ELECTIONS in Bihar over the past one and a half decades have been dominated by caste- and community-related issues. Electoral fortunes were made or marred by the sheer intensity of such social polarisation. The campaign of different parties and the issues thrown up by them are perceived essentially as accessories to package the concerns of community-oriented politics. The run-up to Elections 2004 does not present a dramatically different picture.
Of course, issues that apparently dictate the popular mood in other parts of the country - claims about the superior leadership qualities of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin", the "India Shining" campaign, the threat posed by communalism - are referred to at campaign platforms in the State. However, ultimately, at the ground level, all these are nuanced to fit in with local caste- and community-oriented considerations.
The themes and the styles of campaign of the two principal political formations in the State - the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United), and the coalition led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and comprising the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), the Congress(I), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - clearly reflect this ground reality.
A slogan about JD(U) leader and Railway Minister Nitish Kumar, "Vikas key mazboot kadam, aasha ki swarnim kiran, Nitish Kumarji ke saath aagey bado" (Nitish Kumar, the sure step of development and the golden ray of hope; Let us move forward with him.), denotes the basic thrust of the NDA campaign. Apparently, the slogan does correspond with the development-oriented "India Shining" and "Feel Good" campaigns of the NDA. However, there is a fine distinction in terms of the slogan's content and focus. Unlike in some other parts of the country, the primary symbol of `development politics' here is not Vajpayee but Nitish Kumar. The reasons for it are not far to seek. Activists of the JD(U) and the BJP openly say that the image of Nitish Kumar, as a leader belonging to the numerically significant Other Backward Class (OBC) Kurmi community, has greater importance in Bihar than that of any other NDA stalwart.
Another noteworthy dimension of the NDA campaign is that it not only highlights "the contributions made to Bihar by the alliance in general and the Union Ministers from the State in particular", but juxtaposes them with the "all-round deterioration the State has suffered under the RJD's corrupt and dictatorial government, which has the singular agenda of Yadavising all aspects of social and economic life". The prominence accorded to the caste factor is evident.
The attempt to convert the Lok Sabha elections into a referendum on the State government's performance is also reflected in the repeated exhortations to "give the kind of result that would help the NDA change the rulers of Bihar". One contention in this context is that several projects envisioned by the Central government with the objective of improving the condition of people in the rural sector, particularly those engaged in agriculture, were not implemented properly in Bihar because of the State government's refusal to cooperate.
Efforts are also on to appeal to linguistic and regional aspirations. The inclusion of the 800-year-old Maithili language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution by the NDA is a major campaign subject in the Mithilanchal region, which has 14 seats. The withdrawal of the dismissal from the party of former State BJP president Tarakant Jha was also highlighted as a special consideration given to the region.
Overall, the NDA's campaign themes are targeted at retaining its Kurmi and upper-caste vote base and attracting sections of Dalits and Muslims. The projection of Nitish Kumar, the persistent castigation of the Rabri Devi-led RJD government and its alleged project of "Yadavisation", and the importance given to a number of Dalit and Muslim leaders such as Chedi Paswan and Anwarul Haque on the campaign front point towards this strategy.
On the other hand, the RJD combine's campaign is focussed on criticising the "NDA's false propaganda about the growth achieved under its regime" and the "dangers of the communal Hindutva politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar". The combine, especially the RJD, has been making special efforts to counter the charge that the State and its people have not progressed under RJD rule. The party makes it a point to highlight the argument that in the highly feudal social structure of the State, the RJD's primary political goal all through the 12 years of its rule has been to uplift downtrodden sections such as Dalits, Muslims and OBCs and give them a sense of dignity. "Dignity first and development will follow" is one of the mottos of the RJD.
The alliance formed with the LJP, headed by the former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, is also being projected as a major step in the direction of securing dignity for Dalits. And this point is driven home more through gestures than through words. At several meetings Laloo Prasad Yadav embraced Paswan and praised him as a great national leader who rose from the ranks of the downtrodden.
By any yardstick, the RJD-led combine is more straightforward in its approach to its support base. Clearly, the alliance is targeting a new consolidation of social forces. The central theme of the new alliance is to convert the OBCs, Dalits - particularly the Dussad community to which Paswan belongs - and Muslims into a unified political entity in opposition to the alliance of forward castes and some OBCs forged by the NDA.
According to leaders of the RJD, including Laloo Prasad Yadav, the entry of the LJP will boost significantly the popular vote base of the RJD, which won 28.3 per cent of the votes, in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections though it suffered a drubbing in terms of seats. The Dussad community is numerically strong in six to eight constituencies, including Hajipur and Rosera, from where Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramachandra Paswan have got elected repeatedly. It also controls between 5,000 and 50,000 votes in the rest of the seats.