Barkha Dutt

The national Opposition does not exist, the Congress’s claim to this role is cosmetic, and only regional parties can be a bulwark against the BJP

It is tough to say anything with certitude after the Bihar election cliffhanger, considering how much journalists and pollsters got the results wrong. But let me make some attempt at sifting through what we know and still don’t know about Patna’s longest day.

First, those of us who travelled to Bihar for the assembly elections reported a groundswell of anger against chief minister Nitish Kumar. We got that part right and were not wrong in arguing that the mud was not sticking to his alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, countless voters spoke about how they would be happy with the same government and a different chief minister.

What we got wrong was our estimation that Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav would be able to channel this anger towards a win for him. Yes, the election was ferociously contested and the narrow margins of victory are evidence of that. In 11 seats, the margin of victory is under 1,000 votes; in Hilsa, the RJD candidate lost by 12 votes .

But if our reading about the anger against Nitish Kumar had been fully accurate this election, it should have been a landslide win for the 31-year-old Yadav who was hoping to be India’s youngest chief minister.

So why wasn’t it?

Perhaps Yadav started his campaign too late and perhaps he became over-confident and lost the momentum midway. For the BJP, exactly the opposite happened. The phase-wise breakdown of how different parties performed nudges us to draw this conclusion.

After a fantastic performance for the RJD in the first phase (31 seats to the BJP’s 12), the party tripped and fell by the third phase of voting. By contrast, the BJP fanned out and spread the word, door-to-door, on the return of what it calls “jungle raj’, creating an effective counter consolidation. Ironically, it was this phase that the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) expected to ace because of the high number of Muslim voters.

For the Congress to blame Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) that has taken five seats is facile and akin to the Trumpian behaviour of a sore loser. First, the charge that Owaisi was a vote-cutter is not borne out by the numbers. By definition, someone cutting into the grand alliance vote base should have delivered a bigger victory for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Of the 20 seats contested by Owaisi’s party, nine were taken by the RJD, making the vote-cutter argument redundant. The five seats where his party won obviously cannot be classified as a consequence of vote-cutting. That leaves the six seats the NDA took; in five of these, the margin of victory of the NDA is large enough for the accusation to simply not hold. Only in one seat has the AIMIM’s vote gone ahead of the NDA’s victory margin.

In any case, Owaisi has the right to fashion his politics in the way he chooses. And, by his own telling, he reached out to the RJD ahead of the elections for a partnership and was spurned. His sharp riposte to the Congress is telling. “Their idea of a Muslim is that I should sit in Hyderabad, organise mushairas, biryani feasts and iftar parties,” he told me in an interview. “They are intellectually incompetent and lack the capacity to take on the BJP.”

There was so much focus on Yadav in this campaign that no one said much about Rahul Gandhi taking a vacation to his sister’s house in Himachal Pradesh, bang in the middle of the election season. It may have only been a couple of days, but it’s everything when you contrast it with the 24×7 commitment to politics that Narendra Modi-Amit Shah display at all times.

Even the Left parties, that have been the other big gainer in this election, are peeved at the number of seats (70) given to the Congress to contest. It is not for the first time (think back to Uttar Pradesh) that the Congress spends all of its energy fighting for prestige in seat-distribution negotiations. None of that similar energy is spent on fighting on the ground.

As the BJP delivers Bihar to a weakened and diminished Nitish Kumar, effectively showing him both his place and who is the boss, perhaps the biggest lesson from Bihar assembly elections is the same that every state election reminds us of. The national Opposition does not exist; the Congress’s claim to this role is perfunctory and cosmetic.

If there is a bulwark against the BJP juggernaut, it can only be India’s regional parties. But they too falter in the face of the Modi factor and their own lack of commitment to a full time, 365 days a year, 24-hour-a-day political life.

Courtesy Hindustan Times