The most striking thing about theAssembly election in Bihar was the way in which the Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) changed the electoral narrative by questioning the development model of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United).
Adding weight to this narrative was the moral and ideological presence of the Left in the alliance. The RJD’s manifesto, focussing on basic livelihood issues and hinting at economic equity and a greater role for the state, in a way reflected the ideas espoused by the “Left”. Barring land reforms, it had practically everything else that the Left has long been fighting for, including the promise of regularisation of contractual jobs and a critique of privatisation.
Although the Mahagathbandhan failed to get the numbers to form the government, the performance of the Left is said to be its best in two decades. The Left parties had hoped for a larger share of seats, but its “senior” alliance partners were reluctant to concede more than 29; the Left won 16 of them, that is, more than half of what was allotted to them. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) contested 19 and won 12; the Communist Party of India (Marxist) contested four and got two; and the Communist Party of India contested six and secured two. Also read:Emergence of the Left and AIMIM in Bihar
The narrow margins by which the Left parties lost some of the seats showed that they could have won some more as well had the other alliance partners been pragmatic. Given the Congress’ dismal performance, the disproportionate share of seats given to the party has been a source of some heartburn among the Left constituents. One Left leader said: “The RJD conceded many seats to the Congress even though the latter did not have the organisational structure. They [the Congress] have leaders, certainly, but no workers.”
In nearly all the 29 seats that the Left contested, it was in direct contest against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the JD(U). In several seats, it secured around 40-50 per cent of the votes. Barring the Bakhri seat, where the CPI won by a thin margin of 1,777 votes, the Left won by margins ranging between 20,000 and 50,000 votes.
In the Tarari Assembly segment in Bhojpur district, Sudama Prasad of the CPI(ML) defeated the BJP’s nominee by over 60,000 votes. In Balrampur, Mehboob Alam of the CPI(ML) defeated the nominee from the Vikassheel Insaan Party, an NDA constituent, by over 50,000 votes. The CPI(ML) candidate from Karakat, Arun Kumar, polled more than 80,000 votes.
The 12 Assembly segments that the CPI(ML) won are in Bhojpur, Rohtas and Siwan districts and the Magadh region comprising Jehanabad, Arwal, Banka, Aurangabad, Jamui, Gaya, Lakhsarai, which correspond broadly to the party’s areas of influence. In four seats, including in the party’s stronghold of Arrah, it lost by narrow margins.
At Pipra in Champaran district, the CPI(M)’s Rajmangal Prasad polled 80,410 votes but lost to the BJP candidate by 8,000 votes. In Matihari in Begusarai, the only seat that the Lok Janshakti Party won, and that too by a margin of just 333 votes, a CPI(M) nominee finished second with 61,031 votes.
The CPI(M) won Bibhutipur in Samastipur district by 40,000 votes and Manjhi in Saran district by 30,000 votes. The CPI won Bakhri and Teghra constituencies in Begusarai, a district known as “mini-Moscow” or the “Leningrad of Bihar” for its strong peasant movements led by the communist parties.
The Left had decided early on that it needed to join forces with the RJD in Bihar in order to defeat the JD(U)-BJP combine. There was near unanimity on this among the Left parties. The CPI(ML) negotiated independently with the RJD; the other two parties coordinated a seat-sharing arrangement with the RJD jointly. Also read:Left unity in Bihar 2020
Thanks to the Left’s influence, the RJD came out with a Pran Patra that touched on all the issues that the Left had conducted struggles on. The RJD had also participated in human chain protests led by the Left parties on issues such as the Muzaffarpur Shelter Home sexual exploitation scandal; joblessness; the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. These protests received much popular support.
Interestingly, the State government also organised a human chain, deploying a huge amount of state resources, as part of its social campaigns on prohibition, dowry, and so on. Opposition parties criticised the wasteful expenditure that these campaigns entailed. Arun Mishra, a central committee member of the CPI(M), said: “The chain by the opposition was far bigger and far more successful than Nitish Kumar’s call.”
In the last two years, the Left parties organised popular movements on many issue touching people’s concerns—evictions, land issues, unemployment, non-implementation of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and atrocities against Dalits and women.
Historically, the influence of the CPI and the CPI(M) has been significant in northern Bihar. Both parties have successfully organised major movements in the region, from Purnea to Champaran. The CPI(M) launched a major land movement in the early 1990s, and, in the course of it, lost many of its popular leaders. Ajit Sarkar, a four-time MLA from Purnea and considered a towering peasant leader, was among the many Communist Party members who were murdered in the 1990s by those whose vested interests they had challenged.
The CPI(ML)’s influence is concentrated in Patna, Bhojpur and Jehanabad. The CPI and the CPI(M) have more widespread influence in all the 38 districts of Bihar because of their longer involvement in peasant struggles and other movements. While their presence in electoral terms may have shrunk over the years, they continue to command considerable respect among the people. As the recent election has shown, they cannot be written off. The Left had faced a polarising campaign that labelled its leaders and candidates as “urban naxals” or “anti-nationals”. A section of the “nationalistic” media also tried to create a certain perception about the Left. The strategy does not seem to have worked.
The presence of the Left gave a certain legitimacy to the Mahagathbandhan and helped the alliance partners, especially the RJD, in the Magadh region. The Left also helped with manning of the booths of its alliance partners. The RJD did very well in Bhojpur, Gaya and Nawada in western Bihar because of the presence and influence of the Left, especially the CPI(ML), which translated into more seats for the RJD. Also read:Interview with CPI(ML) chief
In the bordering areas where Pasmanda Muslims (Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims) were in a majority, the presence of the All India Majlis-e- Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Prime Minister’s speeches had a polarising effect. This helped the BJP and the JD(U) pick up more seats in these areas, seats that would have otherwise gone to Grand Alliance constituents on the strength of the Left’s support base.
In seats where the Left had a political presence but did not contest, the votes of a section of the Mahadalits and Extremely Backward Classes went to the Grand Alliance partners.
Until the 1990s, the CPI and the CPI(M) had a considerable presence in the State Assembly, thanks to the strong peasant movements that they led. The 1967 election returned 22 CPI members to the Assembly. In 1972, 35 CPI candidates were elected to the Assembly. Even in the 1990 Assembly election, 26 MLAs were elected from the Left parties, including seven from the Indian People’s Front (IPF), which was the political front of the CPI(ML). The CPI(ML) had gone underground in that period. From the mid-1990s, the CPI(ML) started taking part in electoral politics and grew as a political force. The 1990s was also the period of the rise of the social justice parties and the decline of the Left in electoral terms.
At present, the state’s failure to create local employment, lack of industries and frustration among the youth are big issues. The failure to create agro-based industries and market the State’s rich agricultural and horticultural produce was also a major talking point in the election. The new government can ill-afford to ignore these issues. Also read:Lessons from the Bihar elections
Arun Mishra said that when the Central government declared that it would privatise the Railways, there was a spontaneous movement against it by students in Sasaram district. “The people in Bihar are different. They fight back. It is not like Uttar Pradesh,” he said. He said the student protesters squatted on the railway tracks and had to be removed by the police. Some of them were jailed. The protesting students were the aspirants for Railways jobs and were preparing for the Railways examinations. There are therefore few takers for the claims of high “GDP” growth peddled by the leadership of the JD(U) and the BJP.
The victors of the just-concluded election will not be able to set aside the narrative that the Grand Alliance has set into motion. And this narrative was mostly led and set by the Left parties.