A new social alliance

Print edition : May 21, 2004
in Patna

ON April 27, a day after the second phase of polling was concluded in Bihar, Railway Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar came up with an interesting revelation. He said that one of the campaign slogans of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had backfired and helped the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led coalition - its other members are the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), the Congress(I), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - to improve its electoral prospects.

Nitish Kumar was referring to the statements made by several leaders of the JD(U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party that the Rabri Devi-led State government would be dismissed and President's Rule imposed in the State if the NDA returned to power at the Centre. According to the Union Minister, such assertions were cleverly turned by RJD president Laloo Prasad Yadav into a political weapon. "Laloo Prasad Yadav used this to play on the sentiments of some sections of the population and fortify his following in these communities," Nitish Kumar said.

Although Nitish Kumar did not name the NDA leaders who raised the issue, it is common knowledge in Bihar that even Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes talked about a regime change in the State. Neither did he mention the communities that reacted against the anti-State government remarks of the NDA leaders. But that is also well known in Bihar. His reference was to large sections of the Yadav, Muslim and Dalit communities, which have rallied behind the RJD combine.

In a sense, Nitish Kumar's statement amounted to conceding that the combine put together under the leadership of the RJD was quite effective on the ground. It could also be read as a suggestion that the NDA will not be able to repeat its performance - 30 out of 40 seats - in the 1999 elections. In contrast, Laloo Prasad Yadav's interaction with Frontline two days before April 26 was marked by confidence. "We are making major gains as you must have seen if you have been travelling," he said.

SEVERAL factors seem to have contributed to these divergent positions. An important one is that the NDA's campaign slogan of India having made major gains during the last five years of its rule did not go down well with a large segment of the State's population, particularly people in rural areas.

At Jai Nagar village in the Arah constituency, Dineshwar Prasad Singh asked this correspondent whether the NDA had done such good work in the towns to claim that India was shining. He added: "In fact, we farmers know for a fact that the Central government has not done anything substantial in the agricultural sector." One could hear similar comments in scores of other villages in various parts of the State.

The "problem" highlighted by Nitish Kumar also manifested itself more or less uniformly across Bihar. In 1999, the RJD faced a strong anti-incumbency factor and a section of the Yadav community - which along with Muslims forms the core of the RJD's support base - turned against the party. This had resulted in the defeat of Laloo Yadav himself at Madhepura against JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav. But this time round the statements about "throwing out a Yadavised State government" turned out to be an issue that unified the Yadav community in favour of the RJD.

Throughout its campaign, the NDA leadership tried to wean away at least some sections of the Muslim community from supporting the RJD combine. Such attempts were made in various forms, two of them being Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's promise at a meeting in the Muslim-dominated Kishanganj to appoint two crore Urdu teachers and the extensive interaction with minority leaders by Nitish Kumar, Anwarul Haque and Shamsad Hussain.

But such efforts too seemed to have had only a limited impact, that too in a few constituencies such as Nalanda and Sheohar, from where Nitish Kumar and Anwarul Haque are seeking election. In the majority of seats, Muslims remain committed to the RJD and its partners.

Perhaps the single most important factor that boosted the RJD combine's prospects was the addition of a substantial number of Dalit votes, especially that of the Dussad community, to the RJD's Muslim-Yadav support base, which has accounted for approximately 28 per cent of the votes polled in the State in the past decade. The increase has happened essentially because of the LJP's entry into the RJD alliance - LJP president Ram Vilas Paswan belongs to the Dussad community.

RJD president and former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav addressing an election rally in Motihari on April 22.-

In the 1999 elections, Paswan was with the NDA, and the alliance, by informal estimates, secured a record 43 per cent of the Dalit votes polled in the State. While the overwhelming influence of the Dussad community is evident in seats such as Hajipur, Rosera, Samastipur, Vaishali and Sasaram, it has a significant presence in another 15 constituencies, including Muzzaffurpur, Nalanda and Barh.

While the shift of the Dussad vote to the RJD combine is the key element of Dalit politics in the State in the current elections, there are indications that other Dalit communities such as the Chamars and Musahars have different preferences. The Chamars are increasingly turning towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Musahars towards the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). However, their varied preferences may not make a decisive impact on the electoral outcome.

The popular resentment faced by a number of NDA MPs on account of local factors also seems to have contributed to the RJD camp's confidence. In scores of villages in Chapra - one of the two seats from where Laloo Prasad is seeking election - one could witness the antipathy towards sitting BJP MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy.

Even a section of the traditional upper-caste Rajput supporters of the NDA in villages such as Saraiyya, located between the small towns of Parsa and Sonpur, made it clear that it had stopped supporting Rudy and voted for the former Chief Minister. The battle in Chapra has, of course, taken a different dimension with Rudy's allegations about rigging by RJD cadre and the demand to countermand the election.

Leaders of the RJD-led combine or the NDA, however, do not perceive such a shift in upper-caste votes as a general phenomenon that covers all parts of the State. Talking to this correspondent, Laloo Prasad himself dismissed the upper-caste vote division in Chapra as inconsequential. In fact, other RJD leaders pointed out that some sections of the Brahmin and Bhumihar supporters of the Congress(I) were unhappy with Laloo Prasad's seat allocation to the party and that these sections might have voted for the NDA. "But, we are not bothered. The Other Backward Class-Muslim-Dussad combination will help us make gains this time," said an RJD leader. Clearly, Laloo Prasad and his associates are banking on the new social alliance to boost their electoral prospects.

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