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Nitish Kumar once more in Bihar?

October 11, 2010 11:48 IST

With the Rashtriya Janata Dal combine taking on the Janata Dal-United-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance and the Congress going on its own, Dorab R Sopariwala observes it is likely that Rabri Devi will continue to play the role of the Leader of the Opposition

Bihar went to the polls in February 2005. However, the elections resulted in a hung assembly. After a spell of President's Rule, the state went to the polls again in November 2005. 

The Janata Dal-United fought in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, as it has done since 1996.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal tied up with the Congress party and the fifth player in Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, decided to go on his own. The results put an end to the 15-year Lalu-Rabri Raj in Bihar, with the JD (U)-BJP alliance, or JD (U)+, decisively beating the Lalu-Congress combine (RJD+) by winning 143 of 243 seats.

The RJD+ got reduced to 65 seats. The LJP, which fought on its own, found it had an exaggerated idea of its strength. It landed up with 13 per cent of votes and only 13 seats.

Last year, in the Lok Sabha elections, the alignments changed a little. The RJD tied up first with the LJP (the new RJD+). Then the combine made a desultory offer to the Congress to join their alliance.

The Congress rejected the overture, went on its own and contested almost all the seats.

While it won just 10 assembly segments (out of 243), it caused significant damage to the prospects of the RJD+. The RJD+ won just 38 segments, while the JD (U)+ swept the board, winning 175 assembly segments; in every single region, the RJD+ was thrashed.

The results point to a significant characteristic of the first-past-the-post system. The system yields very few seats to a party when it wins lower than a certain threshold of votes. Once it crosses that threshold, it starts picking up seats at an accelerated rate and the rate keeps accelerating as the share of votes goes up.

Also, as the leading party widens the gap between itself and the second party, there is an almost geometric increase in the difference in seats.

Compared with 2005, the JD (U)+ increased its vote share in 2009 by just 2 per cent to 38 per cent, but its seats went up by more than 20 per cent -- from 143 to 175. That happened partly because the RJD+'s votes collapsed from 31 per cent to 26 per cent, widening the gap between the JD (U)+ and the RJD+ to a huge 12 per cent.

The RJD+ won just 38 segments, down from 65. Thus, the JD (U)+, with 50 per cent more votes than the RJD+, won 4.7 times the number of seats won by the RJD+.

For each 1 per cent of votes in 2009, the JD (U)+ won 4.6 seats; the same 1 per cent yielded a bare 1.5 seats to the badly trailing RJD+, clearly demonstrating the system's bias in favour of the leading party.

With an unchanged team, the RJD+ is getting ready to battle the JD (U)+ for the third time in five years. So, what will it take for Lalu Prasad to contain Nitish Kumar? Well, a massive upheaval against Nitish Kumar.

It is difficult to find a similar situation in Indian politics in which, other things being equal, an opposition alliance has been able to close such a huge gap in one election.

There are always some defections among the parties, disputes over ticket distribution, some proxy candidates (wives fighting in place of husbands in jail), limited changes in caste and issue alignments from election to election (Are the upper castes very upset with Nitish Kumar for his aborted attempt at land reforms?

Is the Ayodhya verdict likely to alienate the Muslims from Mr Kumar?) and the normal anti-incumbency, but to overturn a 12 per cent gap requires more than minor changes.

The Congress too starts with a low vote share of 10 per cent. It would need to increase its vote share very significantly to substantially improve its tally. There is little to suggest that it is sufficiently charged up to be able to do so.

Was there no chance of dislodging Nitish Kumar? Well, there was a scenario which existed if the RJD-LJP combine had co-opted the Congress to form a grand anti-Nitish coalition. In the first-past-the-post system, those who don't hang together hang separately.

Had there been a grand coalition, just a repeat of the 2009 vote shares would have ensured that the JD-U+ slipped to below a clear majority with 118 seats; and the grand coalition marginally behind with 111 seats. A bare 2.5 per cent swing in favour of the grand coalition -- not an impossible prospect -- would have taken it to an absolute majority.

However, it is known that coalitions are not perfect. In other words, all the backers of, say, the RJD would not necessarily vote for the coalition if the coalition's candidate is from, say, the Congress. Yet, a grand coalition would have made it a closer contest -- but that is not to be.

Thus, with the RJD+ taking on the JD (U)+ and the Congress going on its own, the most likely scenario is that Rabri Devi (who is fighting from two constituencies) will continue to play the role of the Leader of the Opposition.

The author is a political commentator
Dorab R Sopariwala