Why Bihar will not be a swing state

Why Bihar will not be a swing state

In the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, the NDA polled 58% OBC-EBC votes compared to the Grand Alliance’s 18%. Since then, the BJP has worked to expand its OBC connect

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Last Updated : 29 May 2024, 06:33 IST
Last Updated : 29 May 2024, 06:33 IST

As the seven-phase general elections draw to a close, many political pundits are betting that Bihar will play a crucial role in shrinking the brutal majority of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Their unflagging optimism stems from three readings of the state’s fractious electoral landscape: One, persisting unemployment has generated widespread contempt for the Modi regime. The crowds that Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav drew in his Jan Vishwas Yatra is a manifestation of that contempt, they argue.

Two, Janata Dal (United) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s unabashed political seesawing has eroded his appeal among a cross-section of voters, including the smaller OBC castes, who will be willing to switch loyalties. Three, it can be effected with powerful expositions of a caste census.

Banking on the caste census

According to the Bihar Caste Survey published in October, OBC-EBCs comprise 63.1 per cent of the population. In Bihar, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Yadav are trying to ignite a backward class backlash against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by highlighting their inadequate representation in the government, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary, and expressing a common resolve to redress this anomaly, if voted to power.

But caste-based mobilisation is not triggered by mere enumeration of the depressed classes’ disadvantages, and pledging quick-fix solutions. It requires aggressive and consistent social, cultural, and political engagement on the ground. For instance, much before Kanshi Ram floated the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and led it to power-sharing in Uttar Pradesh, his outfit All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) worked tirelessly to create an assertive Dalit identity, which wasn’t content with its auxiliary role within the Congress’ then upper-caste hegemonic structure.

The OBC connect

In Bihar in the 1990s, Yadav’s father Lalu Prasad assembled a coalition of the poor, including the Dalits. But as his grip on politics slipped, Kumar’s social welfare programmes for the Mahadalits and his protection networks for them against Yadav musclemen saw the community leave the RJD in a steady trickle for the JD(U).

In the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, held in the backdrop of the migrant labourers’ crisis, which impacted a sizeable section of the backward classes, voting patterns did not suggest any perceptible shift of the OBC-EBC votes from the NDA (the BJP and the JD(U) contested that election together). The NDA polled 58 per cent OBC-EBC votes compared to the Grand Alliance’s (the RJD, the Congress and the Left) 18 per cent, according to a Lokniti-CSDS survey.

Since then, the BJP has worked to expand its OBC connect. Its pre-election manoeuvres included elevating OBC leader Nayab Singh Saini as Haryana Chief Minister. In Bihar, the BJP made Samrat Choudhary, a Kushwaha (OBC), its state president, and later a Deputy Chief Minister.

To suggest that all of this will be undone with the blandishment of removing the upper ceiling on reservations is far-fetched. This is more so in a national election, which today is increasingly presidential in its allure and import.

A brittle alliance

With two gruelling editions of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi has shed the image of an inept dynast the BJP campaign had invented for him. But leaders of I.N.D.I.A., the Opposition alliance bloc, are loath to let him control the levers of the alliance. Had they put their weight behind Gandhi, he would have been a formidable draw, annihilating the TINA factor.

The feeling in the public is that mutually exploitative political considerations may have created a fragile stasis among the opposition parties, but the fracas would reassert themselves, hindering their ability to chart out a common programme.

A closer inspection of voting trends underscores that barring a few seats such as Katihar, Kishanganj, Karakat, and Jehanabad, I.N.D.I.A.’s victory is not guaranteed. This is because unemployment is read together with development. The Lokniti-CSDS survey found that while 36 per cent of respondents picked development as their decisive metric, only 20 per cent picked unemployment.

Anti-growth perception

In the lack of a common I.N.D.I.A. manifesto detailing its agenda on economic growth, the RJD is dependent on the Congress discourse. In this context, Gandhi’s constant berating of big businesses is at odds with Modi’s ‘great Indian growth story’. India’s aspirational class is upbeat about the boom in the Indian stock market and attach an element of national pride to it. Gandhi’s lack of vision to create a business-friendly environment is aiding the BJP’s narrative-setting, which projects the Congress as ‘anti-growth’.

This aspirational class is no longer only the upper-caste or middle-income groups living in cities. It includes semi-urban, and even sections of the rural population. This is a constituency which, though conscious of its caste identity, also wears its Hindu identity with pride, making caste reconfigurations a more complex exercise than before.

Yadav’s co-opting of Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party with following among Kushwahas was a more prudent step at caste consolidation, but it may not yield dividends immediately.

Given the NDA’s formidable social coalition in Bihar, it will likely win 30 of its 40 Lok Sabha seats. Perhaps more.

(Anando Bhakto is a New Delhi based journalist reporting on Hindi heartland politics and the Kashmir conflict. X: @anandobhakto.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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