It will be a three-way contest in Bihar, with the Lok Janshakti Party insisting on charting a course independent of both the RJD-Congress combine and the National Democratic Alliance.
AS the electoral process gets under way in Bihar for the second time this year, an air of uncertainty hangs over the entire exercise because the Supreme Court is still to decide on the validity of Governor Buta Singh's recommendation to dissolve the State Assembly. The verdict will come on September 29.
But the political parties, in anticipation of the long-drawn-out electoral battle lying ahead, have hit the campaign trail. Spanning over a month, the election will be held in four phases, with the first on October 18, the second on October 26, the third on November 13 and the fourth on November 19. Counting will be held on November 22. According to Election Commission (E.C.) officials, voting is staggered to ensure proper deployment of paramilitary forces in order to avert any foul play.
Meanwhile, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad criticised the E.C. for denying him a "level playing field". He alleged that it was "anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim", for ordering transfers of officials belonging to these communities. He said that while officers belonging to the "lower classes" and minority communities were given insignificant postings, those from the upper castes were given good postings. There may not be much truth in the allegation, but it points to the nervousness that has gripped Lalu Prasad, who has a lot at stake in this election.
With Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan sticking to his decision to form a third front against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the RJD-Congress alliance, it is clear there will be a three-way contest in Bihar.
Significantly, the Congress, which fell between two stools by supporting both the RJD and LJP last time, has this time thrown its lot fully with the RJD. "There was no alliance last time. We were neither here, nor there, with the result that people did not know what we stood for. We are not going to repeat the mistake this time. We know we will have to pay a price for being with Lalu Prasad, but it is also a fact that we cannot afford to go without him. He has been the most loyal alliance partner of the Congress," said Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee president Sadanand Singh. According to Congress leaders, the party's priority was to ensure the survival of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre and for that it had to carry the RJD along, no matter what the price. Last time, the Congress won 10 of the 84 seats it contested and 4.69 per cent of the votes polled. It hopes to contest 40 to 50 seats in alliance with RJD this time.
Unlike the UPA, the NDA presents a more cohesive picture at the moment. The Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance is in place and seat-sharing talks will begin soon. The BJP has accepted the Janata Dal (United) as the senior partner in Bihar and the talks are expected to progress smoothly. The NDA, which won 92 seats last time, hopes to get a majority in the 243-member House without much difficulty. Its hopes are, ironically, pinned on Paswan and the prevailing anti-Lalu Prasad mood among the upper castes. The NDA expects the LJP to divide the anti-NDA vote and help it form the government. "We will certainly form the government this time. The people of Bihar want to see the end of Lalu Raj," said Nitish Kumar, Janata Dal (United) leader and the NDA's chief ministerial candidate. The overwhelming response to Nitish Kumar's Nyaya Yatra could be a pointer to the shape of things to come. "The upper-caste people have united in favour of the NDA like never before. This election will produce dramatic results. The only spoiler could be over confidence on our part," said Janata Dal (United) spokesman Shambhu Srivastava.
Ultimately, the outcome of the Bihar Assembly elections may depend a lot on the LJP's performance. Since it managed to get votes from the upper castes and Muslims last time, winning 30 seats and 10.48 per cent of the votes polled, the Congress is apprehensive that the LJP will do more damage to its alliance with the RJD this time by cutting into the vote share of the non-NDA parties, especially among Muslims. This is the reason the Congress leaders are still trying to win over Paswan.
A senior Congress leader from Bihar said: "In the last election we were perceived to be on his side and that was why he managed to win so many seats. But it is also a fact that he has the support of 7-8 per cent of the voters, which comprises the most backward classes, Dalits, especially those of his caste, and some Muslims. This vote bank is capable of tilting the balance in some 25 to 30 constituencies. We cannot ignore this fact." The Congress leader said that in the previous elections, some sections of the upper castes, who traditionally voted for the BJP and later the NDA, voted for the LJP as they perceived it to be a viable alternative to the RJD. This time round the upper castes are expected to go back to the NDA. But, the Congress leader said, the LJP's traditional support base could still stay with him and harm the Congress-RJD alliance. The Congress has even gone to the extent of exerting pressure on Paswan indirectly either to be with the alliance or to quit the UPA.
Meanwhile, Congress leaders are trying to get former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to join their alliance in order to neutralise Paswan. The BSP, contesting on its own, had won two seats last time and 4.13 per cent of the votes polled, 2 per cent more than what it got in 2000. But knowing Mayawati's unpredictable nature, it is too early to say whether she would oblige.
PASWAN remains as defiant as ever. He declared that at no cost would he join hands with the "corrupt" Lalu Prasad. "I am willing to pay any price for this. Communalism cannot be fought in isolation, corruption too is as strong an issue. Besides, I don't think Lalu Prasad is secular at all. What has he done for Muslims in the past 15 years? If he was actually secular why did he not agree to my condition of choosing a Muslim as Chief Minister? That would have spared the State another election. His secularism is only a means to further his family's stranglehold over Bihar and I can never be a party to this," Paswan told Frontline.
When asked about quitting the UPA, as suggested by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he said there was no UPA in the States. "It was a concept at the Centre alone in order to keep the communal forces out and for that I am willing to do anything. In any case, I'm not the type to cling to a post. I was the only one to resign from the NDA government after the Gujarat riots. Nobody can question my secular credentials," he said. Paswan said he could not be forced out of the UPA which he helped form. "Why should I oblige anybody and everybody? If the Prime Minister tells me something that is a different matter. It is his prerogative to decide who should be in the government," he said.
In order to convince the voters, the LJP has prepared a list of charges against the 15-year rule of the RJD. Some of them are aimed at the socialist and secular credentials of the RJD government. "There are four lakh vacancies meant for the OBCs in various State government jobs. If Lalu Prasad was actually pro-OBCs, he would have got these vacancies filled. What prevented him from doing it? There were 1,119 madrassas in Bihar 15 years ago, has Lalu Prasad helped increase their number? Has he got the salaries of these madrassa teachers increased? What has he done for Muslims in the past 15 years?" asked LJP leader Ranjan Yadav, once the right-hand man of Lalu Prasad. He said the LJP would expose the false claims of both Lalu Prasad and the Congress on secularism and social justice.
With a three-way contest ahead, the Bihar election may or may not deliver a decisive verdict. But a lot of drama can be expected in the process.