Bihar

Direct contest

Print edition : May 24, 2019

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav (centre) with HAM-S president Jitan Ram Manjhi (right) and RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha at a press conference in Patna on April 22. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Shatrughan Sinha at an election rally in Gaya on April 9. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at an election rally in Darbhanga on April 25. Photo: PTI

VIP president Mukesh Sahni. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Bihar is one of the few States where the NDA is squared off against a determined and rejuvenated opposition, the grand alliance, which is banking on the widespread dissatisfaction with Modi and his policies.

By all accounts, this election has been an absorbing battle in Bihar. Polling concluded in 19 of the 40 seats in the State on April 29. The two crucial regions of Kosi and Seemanchal have voted and so have some other important constituencies such as Begusarai, Jamui, Gaya, Munger and Darbhanga. After the completion of the fourth phase of voting in Bihar on April 29, one aspect of the contest stands out: as in the 2015 Assembly elections, Narendra Modi and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) face a unique challenge. Four elements of the challenge attract immediate attention.

The first and foremost is that Bihar is one of the few States dominated by regional parties where there is a direct contest between the NDA and an opposition mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) for almost every Lok Sabha seat. This mahagathbandhan is reminiscent of the eventful 2004, when Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were able to bring the Congress, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) together. The coalition received about 45 per cent of the total votes then and won 29 of the 40 seats. This time, the coalition has the RJD, the Congress, the NCP, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), the Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAM-S) and the Mukesh Sahni-led Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP).

As far as the conventional understanding of social engineering goes, the mahagathbandhan has ticked all the right boxes. Upendra Kushwaha, until recently a Union Minister and the tallest Koeri leader, has switched sides. Similarly, Mukesh Sahni, the star campaigner of the 2015 Assembly elections whose supporters call him the “Son of Mallah”, joined the mahagathbandhan after a personal meeting with Rahul Gandhi in December 2018. This means that apart from its traditional support from the Yadavs and Muslims (about 14 per cent and 17 per cent of the State’s population respectively), the mahagathbandhan is also poised to receive support from large sections of Koeris/Kushwahas (about 6 per cent) and Nishads/Mallahs (about 14 per cent) and Dalits (about 16 per cent).

On the other side, there are a lot of divisions within the NDA, particularly over the distribution of seats and selection of candidates. To illustrate, take the three seats that went to the polls on April 29, Darbhanga, Begusarai and Ujiarpur. Giriraj Singh’s revolt against the BJP for giving him the ticket for Begusarai was highlighted in the media as a reaction to some sort of personal affront. However, added to this was the fact that his Lok Sabha seat, Nawada, was given to the LJP and the NDA ally went ahead and fielded the strongman Surajbhan Singh’s younger brother Chandan Kumar. There is a lot of dissatisfaction in both the BJP and the LJP to his candidature.

In Begusarai, Bhola Singh, the BJP candidate, won by a thin margin in 2014 despite the Modi wave. Added to this is Kanhaiya Kumar, who, by all accounts, has done exceedingly well. Similarly, Darbhanga, Kirti Azad’s traditional seat, witnessed a close fight in 2014. Azad has now joined the Congress with the ticket for Dhanbad in Jharkhand. In 2019, the NDA has fielded Gopalji Thakur against Abdul Bari Siddique of the RJD in Darbhanga. In 2014, Ujiarpur was won by BJP State president Nityanand Rai by a slender margin. In 2019, he is pitted against Upendra Kushwaha. Ujiarpur is also the seat where the CPI(M) has fielded Ajay Kumar. The party has consistently been getting more than 50,000 votes in Ujiarpur in the last few Lok Sabha elections.

Munger is another seat that voted on April 29 and reflects the weaknesses of NDA’s calculations. In 2014, the LJP’s Veena Devi, the wife of Surajbhan Singh, won in Munger. The seat went to the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), this time, and Lallan Singh, who is a Minister in the State Cabinet and a close confidant of Nitish Kumar, wants to consolidate the Bhumihar votes in the region. Unfortunately for him, the mahagathbandhan has fielded Neelam Devi (Congress), wife of another strongman, Anant Singh, who will surely get a section of the Bhumihar votes owing to his influence and extensive campaign. Anant Singh, an MLA from Mokama who is known for his tantrums with the media and is popularly referred to as “chhote sarkar,” wields far more power than that of a mere MLA. He was loyal to Nitish Kumar for a long time, but Nitish Kumar, under pressure to show tangible action in his so-called war against crime, had him arrested. Anant Singh fought the 2015 election as an independent and has since gravitated towards the Congress. Obviously, it would have been too embarrassing for the Congress to give him the ticket, which is perhaps why his wife is contesting.

New allies, old equations?

The mahagathbandhan also reflects a clear understanding of mutual compromise. While the RJD is contesting only 19 seats, the lowest tally since the party was formed, the RLSP was given five seats and the HAM-S and the VIP party were given three seats each. The Congress was allotted nine seats and the CPI(ML) got one seat as part of the alliance. The RLSP and the VIP together have the potential to disturb the hitherto stable caste alliances. The Koeris, if they rally behind the mahagathbandhan, can make a difference in a number of seats.

Mukesh Sahni, a recent entrant in the electoral politics of Bihar, has made waves since he came back from his career designing sets in Bollywood, in 2015. In the Assembly elections of 2015, Sahni accompanied BJP national president Amit Shah in his rallies. Sahni has emerged as the young face of a disparate Economically Backward Class (EBC) category that has many sub-castes. He has been demanding Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status for Nishads ,and the State government under Nitish Kumar had in the past recommended S.T. status to at least three sub-castes, the Mallahs, the Nishads and the Nonias. EBCs are crucial for Nitish Kumar. After his first victory in the 2005 Assembly elections, he had attributed his win to “Annexure 1 politics”, referring to about 100 EBC castes listed in Annexure 1 of the Mungeri Lal Commission report implemented by the Karpoori Thakur government in 1978.

The emergence of a young leader from the EBC groups themselves is a threat to Nitish Kumar’s carefully crafted caste alliance of EBCs and Mahadalits.

Nitish Kumar: A spent force?

Added to this is the widely felt perception that Nitish Kumar appears jaded and is perhaps a disinterested party in the election campaign. After he left the mahagathbandhan and rejoined the NDA, he is supposed to have said to his confidants that he would limit his aspirations to Bihar. Nitish Kumar’s carfefully cultivated image as a smart politician who is “caste-neutral” and governance-oriented appealed to two distinct sets of the electorate. The socially dominant sections of the population, including erstwhile landlords and upper-caste groups who sought revenge on Lalu Prasad, were drawn to him. For these sections, Nitish Kumar was a necessary evil and a compromise in order to achieve the goal of a “Lalu-free Bihar”.

A section of EBCs and Dalits also felt neglected during the Lalu Prasad regime, and the deepening of democratic structures in the State encouraged them to demand recognition. Nitish Kumar also promised the second crucial element of the slogan raised by Karpoori Thakur, “azaadi aur roti”. Lalu Prasad had taken the politics of self-respect and social justice to a certain conclusion. Nitish Kumar appeared, to some at least, as the person who could take it forward. However, from the very beginning of his first term, it was clear that Nitish Kumar was heading a “coalition of extremes” that was beyond his control. It may be recalled that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP held their first ever national conventions in Bihar during his first term. His unwillingness to take on the landed groups through the implementation of the recommendations of the Bandyopadhya Commission and his disbanding of the Amir Das Commission did not go unnoticed by the electorate. Nitish Kumar was playing with fire and he ceded ground rapidly to his own ally, the BJP.

However, it now appears that Nitish Kumar has finally conceded that his role in Bihar politics is limited to playing second fiddle to the BJP. Significantly, he has addressed very few rallies this season; moreover, his speeches do not present a narrative that is an alternative to that of the BJP—a fact that was always the distinguishing factor for the JD(U) at the height of Nitish Kumar’s popularity. In fact, things have soured so badly for him that his party has not been able to even release its own election manifesto in what is one of the most direct contests Bihar has ever witnessed.

Lalu Prasad: The absent presence?

The election campaign of the mahagathbandhan, led by jailed RJD leader Lalu Prasadv’s younger son Tejashwi Yadav, is focussed on Lalu Prasad himself. In fact, in recent interviews and meetings, Tejashwi Yadav coined a new term: Laluvad. It is unclear what he means by Laluvad, but this, in a way, signifies the limitations of the mahagathbandhan’s campaign strategy and direction. Keeping Lalu Prasad as the central figure of the campaign is a double-edged sword. In most of his speeches, Tejashwi Yadav begins by pointing out how Lalu Prasad gave the poor and the marginalised in the State a voice. He then goes on to blame Nitish Kumar and the BJP for Lalu Prasad’s imprisonment. He does not have his father’s oratorial skills; hence his attempts to raise questions about the RSS’ intent to dismantle the reservation system does not really get the same reaction from the audience.

This does not take away from the fact that keeping Lalu Prasad at the centre of the entire campaign drives the narrative back to the Assembly elections of 2015 and eventually to the 1990s. Despite its professed developmentalism, the BJP acts and behaves like an upper-caste party in Bihar. The party has given 11 out of 17 seats to upper-caste candidates in this Lok Sabha election. This caste element and the social-justice rhetoric give Tejashwi Yadav and his party a certain advantage.

The mahagathbandhan as a whole, however, is riding on the overall and widespread dissatisfaction with Modi and his policies on the ground.

Awanish Kumar teaches in a Mumbai college.

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