Roughly 32,000 new voters enrolled in each constituency for this year's assembly election in Bihar may play a decisive role in determining the ultimate poll result. The presence of these new voters becomes important in the light of the fact that during the last two assembly elections in the state, the victory margins of many of the winning candidates ranged between 12,000 and 13,000 votes.
But there are plenty of ifs and buts before the state goes to the polls. The electoral behaviour of the Hindi-speaking states in the Indo-Gangetic plain is always influenced by caste factors and here, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister and one of the principal players of caste-based politics in India, have stolen a march by stitching up an alliance and announcing their respective share of seats. There is reason for the Bharatiya Janatta Party (BJP) to feel a bit rattled as it cannot field an equally powerful counter-combination of castes and, therefore, has fallen back on its slogan of "development" as can be understood from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement of a grant of Rs.1.25 lakh crore for Bihar.
But this slogan of "development", together with a sense of "national perspective", as described by the BJP, had enabled the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) it leads to capture 31 seats out of 40 in Bihar during the 2014 parliamentary elections. The NDA's combined vote-share was 38.8 percent while the BJP's individual share in this stood at 29.86 percent. However, the vote share of the opposition parties consisting of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) combined was much more than that of the NDA. This is the source of worry for the BJP.
The BJP's traditional vote-base consists of the Brahmins and the Baniyas of Indian society. Party veteran L.K. Advani first tried to broadbase it by his concept of a broader Hindutva. The BJP could successfully romp home in the last Lok Sabha elections in spite of its divorce from Nitish Kumar, who represented the other backward class (OBC) interests. This was because a significant number of OBC votes and even a slight amount of Muslim votes had swung towards the BJP. But this is unlikely to happen now.
This time, the BJP can safely count on 14 percent upper-caste votes, six percent Vaishya votes, around six percent votes that are likely to go to the Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan and four percent votes of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party of Upendra Kushwaha. Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, hailing from the Musahar caste and representing the interests of the 'mahadalits', can bring in another five to six percent votes. But this may not be enough for the BJP to secure a convincing victory.
Against this backdrop, the new voters have become important for the BJP as they may not have been bitten by the caste bug. But the BJP's greatest worry should come from the Muslims, who constitute nearly 15 percent of the voters. For a long time since the 1990s, the RJD garnered most of their votes. Latest indications, however, are that they are again switching their loyalty to the Congress.
This will certainly give the JD-U-RJD-Congress combine extra advantage. In the 2014 parliamentary polls these parties together had received 45.6 percent votes. But for tilting the scales in their favour, both the combines are expected to rely heavily on the extremely backward castes (EBCs) who constitute nearly 24 percent of the Bihar populace. In 2014, 53 percent of this group had voted for the BJP. How they would cast their votes this time has become an important question.
In all probability, the JD-U will be able to retain its 16.4 percent vote base. The Congress is also expected to maintain its 8.56 percent share. About the RJD, however, there are some reasonable doubts. In 2014 it had received 20.46 percent votes. But this time there are two spoilsports - the Garib Janata Dal (Secular) of Sadhu Yadav and the Jana Adhikar Mancha of Pappu Yadav. Both are likely to cut into the RJD vote-share in some pockets. At the same time they have, till now, declared their support for Jitan Ram Manjhi - which may harm the JD-U a bit.
On the whole, the Bihar election result is likely to be a cliff-hanger - and the real test for Narendra Modi.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)