Chief minister of 15 years, Nitish Kumar faces strong anti-incumbency as Bihar votes for or against a fourth term for the Janata Dal (United) leader in what is being billed as a referendum on his performance. Seventy-one of the total 243 Assembly constituencies, spread over 16 districts, will go to polls in the first phase today. After the second and third phases on November 3 and 7, respectively, the results will be announced on November 10. Only last year, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won all but one of the Lok Sabha seats in the state, raising hopes of a repeat show in the Assembly elections. Nitish’s third stint, however, has been a pale shadow of the first two. The prospects were dealt a further blow by the pandemic-induced lockdown, and the hardships faced by the migrants returning home.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal, the former ruling coalition partner ditched by Nitish to realign with the BJP in 2017, has been quick to cash in on the palpable anger on the street. The main Opposition party has propelled the development deficit and unemployment as key election issues, but translating the momentum into votes is what counts. For the RJD, that could be an uphill task. Made more difficult by NDA ally Lok Janshakti Party, which has muddled the electoral tussle by fielding candidates against Nitish’s party. The BJP senses in it an opportunity to go one up on JD (U).
The caste arithmetic and shifting alliance configurations are a hallmark of Bihar elections, a robust political battlefield, but with historically low voting levels. The turnout would be of particular concern for every party this time, given the pandemic threat. With 7.3 crore voters, the Bihar Assembly election is not only the first major electoral exercise in India since the Covid-19 outbreak, but also the largest in the world so far. For the Election Commission, its successful conduct would count as a remarkable achievement.