At 4 am, after the tightest election of his life, Nitish Kumar phoned Sushil Kumar Modi who had served as his Deputy Chief Minister. "Hum log aa gaye hain," he said to the BJP leader. After an all-nighter of counting votes, their alliance finally had emerged as the winner in Bihar after being all shook up by Tejashwi Yadav, all of 31 years old.
The result was a complete deviation from what the exit polls on Saturday had predicted - sumptuous victory for Tejashwi Yadav, who, with his helicopter, conducted about 250 rallies through his campaign, nearly one in every constituency of the large state. It was his intuitive announcement of providing 10 lakh government jobs that supercharged him into seemingly pole position. Battered by the economic devastation of Coronavirus and a stalling of development in Bihar, what the youth wanted more than anything else was jobs. The BJP first tore Tejashwi Yadav's commitment apart, claiming it would leave the state broke. Then, when it realised he was onto something, they said they would provide 19 lakh jobs, nearly double of what he had headlined in his sales pitch.
So how did the BJP-Nitish Kumar alliance scramble out of their bind? For your columnist, there are two big winners and two equally big losers whose stories are intertwined. Let me explain why.
Tejashwi Yadav now leads the single-largest party in Bihar. Runner-up is the BJP, just one seat behind. That's how close the whole thing was. Tejashwi Yadav certainly didn't have it all laid out for him. His father, Lalu Yadav, synonomous with corruption and "jungle raj" in the state is in jail. His family is fractious. He didn't have the sort of to-the-max funding that the BJP can count on.
But he turned his campaign into an immersive experience, solely on the basis of his charisma and his commitment to address audiences in every part of the state. The crowds were magnificent in size. In an interview with NDTV aboard his chopper, he wiped his face repeatedly as he moved between two large rallies, professing that his 19 rallies a day outdid his father's record of 16.
Tejashwi Yadav, till now, had been a lacklustre politician, showing all the encumbrances of a political heir. Though his speeches and connect with voters have always been his strength, as Deputy Chief Minister to Nitish Kumar (their government collapsed in 2017), he came across as entitled and irresponsible, often missing important meetings and failing to make any sort of mark on the policies or actions being implemented. He was 26 at the time.
This election has delivered him as the first mass leader of the next generation of politicians. His shrewd strategy of never referring to his father in his speeches or allowing his photos on publicity material indicates solid instincts. Much will depend now of whether he can muster the commitment to serve as a dedicated opposition leader.
The tantalising prospect of serving as the young Chief Minister of Bihar and the third member of his family to take that office was neutralised heavily by his ally, Rahul Gandhi, who drove a hard bargain. The Congress contested 70 seats but won only 19. Yet again, the Congress has exercised its role as the weakest link, proving not just ineffectual but dangerous for any coalition that it is a part of. Tejashwi Yadav was reluctant to concede so many seats to Rahul Gandhi but was nudged by Lalu.
In his speeches, Tejashwi Yadav stayed on message emphasising only jobs, jobs, jobs. He also sidestepped hot button Hindutva issues and personal attacks on his family made by an uncharacteristically flappable Nitish Kumar. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi, while addressing meetings, focused on personal attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which have now been established as harmful, given the PM's lavish popularity.
Narendra Modi is the other big winner at the cost of big loser Nitish Kumar. The BJP has for the first time emerged as the leader of its alliance with Nitish Kumar. If he serves again as Chief Minister (senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah have guaranteed this), it will be at Narendra Modi and Amit Shah's pleasure. The BJP finished with 74 seats and the JDU with 43. The PM's unattenuated appeal in the face of Coronavirus and an economy with a mega case of the blahs merits a thesis. He hoovered up support across the state for his party. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, was tethered to anti-incumbency, mismanagement of the migrants crisis and the perception that his venerated emphasis on development has lost its way.
The "double engine" claim of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar is exaggerated. The centre under Narendra Modi is the engine and Nitish Kumar is now just a bogey being tugged along by Narendra Modi. Nitish Kumar has been claiming that he will get a better financial deal for Bihar from the centre. The jury is still out on that. Nitish Kumar, who has a huge sense of entitlement and ego, and a history of red-hot conflict with Narendra Modi, has been reduced to bonsai stature.
PostScript: Chirag Paswan, LJP chief, who claims to have Modi in his heart as a neo Hanuman, kept his promise - he landed just one seat but kept Nitish Kumar's party out of many, delivering his end of a (barely) secret covenant. A consolation prize is coming his way from the party that masterminded his moves.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.