 160
Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP) 40
Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) 23
Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) 20
Secular Socialist Morcha Samajwadi Party (SP) 85
Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) 64
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 40
Samras Samaj Party (SSP) 28
Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) 23
National People’s Party (NPP) 3
Left Front Communist Party of India (CPI) 91
Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI(M-L)L) 78
Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) 38
Socialist Unity Center of India (Communist) (SUCI(C)) 6
All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) 5
Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) 3
Undetermined 22
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 243
Shiv Sena 150
All India Majles-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) 24

Alliance Formation and Electoral Strategies

  • So if a political party wins 3% of votes in Bihar, that means they win 3% of seats in the Vidhan Sabha. Right?

No! Like the United States or the United Kingdom, India has a first-past-the-post electoral system in which the party that wins a plurality of votes within a constituency wins the seat. But unlike the United States or the United Kingdom — and you’ve probably realized this at this point — India has a tremendous number of ideological, caste-based, region-based, or religion-based political parties that win comparatively small vote shares. This means that a party does not need to win a very large share of votes in constituencies (or therefore at the state or national level) in order to win seats. They just need to outperform other parties within constituency boundaries.

For example, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA won 38% of votes in Bihar, a plurality, but this was enough to win a sizable majority (31) of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. The RJD-Congress-NCP alliance won 28% of the vote, but a lot of it was in constituencies where the NDA won a plurality, so the RJD, Congress, and NCP ended up winning only 7 Lok Sabha seats together. Nitish’s JD(U) won 16% of the vote, but only 2 Lok Sabha seats.

This is why it makes sense for the parties to align with each other in alliances — be it the Grand Alliance, the NDA, the Secular Socialist Morcha, or the Left Front. The alliances are effectively non-compete clauses in which the parties ensure they do not eat into each others’ votes within individual constituencies. By forming a grand alliance, the JD(U) contests elections only within its 101 allotted constituencies, the RJD contests elections within its 101 allotted constituencies, and the Congress contests elections within its allotted 41 constituencies.

  • How did these alliances form?

For Biharis, it is a weird sight to see Nitish and Lalu contesting an election together. Nitish came into power in Bihar in 2005 with the support of the BJP, on the premise that he would end the corruption, economic stagnation, and the general sense of lawlessness — what critics call “jungle raj” — that existed when Lalu’s RJD governed. Nitish and Lalu were political archenemies.

When the BJP named Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in 2013, Nitish ended his alliance with the BJP, as he saw Modi to be a divisive figure. In the 2014 elections, Nitish’s JD(U) contested separately from the RJD-Congress-NCP alliance. Though together these parties won 44% of votes compared to the NDA’s 39%, combined they won only 8 seats versus the NDA’s 31. In other words, by contesting separately the JD(U) and RJD-Congress-NCP split the anti-BJP vote in a way that redounded to the BJP’s benefit. This time around, they decided not to make the same mistake by contesting the elections together.

The BJP’s alliance is not so different from the one it had in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, except for the presence of Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM after Manjhi was expelled from the JD(U). The presence of Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP in the Modi-led NDA is a strange sight as well. Paswan was a minister in an earlier NDA government, but resigned in protest after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, which happened under then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Paswan’s son announced that it was time to forget about the riots and “move ahead” as the LJP rejoined the NDA, now led by none other than Narendra Modi.

  • What are the electoral strategies of the Grand Alliance?

The key to victory for the grand alliance is making sure that its different parties’ support bases hold together. As Lokniti colleagues Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta explore in an article for The Hindu, the parties of the Grand Alliance were ahead in approximately 130 assembly constituencies during the 2014 elections, and “can manage a victory by simply ensuring that the voters of the individual parties from 2014 do not drift away.”

But Lalu’s supporters do not like Nitish, and Nitish’s supporters do not like Lalu. Will their supporters be willing to vote for the other’s candidates? That is the critical question. For example, let’s say you are a dalit who has supported Lalu and the RJD, but live in a constituency that has been allotted to a candidate for Nitish’s JD(U). Will you vote for this candidate, or defect to another party’s, such as one of the dalit party candidates aligned with BJP? Alternatively, let’s say you voted for Nitish and the JD(U) in 2005 and 2010 because you were frustrated with Bihar’s corruption and slow pace of development under Lalu, and you are living in a constituency that has been allotted to Lalu’s RJD. Will you vote for that RJD candidate, or might you vote for a BJP candidate that focuses on development and heavily criticizes Lalu? The BJP were in coalition with Nitish for most of his chief ministership after all.

The good news for the Grand Alliance is that Nitish remains popular in Bihar, as Lokniti colleague Sanjeer Alam shows in an article for The Indian Express. Nitish is widely seen as having facilitated economic development and improved the law and order situation in Bihar. The Grand Alliance will stress his record of governance while also playing to the traditional caste loyalties that have tied voters to their parties.

At the same time, they will focus on voters’ anxieties about a BJP-led government in Patna, particularly with Muslim and OBC voters who would stand to lose the most in such a situation. In off-the-record conversations with journalists, Lalu has been saying that he aims to exploit popular perceptions of the BJP as an upper caste Hindu party by framing this election as a competition between the upper castes and the backward castes. When Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rasthriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is the ideological mentor to the BJP, said that reservation policies which keep quotas for dalits and OBCs in government jobs and university placements need to be revised, Nitish and Lalu were quick to pounce on these comments as evidence that the backwards castes would stand to lose from a BJP victory.

Nitish and Lalu are also trying to mobilize Bihari regional pride in their favor. For example, an offhand remark by Narendra Modi that something was wrong with Nitish’s “political DNA” was then treated by Nitish as an insult to the genetics of all Biharis. Nitish’s campaign launched DNA collection camps, and sent the hair and nail samples of Biharis who flocked to the camps to Prime Minister Modi’s office in Delhi. This exercise may sound silly, but it is an excellent example of how the Lalu-Nitish alliance is trying to win voters’ support by treating Modi and the BJP as outsiders who do not understand the needs of Bihar.

  • What are the electoral strategies of the NDA?

The NDA is trying to undercut some traditional caste loyalties while using others to their advantage. By not officially naming a chief ministerial candidate, they hope to not alienate any particular caste group. As with the 2014 elections, they would like to mobilize the Hindu vote across caste behind them. If the Grand Alliance’s ideal electoral scenario is for the vote to polarize along caste lines (upper castes vs. backwards castes), then the NDA’s ideal electoral scenario is for the vote to polarize along religious lines (Hindus vs. Muslims).

However, the strong influence of caste on Bihari politics means that the BJP will also be doing their own caste-based arithmetic. As they did in 2014, they will hope to bank the upper caste vote. Their alliance with the LJSP and HAM means that they hope these dalit-focused parties will consolidate the dalit vote, and their alliance with the RLSP means that they hope to take some Koeri votes from the JD(U). The awarding of many BJP tickets to Yadav candidates shows that the BJP will also make a serious bid for the votes of OBCs, cutting into Nitish’s and Lalu’s bases. A great deal of deliberation went into decisions about how many tickets were awarded to BJP candidates from different castes.

Narendra Modi is a very popular figure across India. He will be very involved in thiselection campaign. In August, before the official campaign began, he announced a gigantic development package of 1.25 lakh crore rupees (that’s 1.25 trillion rupees, or $19 billion) for Bihar. A charismatic campaigner, he will be addressing 20 election rallies inBihar throughout the campaign. This is an unprecedented level of involvement for a prime minister in a state campaign. Knowing that this will be a closely contested election, theBJP is trying to win every vote they can through Modi’s personal popularity.

The BJP will also use the mutual suspicions between Lalu’s and Nitish’s camps to their advantage, in the hopes that members of both will defect to their side. In speeches, Modi has repeatedly criticized Lalu and said that a victory for the Grand Alliance could bring a return to “jungle raj.” With such language, he is trying to undercut Nitish’s popularity and nullify his record of development by tying him to Lalu’s record of governance, perhaps in an attempt to win the votes of traditional JD(U) voters living in constituencies contested by the RJD. Such language is also likely targeted towards upper caste voters, who see the period of RJD governance between 1990 and 2005 as a dark period of Bihar’s history when they were marginalized.

  • So who’s going to win?

This is going to be a closely contested election. No pollster or forecaster is predicting a blowout victory for either the Grand Alliance or the NDA. Some of the projections that have been made by pollsters predict the NDA slightly edging out the grand alliance, while others have shown the grand alliance winning a majority. Some have projected neither alliance winning a majority of seats, which would open up the possibility of a different alliance or political party playing the role of kingmaker. It bears repeating again that vote share does not translate into seat share, so projecting the number of seats a party or alliance will win involves a fair amount of guesswork about how that party’s vote will be distributed across the state. Furthermore, many voters do not make up their minds until Election Day or the day before. As an observer, you should treat any pre-polls and seat projections especially with a healthy amount of skepticism, especially for a close election like this one.

In other words, you’ll have to stay tuned for when the results are finally announced on November 8. With an election this close and the stakes this high, it’s well worth your time to follow the electoral battle for Bihar.

*Thanks to Vibha Attri, Pranav Gupta, Jyoti Mishra, and Shreyas Sardesai for their reviews and comments.

Questions? Anything unclear or in need of further explanation? Please add any additional questions to the comments.


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