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Battle of slogans

Print edition : Nov 05, 2010 T+T-

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing a campaign rally at Singheshwar in Madhepura district on October 12.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The 150 Assembly seats that go to the polls in October in three phases present a complex picture.

BIHAR presents an engaging mixture of diverse political trends as it gets ready for the month-long, six-phase elections to the 243-member Assembly, which are scheduled to begin on October 21. The components of the heady mixture rest essentially on political nuances, which involve specifics in terms of geography, sociological interplay and political manoeuvring, both in general terms and within political formations and parties. The net impact of this combination is that it has enhanced the competitive element in the elections, especially between the ruling Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition and the principal opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) combine. The Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, and the alliance of Left parties, formed essentially through the coming together of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), also contribute significantly to the balance of power in many areas. However, the main battle is between the ruling coalition and the principal opposition combine.

By the end of October, the State will complete polling in 150 constituencies in three phases, the voting taking place on October 21, 24 and 28. The remaining seats will go to the polls in the next three phases in November.

The election campaign has revolved around four themes. One, the projection of the track record of the Nitish Kumar-led government as one of the most impressive ever in the history of Bihar in terms of ensuring development as well as physical and social security. Two, the principal opposition combine's criticism of the ruling coalition as a sham that has failed even to protect the interests of its support groups such as the upper-caste Brahmins and Bhumihars. Three, the confusion among large sections of the minority community over which party to prefer, especially in the context of the September 30 verdict of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute. Four, the depiction of the Congress as the only stable political force in the country and the projection of its young leader, Rahul Gandhi, as the future hope of India.

As campaigning gathered momentum, the 150 seats presented a complex picture in terms of political impact. A number of factors, including geography, sociology and realpolitik, contributed to this. These seats fall in the Kosi region, which has a history of being ravaged by floods year after year causing tremendous hardships to millions of people. The Nitish Kumar government claims that post-Independence, its government is largely credited with bringing immense development to the region. The impressive gains made by the JD(U)-BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections bear testimony to people's appreciation of the government's record of good governance, it says. Ground-level reports suggest that the political outcome of the region will broadly follow the 2009 pattern this time, too, going beyond caste and community considerations.

The so-called Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav strongholds of Madhepura and Supaul as well as areas such as Kishanganj, which have a predominant Muslim population, fall within this region. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the Muslim-Yadav votes of these areas formed the base of RJD leader and former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad. This status has altered since the 2005 Assembly elections. The upcoming elections will decide how much of his previous position Lalu Prasad has regained or lost. On the one hand, a significant number of Muslim organisations and individuals are appreciative of the steps taken by the Nitish Kumar government to protect and promote the interests of the minority community. On the other hand, the JD(U)'s association with the Hindutva-oriented BJP rankles large sections of the community.

The verdict in the 60-year-old Ayodhya title suit has aggravated this, with questions being asked as to how far Nitish Kumar will go with the BJP if the saffron party decides to push the Hindutva agenda aggressively. On its part, the JD(U) leadership points out, albeit privately, that the Chief Minister has successfully kept out hard-line Hindutva proponents such as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Member of Parliament Varun Gandhi from the election campaign and that this should be seen as a sign of equipoise. Notwithstanding such arguments, indications are that a significant section of Muslims, who would have otherwise opted to support Nitish Kumar, will make either the Congress or the RJD-LJP combine as its first choice in many areas.

In regions such as Saharsa, the new backward caste category of Maha Dalits, devised by Nitish Kumar, is expected to make a significant impact on the outcome of the elections. (As of now 22 castes, including Dussadhs, have been listed as the most backward castes among Dalits.) A number of seats in the Mithila region, once considered to be the virtual political fortress of the powerful Brahmin community of Bihar, go to the polls in October. The political equations of the region seem to be interestingly poised. The Brahmin community, which rooted for the ruling coalition in 2005, is apparently not happy at the treatment it has received at the hands of the JD(U) government, particularly Nitish Kumar. It is seen to be tilting towards the Congress. But political observers point out that Nitish Kumar's initiatives to empower the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) during his five-year tenure has won him new balancing support in the region.

Over and above these broad factors, there are other nuances relating to intra-coalition and intra-party politicking that can influence the electoral trends in the region. In the Yadav belt, the internecine war within the family of Lalu Prasad and the decision of his two brothers-in-law former MPs Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav to leave the RJD fold are bound to have some negative impact. Lalu Prasad has sought to minimise the damage caused by the desertion of the younger members of his extended family by projecting his son Tejaswi Yadav as his political heir. Indications are that this move has enthused a considerable section of the youth in the community.

Another internal struggle worth highlighting is from the Kishanganj region bordering Nepal where two Muslim leaders of the ruling coalition are working at cross purposes. There are enough indications that the local BJP MP, Shanawaz Hussain, intensely resents the admission of former RJD Union Minister Taslimuddin into the JD(U). Taslimuddin has a base in the region. Supporters of each of the leaders have evidently been working hard to get the nominees of the other defeated in a number of seats a case of personality struggle getting the better of political factors. The combination of all these has added to the element of competition in the elections.

This in turn has brought a sense of moderation even to the ruling coalition, which had predicted a smooth sailing for itself to the Assembly in the wake of the 2009 Lok Sabha election. An Assembly segment-wise break-up of the results showed the JD(U)-BJP coalition leading in 175 seats. The RJD-LJP alliance had a lead in only 38 seats. The two regional parties had moved away from the Congress in that election. This departure did harm the parties' fortunes. The Congress had the lead in only 10 Assembly segments, but it damaged the chances of the RJD-LJP in as many as 50. This trend is expected to be repeated in the 2010 Assembly elections. However, many leaders of the ruling coalition admit privately that the mixture that is emerging out of Bihar's political cauldron may not exactly follow this recipe, although they have the upper hand even now.

Five years ago, when the RJD and the Congress fought the Assembly elections together, the combination won 65 seats, of which the Congress accounted for only nine. The LJP contested on its own and won merely 13 seats although it had a vote share of 13 per cent compared with the Congress' 6 per cent. However, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, both the RJD and the LJP recorded reduced vote shares while the Congress, which fought alone, increased its share significantly, to 11.25 per cent. The RJD's vote share came down to 21.58 per cent and the LJP's to 8.25 per cent. The JD(U) had 29 per cent and the BJP 12.09 per cent. The Congress hopes to increase its vote percentage, win more seats and become the deciding factor in the context of a hung Assembly verdict. Propelled by this hope, the party has been spending considerable resources and energy in a number of constituencies.

If the campaign trends are anything to go by, the battle in Bihar is between two slogans paradigm shift through governance coined by Nitish Kumar, and sham government protecting nobody's interests, raised jointly Lalu Prasad and LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan. In terms of caste and community support, too, these two principal adversaries are well-placed. The JD(U)-BJP combine has a vast traditional following among the OBC Kurmi community, to which Nitish Kumar belongs, and has carved new support bases among the extremely backward classes and Muslims. The BJP has indeed lost some of its upper-caste base, but as the party in power it is still a force to contend with. The RJD has deep roots in the OBC Yadav community, and the LJP is virtually the party of the largest Dalit group in the State, the Dussadhs, who account for approximately 8 per cent of the population. By any yardstick, the electoral verdict is expected to reflect these social dynamics and the broad trends visible in the campaign.

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