It’s neck and neck in Bihar

It’s neck and neck in Bihar

The race in Bihar for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is wide open

Will Bihar with its 40 Lok Sabha seats become a barometer of which way the Lok Sabha polls are headed? As things stand, both sides – the BJP-led NDA, and Opposition alliance are almost neck and neck in the politically-significant state.

The first phase of elections in 91 Lok Sabha seats took place on April 11 and campaigning is on in full swing for the second phase in 97 Lok Sabha seats on April 18. At this point, some broad contours of the political battle of this wave-less election have emerged.

They indicate that state-level tie-ups could be the determining factor in deciding the poll outcome in states where alliances anchored by the two national parties – Congress and BJP -- are facing off.

Double-barrel advantage for NDA

This where the role of caste, charisma and credibility -- the three ‘Cs’ that could determine the performance of each the alliances -- becomes most important.

Although there is no 2014-like wave in his favour, the charisma of Narendra Modi is still potent in Bihar. Chief minister Nitish Kumar’s credibility among the masses as a no-nonsense performer and an inclusive politician also remains intact despite his switch from RJD-Congress to the NDA in 2016.

“Nitish Babu kaam to kiye hain,” (Nitish Kumar has worked) reverberates across many villages of the state, although lack of job creation and absence of industries under Nitish’s 13-years stint rankles people.

People also express faith in Modi's “strong” leadership. “Modi ko ek baar aur chance milna chaahiye," (Modi should get one more chance) is the repeated refrain. It appears that the double-barreled Nitish-Modi personality has indeed given the NDA an edge as far as charisma and credibility are concerned.

But what about the other big factor in Bihar politics – caste? Much in Bihar is dependent on how this jigsaw puzzle of caste dynamics will come together on polling days.

Caste cauldron

Nowhere else in the country have both sides stitched up such broad-based rainbow alliances of different caste groups, represented by well-known faces.

So, although Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad is in jail, his son Tejashwi Yadav will walk away with a majority of the 14 per cent Yadav votes in Bihar. Ram Vilas Paswan is the unquestionable claimant of five percent Paswan or Dusadh votes. Jitan Ram Manjhi belonging to Mahadalit Mushhar community is a claimant for close to three per cent of Manjhi votes. Upendra Kushwaha of Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) claims he has influence over six per cent Kushwaha votes, while four per cent Kurmi voters swear by Nitish Kumar.

Of this lot, Nitish Kumar has created a caste neutral identity for himself. He has supporters among all castes and communities -- even among the 17 per cent Muslims, who are dead against voting for BJP or NDA. “Nitish Kumar se bair nahin, NDA ki khair nahin,” (There is no enmity with Nitish Kumar, but no sympathy for NDA) goes the refrain in many Muslim localities of Bihar.

Ever since the rise of Mandal politics and the marginalisation of the Congress, 17 to 18 per cent Upper Caste voters have remained steadfast supporters of the BJP. This has only got consolidated after the Modi government’s decision to provide 10 per cent quota to the poor among the Upper Castes.

Among the nearly 83 per cent Hindus, over 50 per cent are OBCs, while Dalilts and Mahadalits put together constitute 17 per cent of the electorate. Muslims and Upper Caste are believed to vote en block in favour of or against the BJP, but OBCs and Dalits tend to vote as per their sub-castes. This makes the picture complex as there are rivalries among Yadavs, Kushwahas and Kurmis in the OBC hierarchy and the Paswans, Manjhis and Ravidas among the Scheduled Castes.

Clamour for power

Lalu Prasad was the first full-time chief minister hailing from the OBC community. The Upper Caste (Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars) have had their chief ministers. There have been CMs from the Dalit Pasi caste (Bhola Paswan Shastri); Kushwaha (Satish Prasad Singh), Mushhar (Jitan Ram Manjhi), Nai (Karpoori Thakur), Ravidas (Ram Sundar Das) but they ruled only briefly. They haven’t yet had a member of their community serve as a full-time CM. Other caste groups like Koiri Kushwahas among the OBCs and non-Paswan Dalits resent not having a share in the power pie. Ram Vilas Paswan, though did not become CM, shot to prominence on the national scene and remained a minister in various dispensations at the Centre for close to four decades.

As far as the Mushhars go, in 1952, Kirai Mushhar became the first Musahhar MP on a Socialist party ticket in Bihar but the political ambition in the community did not mature until Jitan Ram Manjhi was anointed chief minister by Nitish Kumar in 2014.

When he was forced to step down to make way for Kumar again, the community took strong objection to it and voted for the Manjhi-backed BJP in 2015 Assembly polls. In between, Bhagwatia Devi from Gaya had become MP from the Mushhar community in 1996, drawing wide national and international media attention.

Kushwahas felt that in the OBC hierarchy after Lalu from the dominant Yadav caste and Nitish Kumar from the relatively-well off Kurmi caste, it was now their turn to rule the state. This could well play out in Bihar since there is no undisputed leader either among the OBCs or Dalits now.

Both the Manjhis and the Kushwahas are in the non-NDA camp this time round. Mukesh Sahani of the Nishad community, which has six per cent votes has also joined hands with Lalu-Congress combination, deserting the BJP camp.

Keen contest

If we just add up the percentage of various castes, both alliances appear almost equally poised. The Opposition grand alliance could gain the votes of Muslims (14 per cent), Yadavs (17 per cent), Mushars (three per cent), Nishads (six per cent) and Kushwaha (six percent) or the 'MYMK', totalling up to 54 per cent with the additional Congress vote (about eight per cent).

The NDA led by Nitish Kumar in past had broken into the Muslim Yadav (MY) support base of Lalu Prasad’s RJD. This time it has the additional four percent votes from the Paswan community. In 2014 when the Janata Dal (United) had fought alone, it had got 15.8 per cent of the votes. BJP got around 30 per cent, Congress 8.4 per cent, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party 6.5 per cent and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP took three per cent.

If the 2014 votes for each NDA ally is added, the NDA has nearly 52 per cent of the votes.

But then the voting pattern could also change and each party’s vote could alter this time with new allies joining them and old ones switching sides. The small gap between the two alliances can be bridged or breached. In short, the election is wide open.