Understanding BIHAR’s upcoming assembly elections

Politically, tactically and symbolically, this is the most important election after 2014 General Elections.

The Bihar legislative assembly elections are due as the tenure of the current Legislative Assembly expires on 29 November 2015. It is pertinent to mention that the Janata Dal United (JDU), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have announced to fight the election jointly under Nitish Kumar’s leadership under the JantaPariwar banner. This ‘secular alliance’, as they call it, is likely to be joined by Congress, NCP and also possibly TMC. This will take Modi-led BJP’s AshwamedhaYagna to its most crucial battleground.

Politically, tactically and symbolically, this is the most important election after 2014 General Elections.

Bihar’s electoral complexities

Whether we agree or not, Biharis are very astute as far as electoral politics is concerned; that their priorities get misplaced is just another concern. But you can trust them to be totally unlike Delhites.

For Biharis, it’s more about political space and pride than personal gains. No Land Acquisition Bill, ‘GharWapsi” or for that matter, any reforms are going to be the subject matter of this election. Social engineering is the most important factor in Bihar along with development and hope (created by Narendra Modi). The game plan in Bihar is to tailor the party’s political positioning into the caste matrix. Here is a breakup of the core voter base of each party:

Party Composition
RJD  Yadavs (14%)
JD(U) Koeris (5%) + Kurmis (4%) + Muslims (15%)
Congress No core voter base left, but will fetch 4-5per cent votes from the mixed bag.
BJP Majority of Upper Caste (18%) + Baniyas (7%)
LJP  Dalit (6%)
Deciders Mahadalits (10%) and Most Backward Caste (MBCs) (21 %)

The coalition of RJD, JDU and Congress for the by-polls for 10 Assembly seats in the state surprised many.However, these by-polls cannot be a performance evaluation of the Modi government at the Centre. However, it is a wake-up call for the state BJP leadership, which was still complacent. The whole campaign was mismanaged right from the beginning. “The most important reason of our poor performance is the complete disregard for forward castes in the party. It alienated our most loyal voters,” said a friend and party worker. This was also a notice to the Central Leadership of BJP that the forward castes are not very happy with Sushil Kumar Modi’s leadership.

The by-elections also signaled the return of Lalu Prasad as a major force in the state. His political acumen intact, LaluPrasad managed to bring together a political alliance to counter the rise of the BJP, earlier thought impossible. The outcome of the by-polls has raised clamor in the BJP to revisit its strategy for the upcoming Assembly elections. Whether the party learns from its mistakes remains to be seen. And everything might not be smooth for the RJD-JD(U)-Congress combine. If it decides to fight the Assembly elections as a single entity, choosing a leader acceptable to all sides will be its biggest challenge.

Bihar sliding downhill

The state, once touted as among India’s most promising emerging growth centers that had bettered other states in terms of growth in recent years, has fallen off the investors’ radar once again.

chartIssues like building roads and bridges, ensuring electricity to all households, creating jobs, providing an enabling ecosystem for new investment and innovation in governance have given way to tried and tested themes of social justice and communal-secular divide.

While Lalu is back to his old “Mandal Vs Kamandal” rhetoric, the BJP on the other hand, is harping on the return of the Jungle Raj, a euphemism for a period in Bihar’s politics dominated by Lalu Yadav. Bihar now stares at undoing whatever little it had achieved in the recent past. If they miss this chance, there is a danger of even the trickle of investment drying up. People of Bihar don’t understand fine data, but they do understand the repercussions very well.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

Over the past couple of years and much before the 2014 elections, the demand for change at the center was loud and glaring. It was clear that Narendra Modi fits the bill both as the leader and deliverer of this change. This was the time when the people of Bihar were elated when Nitish Kumar served them a shocker by breaking the 17-year old alliance with the BJP that made Nitish the CM of Bihar. The people of Bihar have not forgotten this.

BJP chief Amit Shah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh began the campaign for the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar with a mega rally of volunteers at Gandhi Maidan, Patna. Shah tried to woo the people of the state by remembering former chief minister Karpoori Thakur on Dalit icon Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. The overwhelming anger against Nitish Kumar’s personal ambition should ideally be enough to defeat the ruling JDU.

The BJP’s game plan to woo Dalits, Mahadalits and the most backward castes did work during 2014 general elections. Even at the height of the Ram Janmbhoomi movement such a large number of Dalits never voted for BJP anywhere in the heartland, let alone Bihar. The BJP’s success will again depend on how smartly it plays up the backward caste and the humble origins of Mr Modi and at the same time manages to hold on to the upper caste votes.

Another positive for the BJP is that after the party’s debacle in the Delhi elections, its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has reportedly stepped in to oversee its strategy in Bihar in a damage control mode. RSS functionaries are on a day-to-day meeting several BJP leaders to discuss the election and plans to monitor the BJP campaign in Bihar closely.

The Modi Factor 

The Modi wave in Bihar is not at the level of a frenzy but still remain unchallenged, speciallyamong the youth (forward, backward or Dalit). There is a great deal of curiosity about Mr Modi who has galvanized the youth looking for hope across castes. These voters who potentially cut across all caste lines will decide the fortunes of BJP in Bihar.

The Congress and others ranting against BJP and Modi repeatedly is only helping the electorate get polarized behind Modi. Nitish Kumar would possibly counter this by suggesting that while Modi rose from a humble background, he is now closer to corporates than to backward classes. However, it remains to be seen how far people will take him seriously.

The Nitish Factor

The past one year has been disastrous for Nitish Kumar, personally as well as politically. The crushing defeat in the LS elections cost him the CM’s post and forced him to ally with arch-rival Lalu Yadav. What’s more, his trusted lieutenant Jitan Ram Manjhi, turned against him. Mr. Kumar can now take some comfort from the fact that for the first time in many months, there are question marks about the BJP’s seeming invincibility after Delhi elections. Nitish Kumar and his new ally Lalu have so far relied heavily on countering what they see as a ‘communal’ BJP with a ‘social justice’ plank.

The Manjhi Factor

Jiten Manjhi was hand-picked by Nitish as his replacement assuming, what he termed, as “moral responsibility” when he quit last year following JDU’s rout in the LS polls. Nitish had handed over power to Manjhi, a leader from the unprivileged Musahar caste, to build a strong support base in this section.

However, Manjhi has landed both the leaders struggling for political survival in a lose-lose situation. With his exit from the party, JDU stands to lose the support of the Dalits who are around 21per cent of the state’s population. His bid to throw Manjhi out of his post with the support of Lalu has offended the community. Observers say the Nitish-Lalu plan to check the split in anti-BJP votes is in tatters now. The Nitish-Lalu combination will face a major blow after the exit of Dalits and will make the duo largely dependent on Muslim-Yadav-Kurmi caste. Upper castes left Nitish after he joined hands with Lalu.

manjhiThe full impact of Manjhi might be unclear today. However, one may safely assume that the manner in which a Mahadalit CM was hounded out by Nitish might just end up making the community distrustful of Nitish.

Janata Pariwar (JDU + RJD + Cong + NCP)

It is said, there are no permanent friends or foes in politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bihar. In the early 90s, RJD Supremo Lalu Yadav came to power, buoyed by Mandal politics and an anti-Congress sentiment. Yet, by the end of the decade, he was one of the strongest supporters of the Congress.

The RJD regime was overthrown by the JDU-BJP combine led by Nitish Kumar, credited for the turnaround of astate devastated by 15 years of massive corruption, extortion, kidnappings and mafia rule. The debacle in the 2014 elections forced Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad to bury their differences and join hands to take on the Modi led BJP.

janataThe BJP will battle the combined might of Nitish + Lalu + Mulayam + Pawar + Congress hoping to consolidate the Kurmi + Yadav + Muslim vote bank.

Equally, the anti-BJP media establishment seems to be hailing this ‘merger’ as a long overdue move to check the advancing juggernaut of the ‘communal forces’ that threaten to the ‘Idea of India’. The argument goes that it’s only in Bihar that the Janata Parivar coalition stands a realistic chance of stopping the BJP ‘Ashwamedha Horse’. I am sure pigs would fly before Deve Gowda can act as a force multiplier for Lalu or Mulayam or vice versa.

However, the majority of the Bihar junta today think that Nitish Kumar is responsible for Bihar’s current political crises. As a result of this merger, it looks like this will ensure a rise of Lalu again and complete decimation of Nitish Kumar and his JDU.

Such is the nature of politics that a man who was virtually invincible, and was being projected as a real prime ministerial possibility is today staring at political oblivion just for his one misstep provoked by ambitious secularism.

Other Key Ground realities

Assuming that a merger would ensure that the vote-share would be fully transferable based on arithmetical calculation would be foolish. We must also understand that the core voters of both Lalu and Nitish are more or less nontransferable to each other. Both Yadavs and Kurmis have been violently fighting against each other on the ground for the last two decades.

Lalu Yadav is a ruthlessly shrewd politician. It is important to remember that Lalu has plenty of reasons to hate Nitish on a personal basis as he has done more than enough to have him exiled from the political stage. Now even if one were to assume that the new Janata Parivar would defeat the BJP and indeed sweep to power, running a government, even with a clear majority would be difficult for both.

Giriraj Singh of Bihar has a high hit rate in delivering offensive remarks, but that hasn’t impeded his political growth.Mr. Singh remains unfettered by fear of real punishment because of his well-established proximity to BJP chief Amit Shah, who, for years, was hosted by Mr Singh when he visited the state.

When the BJP was deliberating in 2013 over whether to choose Mr Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, Mr Singh was among the leader’s most aggressively vocal champions despite being in the cabinet of the Nitish Kumar government and relentlessly attackedhim.

Giriraj Singh’s addition to the Union Government late last year was not detached from the approaching assembly election in Bihar. Mr. Singh belongs to the powerful and landed upper caste Bhumihar community, which has traditionally sided with the BJP. Bhumihars in Bihar are nearly 5-6per cent but are the most influential caste and even if there are only 10 houses in a village, they enjoy the authority and have ability to swing votes in their party/candidate’s favor.

BJP’s core voters appear unhappy with Sushil Modi. It would be a strategic mistake if the BJP opts to project him as CM candidate. Leaders of every community like Shahnawaz Hussain, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Hukumdev Narayan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, et al should be jointly projected as campaign leaders along with Sushil Modi, Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha. The most important factor still would be the ticket distribution. If the BJP manages to fine tune this at constituency level, it would be difficult for the opposition to reverse the mandate given only a year back.

At this point, as far as pure arithmetic is concerned, the constituents of the Janata parivar may look as the front-runners, but the ground realities suggest otherwise.