Changing scene

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at an election rally in Fatua on April 15. Photo: PTI

RJD chief Lalu Prasad addressing an election meeting on April 12 at Suarmarwa village in Pataliputra constituency, where his daughter Misa Bharti is a candidate. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Lok Janshakti Party president Ram Vilas Paswan addresses a joint rally of the LJP and the Bharatiya Janata Pary in Motihari on April 21. Photo: PTI

THE “Modi effect” has been felt in different ways in different regions of India in the current elections, but in Bihar it manifested itself in multiple ways during various stages of the political process. The effect was seen even before the announcement of the 2014 elections, when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was elevated as the chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign committee in June 2013. What followed was the break-up of a 17-year-old alliance between the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The Modi effect was once again cited when Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) left its long-term ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), upsetting the plans for a grand alliance between the Congress, the RJD and the LJP.

During the campaign, Modi repeatedly toured Bihar and took on his opponents in various secular parties, but with a special, aggressive focus on Nitish Kumar. His primary pitch was, of course, his much-touted record of development and performance, but as in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, this was supplemented by a below-the-line campaign with the objective of building up a pan-Hindu consolidation. In the early period of the campaign, the State BJP unit had delineated visions of a grand consolidation of Hindu votes cutting across the conventional caste-driven political lines. This was based on the assumption that its attempt at Hindu consolidation while it was in government with the JD(U) for eight years since 2005 had evoked a positive response, all round.

Modi himself sought to advance these perceived gains by trying to play up to the Yadav community, which belongs to the Other Backward Class (OBC) segment and comprises approximately 15 per cent of the State’s electorate, and by weaning away a section of it from Lalu Prasad’s RJD, the party most preferred by the Yadavs historically. The idea was to emphasise Gujarat’s connection with the “Dwarkadhish”, the lord of Dwaraka or Krishna, who is considered to be the god of the Yaduvanshis or the Yadavas. During the early days of Modi’s forays into Bihar, the State BJP leadership had made bold to claim that more than 30 per cent of the Yadav electorate had shifted from the RJD to the BJP.

A senior Bihar BJP leader told Frontline at the time that increasingly the Yadavs and even the OBC Kurmi community, which is a vital part of the JD(U)’s social base, was moving towards the saffron party. He argued that there was a growing realisation among these OBC communities and significant sections of the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) that Modi as Prime Minister would be the only benefactor for the Hindus. “The realisation is that we have had good, bad and indifferent Prime Ministers but none who took special care of the Hindus. They expect Modi to do that,” he said. On the basis of this argument, this leader and many others in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar argued that the Hindu consolidation at work in Bihar would prop up the BJP in the elections. They projected 20 to 25 seats for the party of the total 40 seats in the State.

Shaking confidence

However, with the first of the six-phase polling in the State starting on April 10, this confidence seems to have been shaken a bit. Despite the projections of a massive Hindu consolidation, the reality on the ground is that caste affiliations still hold sway among the electorate. This means that the RJD in alliance with the Congress is a force to reckon with in more than two-thirds of the seats. More importantly, the perception that the JD(U) had lost its winning combination across the State after parting with the BJP was also turning out to be a misplaced one. Nitish Kumar had, in his eight-year tenure as Chief Minister, sought to build up an EBC constituency for himself through various schemes and initiatives. Conversations with the EBC Pachpaniya communities and the Mahadalits underscore that the JD(U)’s roots in these communities are still very strong. And in constituencies where the JD(U) was strong, the support came from a sizeable segment of the minority Muslim community. A significant section of his own Kurmi community, too, backed Nitish Kumar.

Another realisation that dawned on the BJP as the electioneering continued was that the large number of the seats it had won in 2009 was only on account of its alliance with the JD(U). Without that alliance, the BJP is not able to win over people to its side despite the hype about the Modi wave. The situation in four Lok Sabha seats in Seemanchal and adjoining regions—Araria, Purnea, Katihar and Bhagalpur—is a case in point. In the last election, the BJP’s alliance with the JD(U) had ensured for its candidates 20 to 25 per cent of the minority votes, leading to the victories of Pradip Singh, Uday Singh, Nikhil Choudhary and Shahnawaz Hussain respectively from these seats. That Nitish Kumar had successfully kept Modi away from the campaign also contributed to the gain of minority votes. But this time around, that is not happening.

Conversely, JD(U) candidates in many seats were beneficiaries of the upper-caste votes of the BJP. The loss of those votes will harm the JD(U) too in these very seats. The net result is that the RJD-Congress combine has emerged as a powerful force in the region with the near total support of the minorities. Political observers point to the emergence of a similar phenomenon in other regions and several seats across Bihar. In 2009, the RJD was in alliance with the LJP and the Congress fought it alone. The RJD-Congress alliance this time around has ensured the stabilisation of the Muslim-Yadav combination at the social and political levels. Contemporary Bihar history has shown that this is a social bloc with a great political potential.

Clearly, the BJP’s much-vaunted hopes have not got the kind of groundswell that it would have wanted in Bihar despite the Modi effect seemingly making waves in the early part of the campaign. The party still hopes to emerge as the number one party in Bihar, but its leadership knows quite well that the RJD-Congress combine is breathing down its neck and that Nitish Kumar will retain enough clout to fight another battle in the medium and long term.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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