What Do Bihar’s Voters Want?

30 October 2015

From this week, voters will queue up for the final three phases of the five-phase election in Bihar, choosing either the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress “Grand Alliance” (mahagathbandhan). Over the past few weeks, we have been traveling extensively across Bihar to get a sense of how voters are making up their minds, focusing on constituencies that went to the polls in the first two phases of this election. A spate of contradictory opinion polls and an aggressive campaign between bitter foes, Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi, and bonhomie between once bitter foes, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, have only served to confuse the situation further in Bihar. No one knows how it will all shake out. 

This has all the makings of political suspense film, and, at times, it feels as if everyone in Bihar is in on the script. At a roadside teashop in Jehanabad district, we met a man who argued his case with precision, full of emotion with perfect inflection and timing. A bystander whispered to one of us, “He’s really good, isn’t he? He’s already been on television.” We quickly realised that unless we moved away from the main roads, well-trod by journalists and researchers, we would only hear well-rehearsed sound bytes instead of the concerns of the average Bihari voter.

Even in more isolated villages, we observed that voters often displayed sophisticated and well-reasoned political preferences. No one we met was making up his or her mind based upon a single comment by Lalu or Bhagwat, or a promise by Nitish or Modi. As researchers and analysts, it is in our nature to read too much into each comment, each twist and turn of the campaign, when voters themselves make decisions in a more holistic way. Our conversations convinced us that our efforts would best be put to use by characterising the larger narratives and debates that impact voters’ choices.