BJP does well in poll in the state of Bihar in India

Members of the Barathtiya Janatha Party celebrate for Indian Prime Minister Modi's 70th birthday in Chennai on Sept 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party was locked in a tight contest in India's first pandemic election in the eastern state of Bihar.

But Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a junior partner in the previous ruling coalition, started celebrating early as it became clear that it did exceedingly well in spite of the pandemic.

The trends showed that its handling of the Covid-19 situation which included a sudden and stringent lockdown nationally, which led to much economic stress, has not had a negative political impact on the BJP in Bihar or on the popularity of Mr Modi, who campaigned extensively during the campaign.

Bihar was the worst hit by the lockdown with hundreds of thousands of Bihari migrants throughout the country suffering immensely after losing their jobs and unable to return home immediately.

The contest in Bihar is between the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition between the BJP and Janata Dal (United), a regional party, whose leader Nitish Kumar is the state's chief minister.

The opposition alliance is led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), another regional party, along with the Congress and Left parties.

The trends and results showed that the BJP, a junior ally in the ruling coalition, had eclipsed its regional ally, and was in a tight fight with the RJD for the most number of seats in the 243 seat state assembly.

The BJP alliance was ahead in 123 seats, three more than needed for a majority, while the opposition alliance had 111 seats. Seat count, however, was still fluctuating.

The Election Commission said results had been delayed because of an increase in polling booths as part of safe Covid practice.

"Earlier, the counting of the votes used to take place in 38 locations. Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic guidelines, it is taking place at 55 locations," Deputy Election Commissioner Chandra Bhushan told a press conference.

Among India's poorest states, Bihar still has an impact on national politics because of its vast population which stands at over 100 million.

It was once a lawless state run over by criminal gangs with kidnapping known as the most lucrative venture under a previous RJD-led state government.

Mr Nitish Kumar, who came to power 15 years ago, managed to bring law and order to the state. But he has fallen victim to anti-incumbency sentiment among voters.

Analysts said that the state poll clearly showed that Mr Modi's popularity had not diminished during the pandemic and instead has given a boost to the BJP, which has been struggling to win state elections over the past four years.

"PM Modi retains his personal popularity and insulates BJP from anti-incumbency... So ironically both Modi and Tejashwi have become symbols of a political and generational shift," said Prof Ashwani Kumar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and author of " Community Warriors: State, Peasants and Caste Armies in Bihar".

The poll witnessed the rise of a new political star in Mr Tejashwi Yadav, 30, who tapped into the popular mood by promising 10 million government jobs to voters.

He took over from his father Laloo Prasad Yadav, one of India's most recognisable political figures, who is currently in jail in a corruption case.

"The way Tejaswi fought elections will offer inspiration to many youngsters. Today's results may not have brought change but it has paved the way for change in the future," veteran political leader Sharad Pawar, the leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, told reporters.

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