Bihar Elections Phase 1: Has ‘Silent Nitish Kumar Vote’ Eroded?

The turnout fell in Munger, mainly due to the recent attack by the police on a Durga Puja procession. 

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

The first phase of polling for the Bihar Assembly elections ended on the evening of 28 October. The turnout figures don't indicate a major deviation from the 2015 Assembly elections.

Ground reports suggest that this has been a tough phase for incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United). A lot would depend on whether the “silent voters” Kumar has been banking upon, came out to vote or not.

This article will try to answer three questions:

  • What do the turnout figures reveal?
  • What do ground reports suggest?
  • Who are the ‘silent Nitish Kumar voters’?
  • What lies ahead?

What Turnout Reveals

As of 6 pm, close to 53.5 percent voters had cast their votes. This final figure could end up roughly around the same as the 55 percent votes that were cast on an average in these 71 seats in 2015.

Not surprisingly, the turnout was lower in urban areas and higher in rural areas, which is the norm across the country.

There are some seat-wise changes that are interesting.

  • For instance in Munger, 47.8 percent votes had been cast by 6 pm. This is a big fall from 54.3 percent in 2015.
  • This could partly be because of recent incident of attack by the police at a Durga Puja procession, killing one person.
  • Since the Superintendent of Police of Munger - Lipi Singh - is the daughter of senior JD(U) leader RCP Singh, the NDA had to face a great deal of flak for the incident.
  • Therefore the low turnout could be due to anger over the incident. The turnout in the neighbouring seats like Tarapur and Jamalpur also remained low.
  • The BJP was expected to do well in Munger district but the fall in turnout has made matters uncertain.

A History of Low Turnouts

  • Bihar usually witnesses low turnouts, perhaps the lowest among all Indian states.
  • The reasons for this are many: such as inability of political parties to mobilise votes, backwardness in terms of accessibility and communications. Caste polarisation also plays a role - if voters of a community in a particular seat feel that their votes won't matter then they are less likely to turn up.

What Fluctuations May Indicate

  • Major deviations in turnout could be a sign of political change. For instance, In 2005, the turnout fell drastically by around 16 percentage points compared to 2000. This was the first election after the bifurcation of the state. Part of the reason for the fall was also the fact that the districts that went to Jharkhand historically had higher turnouts. In absolute terms the fall might have been lesser.
  • However, the fall in turnout was also the result of an erosion in the support of Lalu Prasad's RJD and this eventually paved the way for the win of the JD(U)-BJP alliance in the elections held later in 2005.
  • There was a significant increase in turnout of around 7 percentage points between 2005 and 2010 and 4 percentage points between 2010 and 2015. Both elections were a verdict in favour of Nitish Kumar, one alliance with the BJP and the second in alliance with the RJD and Congress.

A fall or stagnation in turnout may not be good news for Nitish Kumar

  • BJP and RJD and among the smaller parties CPI-ML, have a reasonably committed base of voters and may be less affected by a stagnant turnout.
  • Since the hawa in the run-up to the elections was against Nitish Kumar, with the more vocal set of voters openly criticising him, he was greatly dependent on "silent voters" to bail him out. A stagnant turnout could indicate lack of enthusiasm on the part of his voters.
  • However, JD(U) can draw hope from the fact that there was no dramatic fall in turnout like what happend during the ‘change’ election of 2005.

What Ground Reports Suggest

Even though detailed inputs are yet to come, a few preliminary observations can be made:

  • Chirag Paswan’s LJP seems to have damaged the JD(U) in seats where it gave tickets to leaders with a BJP or RSS background, such as Dinara and Jehanabad. Both these seats were held by JD(U) ministers. This is happening in a few other seats as well.
  • BJP votes aren’t transferring to JD(U) very effectively in seats that the latter is contesting. In some seats, the turnout in Upper Caste pockets, traditionally BJP-leaning, has been low. So even when there’s no strong LJP candidate with a BJP/RSS background, the transfer of votes hasn’t been great.
  • JD(U) is facing challenges in seats it is contesting against the RJD. As many as 24 out of 35 seats it contested in this phase are against RJD.
  • However, there isn’t a complete collapse of Nitish Kumar’s ‘silent vote’. It appears these sections did turn up and vote for him but there has been some erosion.

Who Are the ‘Silent Nitish Kumar Voters’?

  • With BJP dominating Upper Castes (18 percent) and RJD holding sway over Yadavs (14 percent) and Muslims (17 percent), the numerically strongest communities were already covered. Upper Castes and Yadavs are also highly assertive communities on the ground and often were resented by non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits, especially non-Passi Dalits.
  • Nitish cleverly carved out a base of non-dominant, non-assertive communities: Extremely Backward Castes, Mahadalits and to some extent Pasmanda Muslims. Through an emphasis on safety and later prohibition, another non-dominant vote bank got added to this: women.
  • This was the silent vote that Nitish Kumar is counting on in this election. The JD(U)‘s hope is that the fear of Yadav dominance would compel EBCs and Mahadalits to flock behind it.

Why This Vote is In Danger

  • Ground reports suggest that while many still voted for Nitish from this section, there has been some erosion.
  • Younger EBC and Mahadalit voters are said to be more concerned about jobs and aren’t getting convinced by the fear of RJD rule. The barb of alleged “Jungle Raj” also isn’t quite resonating with voters who weren’t born or were too young during the RJD years. Tejashwi Yadav has also partially succeeded in projecting himself as different from the past.
  • However, older voters from these sections seem to still behind Nitish Kumar to a large extent.
  • Women voters, who may have been impressed with Nitish Kumar’s prohibition decision, have reportedly been criticising the fact that in reality the ban on alcohol isn’t effective. Whether this vote went against Nitish Kumar isn’t sure.
  • Pasmanda Muslim voters ditched Nitish Kumar even earlier, after he ditched the Mahagathbandhan to join hands with the BJP in 2017. His support for the Citizenship Amendment Act further worsened his standing among Muslims.

What Lies Ahead

  • This phase depended a great deal on the JD(U). It was contesting 35 out of the 71 seats that voted, against 29 of the BJP.
  • The next phase includes areas where the BJP is strong and because of this the NDA is expected to do better.
  • The third phase has districts with a high concentration of Muslims. With the JD(U) having lost much of its support in the community, it would be greatly dependent on the transfer of votes from the BJP.
  • The JD(U) would hope that the ‘silent vote’ it has been banking on consolidates behind it further.
  • It would also hope that coordination with BJP improves in the next two phases and the the LJP effect also weakens.
  • One calculation for it is that the prospect of RJD returning to power, may push Upper Castes to consolidate behind the NDA rather than experiment with LJP or stay away.
  • The RJD may be buoyed after the first phase. Tejashwi Yadav may continue to stress on his jobs pitch in the remaining part of the campaign. He may expand it to a broader plank of economic justice and pro-poor measures.

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