Lessons from the Bihar Assembly election

The resonance the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign has generated will have a bigger impact on the national polity than the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s narrow victory in the Bihar Assembly election.

Published : Nov 16, 2020 06:00 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president J.P. Nadda after the National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the Bihar Assembly elections, at the party headquarters in New Delhi on November 11.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president J.P. Nadda after the National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the Bihar Assembly elections, at the party headquarters in New Delhi on November 11.

Historically, Assembly elections in Bihar have delivered multilayered and nuanced verdicts. It has been particularly so since the early 1990s, when identity politics of different hues and shades, including diverse caste-based assertions and communal polarisations, started dominating the State’s political sphere. Social and political churning based on these divisions, as also the various permutations and combinations in the larger political firmament, have reflected in the State’s electoral verdicts dynamically over the past three decades. The verdict of the first major State Assembly election in India amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has practically imparted a new course and character to the social and political tumult in the State.

A number of quantitative and qualitative factors ingrained in the 2020 verdict in Bihar are unique and unprecedented, starting with the dispute on the final tally announced by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the uneasy balance of power in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was declared re-elected with a wafer-thin majority of 125 seats in the 243-member Assembly. The primary cause for the uneasy balance of power is the virtual decimation of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) to 43 seats (from its 71 seats in the outgoing Assembly) and the rise of the “junior” alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with 74 seats. The JD(U)’s present tally is its lowest in 15 years. The discontent in the JD(U) on this count is amplified by the well-known fact that the BJP’s machinations using the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) contributed in a big way to the party’s reverses. A national-level constituent of the NDA, the LJP had left the alliance in the State in the run-up to the elections expressing no-confidence in the Chief Minister. Its subversive electoral tactics with no gains for itself pulled the JD(U) down.

The role reversal also underscores the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a more influential factor than Nitish Kumar in Bihar. For the past one and a half decades, Nitish Kumar had the upper hand in Bihar politics. But verdict 2020 has put an end to that. Also read:Nitish Kumar as the winning loser

Along with these, the emergence of the principal opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as the single largest party in the Assembly (75 seats) is also a notable difference from the normal logic of electoral verdicts. The RJD fought the elections as the leading party of the opposition coalition, the Mahagathbandhan, consisting also of the Congress and the Left parties. Along with the RJD, the Left parties too registered a stirring electoral performance, marking their political resurgence. But the Congress faltered on account of a moribund organisation, virtually dragging the Mahagathbandhan down. In spite of that, the difference between the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan in terms of vote share is a meagre 0.2 per cent. Several other trends and nuances of the verdict, such as the significant performance of the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), entrenching yet another element of polarising identity politics in the State in the form of cultural and political Islamism, and the success of the LJP’s subversive electoral tactics, have great relevance in Bihar’s polity.

The cumulative impact of all these factors is expected to sustain the intense political confrontation witnessed during the campaign and also aggravate the twists and turns in the electoral battle for a considerable period of time, certainly well past the formation of the new government. And this new state of play in one of India’s largest States, and that too in the “Hindi heartland”, is bound to have a significant impact on the national polity in the short, medium and long term. Evidently, there are multifarious social, political and ideological streams in the Bihar 2020 verdict, and the national-level impact of it would depend on how these factors develop in the days to come.

Tejashwi’s challenge

The days immediately after the results were declared saw categoric signals of political confrontation and intriguing manoeuvres. Addressing his first conference after the verdict, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav made it clear that the Mahagathbandhan planned to move court if the ECI did not satisfactorily answer the queries of 20 Mahagathbandhan candidates who had lost by narrow margins. He demanded that the postal ballots in these constituencies be recounted and a detailed break-up of valid and invalid votes provided. Tejashwi said: “We firmly believe that we [the Mahagathbandhan] won not 110 but 130 seats. The ECI did not abide by its own rule on counting the postal ballots first. There were at least 20 seats where our candidates lost by slender margins. We are asked to provide evidence [on the charges]. But it is the ECI that has to give evidence… the complete video-recording of counting of postal ballots. We also wonder how 500 to 700 to 900 postal ballots were declared invalid. Postal ballots are cast mainly by professionals, who know how to use them. The ECI has to satisfy queries of our candidates or else we will move court.” Also read:The rise of Tejashwi Yadav

Earlier, RJD leaders, including Rajya Sabha member Manoj Jha, had accused many election officials of colluding with the State government to falsely declare victory for NDA candidates who had actually got fewer votes than opposition candidates. Jha released a list of 119 Mahagathbandhan candidates who he said had won. Clearly, questions are being raised about the verdict and the manner in which the counting was carried out. Mahagathbandhan leaders assert that they are gearing up for a long struggle on this in the courts and among the people. What form this would take is not yet known. Apparently, they are awaiting a more detailed response from the ECI. The initial reaction of ECI officials has been to state that they have followed all norms in the counting of votes.

Even as this exchange between the Mahagathbandhan and the election authorities is expected to get more vigorous and move on to new platforms, administrative and judicial, manoeuvres are on within the NDAcentring on the choice of the Chief Minister and the composition of the Ministry. Throughout the campaign, which had shown signs of the decimation of the JD(U), NDA leaders of the State and even the BJP’s national level leaders such as Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and party president J.P. Nadda repeatedly asserted that Nitish Kumar would be the Chief Minister, whatever be the tally of individual parties in the alliance. Even after the verdict, Modi stated that “every BJP and NDA worker will ensure that our pledge for the State is fulfilled under the leadership of Nitish Kumar”.

But, beyond such public utterances, the growing realisation within the JD(U) is that even if Nitish Kumar is anointed Chief Minister again, his clout in the Ministry will be vastly reduced and the BJP will call the shots. Many observers share this view. There are already murmurs within the State BJP that Nitish Kumar should be made Chief Minister now, particularly to honour the word given by leaders such as the Prime Minister, but a change of guard should be considered after a year or so. Senior BJP leader Sanjay Paswan even made a barbed public comment on Nitish Kumar’s claim for the top post. He said: “It is a victory for the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. But as per our promises, we are committed to offer the Chief Minister’s post to Nitish Kumar. It is up to the morality of Nitish Kumar to decide what to do.”

Getting wind of these “expressions in the BJP”, Nitish Kumar has apparently indicated his “unwillingness” to continue as Chief Minister. His public statements to pointed questions on the choice of Chief Minister were non-committal. His refrain was that the “NDA will ultimately decide” as to who would be elevated to the post. He added that “the people are paramount” and that he was “grateful to the people for giving the NDA a majority”. He also thanked Prime Minister Modi for his continuing support. Also read:The BJP and JD(U) in Bihar 2020

However, political observers see the current posture adopted by Nitish Kumar, a master of political manoeuvres, as one to get assurances from the BJP leadership that it will not use the greater numerical strength in the Assembly to dilute his control and clout in the forthcoming Ministry. This is also seen to be the outcome of the discussions within the BJP on the point that the composition of the next Ministry cannot be on the same pattern as in the previous JD(U)-BJP government. The discussions, reportedly, stressed that it was only natural that the BJP should get weightier portfolios such as Home, Education and Personnel.

During the campaign itself, several political observers had pointed out that the BJP game plan was to cut the JD(U) to size so that it can control any future NDA Ministry. The first stage of the game plan has been completed with the electoral verdict. The discussions within the party and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar on Ministry formation and the selective leaking of its contents make it clear that the other phases of the stratagem to marginalise the JD(U) is continuing apace.

JD(U) insiders aver that the Chief Minister is upset at the manner in which Chirag Paswan and his LJP hurt the JD(U)’s prospects and how the BJP leadership, including Modi, did not effectively counter the young Paswan’s subterfuge. The party is also disconcerted that the BJP leadership is planning to make Chirag Paswan more comfortable within the NDA for the “superb subterfuge” carried out by the Dalit-oriented party. There is also a grudging acceptance in the JD(U) that because of its diminished strength in the Assembly, the party will not be in a position to insist on expelling the LJP from the NDA or keep it out of the Union government. Also read:The LJP factor in 2020

When push comes to shove

A clutch of JD(U) leaders told Frontline that when pushed to the corner, Nitish Kumar could come up with dramatic moves that would upstage alliance partners. Speaking to Frontline , an evidently disgruntled JD(U) leader said: “He is known for such amazing strikes. He has internalised the dictum that there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics and this has been demonstrated in his political positions over the past two and a half decades. One should also remember that notwithstanding his long-standing rivalry with RJD founder Lalu Prasad, he can always reopen lines of communication, as he did in 2015. Moreover, he is in constant touch with Jagadanand Singh, the State president of the RJD, at a personal level.”

The composition and swearing in of the new Ministry is expected to take place in the third week of November, after Deepavali. No one expects any “dramatic moves” as suggested by the JD(U) leader to unravel before this, but there is little doubt that the bargaining this time would be tougher. Significantly, the two big parties in the coalition—the BJP and JD(U)—by themselves do not have a majority in the Assembly. Together they have only 117 MLAs. Thus, the Ministry would be dependent on the two smaller parties in the alliance, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), which have four seats each. The leaders of both parties are known for their mercurial nature and constant switching between different political fronts. What this means is that it will be perpetual tightrope walk for the next Ministry.

Apparently, there is a thinking in the BJP, especially among leaders close to Amit Shah, that the majority needs to be expanded by bringing in more MLAs to the NDA fold. The prime target for poaching has also been, reportedly, identified: a clutch of Congress MLAs. Nearly a dozen elected MLAs of that party are disheartened with its pathetic performance in the electoral battle and may be ready to move to greener pastures. Sections of the JD(U) also told Frontline that they would successfully reach out to these Congress MLAs before the BJP did and thus bolster their numbers in the Assembly. Whatever the final outcome of these machinations, the Congress seems set to go through more periods of misfortune after the dismal show in the elections. Also read:Congress as the GA's weakest link

Discussions among political parties and observers after the results have unravelled that the BJP’s ulterior, dirty tricks in the 2020 elections were targeted not only at its ally JD(U) but also at the Mahagathbandhan. In the Seemanchal and Mithila regions of Bihar, the party had facilitated, indirectly through the Sangh Parivar’s closet supporters, several political forces and candidates who would cut into the Mahagathbandhan votes. This reportedly included financial support and even lending of manpower. A few AIMIM candidates and a number of Congress rebels reportedly benefited from the Sangh Parivar’s covert operation.

Populist programmes

However, these subterfuges were essentially add-ons in a carefully crafted and executed election campaign. The biggest strengths of the BJP were obviously Prime Minister Modi’s abiding appeal among the electorate, especially women, who have shown appreciation for the Union government’s welfarist programmes such as the extensive distribution of gas connections and electrification of rural homes. And, as in 2015, women outvoted men in this election, accounting for approximately 55 per cent of the votes polled. Field reports from various constituencies indicate that while there was widespread public resentment over the mismanagement of COVID relief operations, especially over the unscientific and unplanned lockdowns leading to mass migration marked by great hardships and tragic consequences, there was also appreciation for the direct-to-account cash disbursal schemes. Thus it was a combination of populist measures and vile tactics that pushed Modi to the position of the most influential leader of the NDA in Bihar replacing Nitish Kumar.

Campaign based on social justice

But, by any yardstick, it was the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign on the basis of economic issues that turned out to be the most influential element in the election. The spirited campaign led by the 31-year-old Tejashwi on four core slogans of employment, inflation, medical facilities, and education and irrigation enhanced the RJD’s three-decade-long social justice-oriented politics under the leadership of the party’s founder Lalu Prasad. The association that the RJD forged with the Left parties added greater value to this campaign, both politically and organisationally. The impact of the slogans on the campaign front was so huge that if the participation and enthusiasm in public rallies were an indicator of public acceptance, Tejashwi would have been declared a runaway winner.

The Mahagathbandhan’s failure to convert this popular appeal into an electoral victory lies squarely with the underperformance of the Congress, which bargained for a lot more seats than the party’s battered organisational structure deserved. This, coupled with the split of the Mahagathbandhan’s core Muslim vote in the Seemanchal region on account of the AIMIM’s forceful presence, pulled the coalition back by a few seats. The AIMIM’s emergence as a relatively big player in Bihar politics is an alarming signal for all mainstream secular forces in the country, especially in the “Hindi heartland”, including the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. The AIMIM is expected to make major inroads into West Bengal too, which is expected to have Assembly elections around May 2021. Also read:AIMIM, an emerging force

However, a significant number of political analysts and observers rate the Mahagathbandhan’s vibrant and forceful campaign on economic issues as the perfect way forward to enhance the social justice agenda and take it beyond narrow and sectarian casteism and communalism. In fact, many opposition parties and associate organisations have already suggested that the Bihar 2020 campaign will be the ideal model to be adopted across the country, of course taking local factors into consideration. There is also consensus among political observers that the resonance the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign has generated is bound to stay in the State’s social, economic and political spheres as a steady factor and that no government can afford to ignore this in the days to come. NDA leaders, especially those belonging to the JD(U), admit that addressing the slogans raised by Tejashwi in his campaign will have to be one of Nitish Kumar’s priorities if he is made Chief Minister for the fourth term.

Relief for the BJP

In terms of electoral play at the national level, Bihar has given a much-needed relief for the BJP and the NDA after the serial losses in the Assembly elections held in 2019 in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi. In fact, the party was not able to repeat its spectacular show in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections in any of the State elections held later the same year. Even in Haryana, where it managed to hold on to power through a post-election alliance, the dip in vote share was significant.

In Bihar too, the party’s vote share diminished in comparison to what it got in the Lok Sabha election. Sangh Parivar and BJP leaders believe that the turnaround in Bihar will give greater momentum to the party and the NDA in elections in the future, especially the crucial ones in 2021 in West Bengal and Assam. But before all that, there are questions as to how the Mahagathbandhan’s legal struggle on defective counting will develop and, even more importantly, how the give and take within the NDA on the formation of the Ministry will pan out. Also read:The Left's resurgence in Bihar

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