Bihar Assembly Election | The BJP and the JD (U) in Bihar: Junior partner as big brother

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar at a rally in Patna on October 28. Photo: PTI

The BJP has achieved its three strategic goals in Bihar: winning the election, cutting Nitish Kumar down to size, and increasing its own tally.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has finally emerged out of the shadows of the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. But this did not happen without some clever strategising, even at the cost of upsetting the JD(U) at times.

The BJP tipping the scales in its favour would have been unimaginable until a few weeks ago, especially in the context of large groups of migrant labourers walking barefoot on highways with children in tow in the scorching summer, and COVID-19 patients dying on the streets of Patna in front of hospitals owing to unavailability of beds. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a complete lockdown in March this year, with barely four hours’ notice, and urban India woke up to the sight of helpless migrant labourers trudging back home, many assumed this would spell doom for the BJP in the electoral battle that lay ahead. Poll pundits figured that the pain of joblessness, the complete mismanagement of the pandemic, the woefully inadequate health facilities, and the likelihood of migrant labourers having to go back to the very same places from where they had come would make voters overthrow the ruling dispensation. It was not to be. In the first big election during the pandemic, the surprise victory for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar has put to rest any doubts about the efficacy of the BJP election machine.

The BJP, which until now had been playing second fiddle to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) in Bihar, has now upstaged him, winning almost twice as many seats as the JD(U). It won 74 of the 110 seats it contested, with a 19.4 per cent vote share even as the JD(U), which contested almost an equal number of seats, won only 43 seats with 15.4 per cent votes.

Also read: COVER STORY | Lessons from the Bihar Assembly election

In the first phase of voting for elections to 71 seats, the BJP won only 12 seats; the major share of seats here went to the Mahagathbandhan. It was around this time that the popular anger against Nitish Kumar became visible, with the Chief Minister losing his cool many times during his campaign when people shouted slogans against him. Modi’s rallies started around this time and it apparently altered the scene and helped the NDA even it out with the Mahagathbandhan.

In the second phase of elections, the BJP won 32 seats of the 94 seats at stake as against the RJD’s 31. The BJP clinched 30 of the 78 seats that went to the polls in the third phase when the RJD managed to get just 13. The second and third phases of voting thus decided the outcome in favour of the BJP. Political observers attribute this to the provision of free rations to the needy and transfer of some cash to Jan Dhan accounts.

The LJP card

The BJP had also done some manoeuvring to beat the anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar’s rule of 15 years. The first move in this attempt was to deflect the popular anger against the government inwards. This it achieved by propping up Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) as a trenchant critic of the Nitish government. Chirag Paswan, it is common knowledge now, had met BJP president J.P. Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah many times before announcing his decision to part ways with the NDA in Bihar just before the elections. His main target was Nitish Kumar. He, however, made no secret of the fact that even as he opposed the Chief Minister, he supported the BJP so that it could emerge as a stronger party in Bihar.

Also read: COVER STORY | The LJP factor

Although the BJP had been in power with the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) since 2005 (except for a few months between 2015 and 2017), it escaped the people’s wrath because Nitish Kumar was seen to be the man in command in Bihar. And if there was any anti-incumbency mood, it was against Nitish Kumar only, not against the BJP.

The LJP, which contested 143 seats, mainly against the JD(U), gave the ticket to rebel BJP leaders in 22 constituencies. It did provide an outlet to voters who were angry with the JD(U), as is obvious from the increase in the LJP’s vote share from 4.8 per cent in 2015 to 6 per cent this time. Though it could win only one seat, it damaged the JD(U)’s chances in over 25 seats.

The fact that the LJP was in cahoots with the BJP was obvious; while Chirag Paswan attacked Nitish Kumar consistently in his speeches, not a single central BJP leader uttered a word against him or cautioned him against using intemperate language against the Chief Minister, which upset the JD(U) leaders. Despite the LJP denting the JD(U) extensively, it still continues to be a part of the NDA and its six MPs continue to support the Modi government.

Also read: COVER STORY | Nitish Kumar, the winning loser

Another strategy the BJP employed was not to talk of the 15 years of Nitish Kumar’s rule but hark back to the RJD rule under Lalu Prasad which he chose to call a “jungle raj”. Modi continuously referred to Tejashwi Yadav as “jungle raj ka yuvraj” (prince of jungle raj) and warned people against doing anything that would bring those days back.

The BJP’s strike rate saw a quantum jump from 33.75 per cent in 2015 to 66.36 per cent this time. It won 74 seats of the 110 seats it contested in comparison with the 53 of 157 seats it contested in 2015.

The AIMIM factor

The BJP also gained from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) emerging as a force to reckon with in areas with significant Muslim populations. The AIMIM, which won five seats in the Seemanchal region, took a chunk of traditional Muslim votes away from the RJD, damaging the Mahagathbandhan’s prospects substantially. As many as 32 seats in Bihar have a Muslim population of 30 per cent or above.

The division of Muslim votes in these seats resulted in the NDA gaining big time, with the BJP winning 13 seats as against seven in 2015. Earlier, the majority of these seats went to the RJD-Congress combine. This time, however, the Congress could win only five seats while the RJD won four.

Also read: COVER STORY | Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM emerges as a force to reckon with

“The BJP approached the Bihar election with three specific targets: winning the election, cutting down Nitish Kumar to size, and increasing its own tally. It has achieved all its three goals,” said a political observer about the BJP’s performance in Bihar. One factor that went in the BJP’s favour was the unwavering support of upper caste voters. Add to this a section of the extremely backward classes which got alienated from the JD(U) but stayed loyal to the BJP, increasing its tally this time, the observer said.

The BJP’s performance reminds this writer of the campaigning during the Lok Sabha election in Bihar. On April 13, 2019, during a Ramnavami procession on a prominent road in Patna, saffron-clad BJP supporters brandishing swords and guns marched furiously to the slogan, “singhasan khaali karo, aa rahe hain bhagwadhari (vacate the throne, the saffron wearers are coming to occupy it). That battle cry has become a reality today. With his diminished tally, Nitish Kumar would at best be a puppet Chief Minister. It would be a BJP show all the way now in Bihar.