Bihar Assembly Election

Bihar Assembly Election | The LJP factor

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Chirag Paswan at a press conference in Patna on November 11. Photo: PTI

The LJP has made good its promise to push down the Janata Dal (United)’s tally in Bihar but failed, for now, to make Nitish Kumar and his party irrelevant.

The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) was touted as the crucial vote-cutter in the just-concluded Bihar election. When it decided to contest the election independently and parted ways with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State, the warning bells started ringing for the incumbent Janata Dal (United). The apprehension was that the LJP would cut into the Extreme Backward Castes’ votes, which were instrumental in cementing Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s position in the politically fractious State of Bihar. The Extreme Backward Castes are a mosaic of diverse caste groups that have unique interests and aspirations and often a warring history.

The Other Backward Classes (OBC) vote bank is divided in Bihar, with Nitish Kumar’s sway limited to the Koeri-Kurmis. His influence on the EBCs was what safeguarded his “senior ally” status within the NDA in the State. Therefore, when the LJP moved out of the NDA, and subsequently Chirag Paswan (who took up the baton of the party leadership after his father Ram Vilas Paswan’s demise on October 8) started making public threats of dismantling the Nitish Kumar regime, it produced a flutter.

The overwhelming perception was that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) top leadership had deployed him to scupper the prospects of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). This seemed to be a plausible hypothesis all the more because Nitish Kumar’s relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was acrimonious in the past. Chirag Paswan’s impassioned display of allegiance to Modi and his public attacks on Nitish Kumar strengthened the perception. The LJP leader accused Nitish Kumar of corruption in the State’s flagship Saat Nischay programme—the JD(U)’s vision document for 2015—and vowed to put him in jail.

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

According to political observers, the BJP’s game plan was to cut the JD(U) to size so that it could no longer claim the Chief Minister’s post. There was also an ambitious hope that if the LJP won seats in the double digit and if the BJP’s own tally inched closer to 100, it might be able to form the government without the JD(U), even if that involved post-election alliances of the kind the party is known for.

Throughout the election campaign, Chirag Paswan made it evident that his objective was to berate Nitish Kumar without any inhibition and script an epitaph to his rule, while vowing to remain committed all his life to Modi and his BJP. On October 25, he tweeted: “I request you to please vote for LJP candidates to implement #Bihar1stBihari1st. Everywhere else vote for the BJP. The coming government will be a #Nitish-free government.” In rally after rally, he harped on Nitish Kumar’s alleged corruption. Addressing a campaign in Dumraon of Buxar on October 25, Chirag Paswan said that those who had engaged in corrupt practices in the “Saat Nischay” would be investigated and sent to jail. “How can it be possible that the CM doesn’t know about large-scale scams and corruption? He’s involved too,” he said.

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

But the election results did not quite follow this script. The LJP did make huge dents in the JD(U)’s vote share and was single-handedly responsible for the defeat of its candidates in more than 30 constituencies. It also increased its vote share marginally from 4.83 per cent in 2015 to 5.63 per cent in 2020. Yet the JD(U) managed to secure 43 seats. On the other hand, the BJP missed the first spot by one seat, clinching 74 against the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) 75. The LJP itself won only one seat. This means that Nitish Kumar will likely remain the Chief Minster for the next five years. There is no scope for the BJP to form the government without the JD(U), unless it engineers a vertical split in the RJD. That would not be easy to do. Tejashwi Yadav ran a spirited campaign around pro-people agendas, and the RJD’s emergence as the single largest party of Bihar has enthused the party’s rank and file.

A look at the statistics makes it clear the LJP emerged as a vote-cutter party in 37 seats. In all these seats, Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) candidates won over NDA candidates by margins that were thinner than the votes polled by the LJP. In most cases, JD(U) candidates suffered. In these 37 seats, LJP candidates secured 20-31 per cent votes in nine seats, 10-20 per cent votes in 15 seats, and 5-10 per cent votes in 13 seats. The JD(U) is understood to have lost 32 seats because of the LJP. Prominent among these are Darbhanga Rural, Ekma, Gaighat, Islampur, Maharajganj, Mahishi, Sultanganj, Sahebpur Kamal, Rajapakar, Matihani, Morwa, Nathnagar, Parbatta, Laukaha, Mahnar, Mahua and Kadwa.

The LJP fielded a number of BJP leaders who could not secure the ticket in the saffron party. For instance, it gave the party ticket to Rajendra Singh, former State BJP vice president and an old Rashtriya Swayam Sewak hand, in Dinara.

Also read: COVER STORY | The BJP and the JD (U) in Bihar: Junior partner as big brother

After the results were announced, Chirag Paswan declared that his objective was to “weaken” the JD(U) and that he had succeeded in doing that. He said he would not support the new government in Bihar if the NDA stuck to its promise of retaining Nitish Kumar as the Chief Minister despite the JD(U)’s diminished numbers. “I think my party has been strengthened and it would be easier for us to perform well in future elections. Our party’s goal was to strengthen the BJP, which we have achieved,” he said at a press conference on November 11. He also pointed out that the LJP was now in a position to contest elections on its own.

The indication seems to be that he will continue to try and damage Nitish Kumar’s hold over the EBCs. This is the only key available to him to build a widespread presence in Bihar. But he also knows that the EBCs alone cannot guarantee him election victories. It will also be difficult to dent the EBC votes further unless he is on a winning wicket. Both considerations are taken care of by his keeping the BJP and the BJP’s savarna (upper caste) voters in good humour. Nothing else explains the understated tinge of Hindutva in his election campaign.

Also read: COVER STORY | The rise of RJD's Tejashwi Yadav as a mass leader in his own right

He appeared for his rallies in a Hindu headgear and sported a red tika. He likened himself to Hanuman and in his vision document for the election promised to build a grand Sita Mata Mandir and construct a six-lane Sitamarhi-Ayodhya road. “Lord Ram is incomplete without mother Sita, so the need of the hour is to develop a corridor connecting Ayodhya’s Ram temple with Sitamarhi through a bigger temple for her,” he said in a rally in Sitamarhi. Elsewhere, he described himself as a descendent of Shabari, an ardent devotee of Ram. All through, he pledged allegiance to Modi.

The BJP also realises that if it has to come out of Nitish Kumar’s shadow in Bihar, it needs to nurture an influential Dalit leader and cement the upper caste-EBC matrix. Chirag Paswan is its best bet. However, in politics no one is without ambition. It will be unrealistic to assume that Chirag Paswan will forever like to play Modi’s Team B and never nurse ambitions of his own. For the moment, both the BJP and Chirag Paswan need each other to forge a caste solidarity and make the JD(U) irrelevant. The pivot of their politics will be towards attaining that end.