Bihar awaits keen contest

Tough Outing: All eyes will be on Bihar as the state readies go face Assembly el
Last Updated 15 August 2015, 18:32 IST
Elections in Bihar are always interesting. It is a complex and backward state where caste rules the roost during polls. This coming Assembly elections promise to be no different. The political combinations have changed now compared to the last Assembly fight. Leaving the BJP, the JD(U) has joined hands with RJD which was its rival in 2010. A breakaway faction of JD(U) headed by Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi is in alliance with BJP, along with a few other parties.

When Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad joined hands in July 2014 after their disastrous performance in Bihar in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the general perception was that they would be able to sweep the 2015 assembly elections.

This perception was further strengthened by the results of the by-elections held in August 2014: the alliance comprising of Nitish-led Janata Dal (United), Lalu-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress was able to win six out of the 10 assembly seats. This tally was less than supremely impressive, but to do that at the peak of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity was by no means a mean feat. At the very least, it dispelled the myth that the communities which support Nitish and Lalu respectively—given their bitter rivalry for nearly 20 years—would never vote together.

A lot has changed over the last one year, though. Both JD (U) and RJD have had rebellion within their parties which has made a dent in their traditional support base. Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, Nitish’s former lieutenant, has formed his own party after being removed as chief minister in February 2015: Hindustan Awam Morcha would fight the election in alliance with the BJP. Similarly, former RJD leader Pappu Yadav has also floated his own party and has been vigorously campaigning against former boss Lalu. 

The BJP has been quick to exploit the intra-party differences in JD(U) and RJD to make inroads in the core supporters of Janata Parivar alliance of Nitish and Lalu. When Manjhi was removed as CM, the BJP referred to it as a humiliation of the Dalit community, terming JD(U) an anti-Dalit party. While Manjhi’s inclusion in the NDA is definitely going to help the BJP in expanding its Dalit vote base, the magnitude of this expansion might be limited.

The Mahadalit is a big administrative category that constitutes around 10 per cent of Bihar’s population.  Like the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) or Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), Mahadalits are also highly divided among various sub-castes — Chamars, Musahars, Pasis, Doms etc —and it’s the caste identity that matters more than the broader administrative category.

Manjhi’s support is mostly among the Musahars—the caste he belongs to—who constitute only three per cent of Bihar’s total population, and anecdotal evidence from the field suggest that even the Musahar community’s loyalty is divided between Nitish and Manjhi.

On the other hand, mafia don Rajesh Ranjan, better known as Pappu Yadav, who is popular in the Seemanchal region of Bihar — especially among the Yadavs — has changed several parties in his career. He recently met Modi in Delhi, and his party Jan Adhikar Morcha might join the NDA coalition and strategically field candidates in select constituencies to cut into Janata Parivar’s votes.

But while the Janata alliance has received a few unexpected setbacks, they have been able to resolve some major internal conflicts that might have proved fatal to their combined electoral prospects. The coalition was wise to name Nitish the chief ministerial candidate: Nitish has the reputation of a development man, and his nomination as the chief ministerial candidate might partially blunt BJP’s attack about the possibility of return of RJD’s ‘Jungle Raj’ in Bihar.

The Nitish-Lalu alliance also recently announced its seat-sharing arrangements—100 seats each to RJD and JD(U), 40 to Congress—giving end to the rumours that Lalu may break the alliance if he is denied more seats. On his part, Nitish has also tried to placate the RJD chief: Bihar police recently arrested two Bhumihar MLAs from JD (U) — Anant Singh and Sunil Pandey, both with multiple criminal charges—to cajole the Yadav voters.
Caste mahasabhas

The BJP, by strategically allying with the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Manjhi’s HAM, has now developed some support in all the major caste categories of Bihar. In addition to this, the saffron party has also been actively organising and participating in a large number of caste mahasabhas to gain their support. BJP’s biggest strength in Bihar has traditionally been its four upper castes, which is about 13 per cent of the state’s population. This loyal constituency allows the saffron party to challenge the socialist parties in their own den.

Also, with the division of seats, JD(U) and RJD—both of which have a strong base across the state—might lose some of their promising candidates: they might contest as independent candidates or on the BJP ticket. The BJP on its part is going to be careful in the selection of candidates: in the Yadav-dominated constituencies which are likely to be given to RJD, the BJP might put up non-Yadav candidates; but in Yadav-dominated constituencies which are likely to go to JD(U), it makes sense for the BJP to put up a Yadav candidate. The BJP might benefit, as a section of traditional JD(U)-RJD voters may shift their allegiance to support these candidates.

The JD(U) and RJD have ruled Bihar for 25 years, and there might also be an anti-incumbency wave which might benefit the BJP. Modi’s popularity has been receding, but huge crowds at his rallies show that he is still the most popular leader in the country: due to the absence of a popular face for a chief ministerial candidate in the state, the BJP is still betting on the PM’s ability to attract voters.

And yet, there is still hope for Team Nitish: in the last one decade Nitish Kumar has found a loyal constituency among women, across all communities(This could be credited to the 50 per cent reservation in recruitment of teachers, panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies, as well as a host of development schemes designed for women of all castes). His performance in the election would also, therefore, depend on this caste-neutral dimension.

In the end, it will probably be a very tough contest between the Janata alliance and the BJP-led NDA. The BJP met with a humiliating defeat in the Delhi assembly elections early this year; if it does badly in Bihar, the Central government would find it difficult to push through politically controversial reforms. A loss for the Janata alliance, on the other hand, would hasten the decline of socialist parties—including in Uttar Pradesh, which will see assembly elections in 2017—and it would be extremely difficult for Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad to stage a comeback.

The Big Bihar Questions

Is it going to be reaffirmation of identity politics in Bihar?
Will the Janata Parivar become a reality?
Post-election, is there a guarantee that JD(U) and RJD stick together?
Where will BJP end up in the national scene if it loses Bihar?
Will Narendra Modi lose credibility if the JD(U)-RJD wins?
Where will Congress stand in this big battle as it is not considered a major force?

Challenges for BJP

A number of CM hopefuls
To tackle Yadav and Dalit votes
Trouble from allies
Accomodating Jitan Manjhi
Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, BJP ally, declares its leader Upendra Kushwaha as CM candidate

Challenges for JD(U)-RJD

Convincing Yadavs to vote for Nitish
Lalu's possible hard bargain
Seat sharing troubles with allies
Countering Modi's campaign

The Key Players

Nitish Kumar has not only disrespected me but also disrespected a Mahadalit like Jitan Ram Manjhi. There seems to be some problem in his DNA because the DNA of democracy is not like that. In democracy, you give respect even to your political rivals.
Narendra Modi

My new party’s No. 1 enemy is Nitish Kumar. Defeating the unholy alliance of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar is the main issue for us and the BJP.
Jitan Ram Manjhi

Narendra Modi has given a new low to the standards of a prime minister. People are looking at him as a joke now. Those generating fear of 'Jungle Raj-2' are themselves afraid of 'Mandal Raj-2'. This election will be Mandal Raj-2 versus Kamandal Raj-2
Lalu Prasad

I am a son of Bihar. My DNA is the similar as that of the people of Bihar. I grew up in a humble household in rural Bihar. Most of us feel that these statements, beyond questioning my own descent, have disrespected the lineage of our people and have denigrated the great legacy of the state.
Nitish Kumar

(Kumar is an economist with the International Growth Centre, Patna; Choudhary is a Delhi-based journalist)

(Published 15 August 2015, 18:15 IST)

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