Confusion reigns in Bihar as parties fail to work out coherent electoral strategies and alliance partners figure in "friendly contests" in many constituencies.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Patna
THE run-up to the 2005 Assembly elections in Bihar - particularly the efforts of the major political parties to evolve an election strategy - can be summarised in one word: confusion. The parties in the fray have, on the basis of past record, varying strengths and weaknesses, but the confusion in developing a credible election strategy has imparted a kind of equivalence to all of them.
Six months ago, immediately after the Lok Sabha elections, it would have been difficult to visualise that the 2005 Assembly elections would trigger such a widespread political disorientation. The Lok Sabha polls witnessed a straight contest between a secular alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) - comprising the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) consisting of the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The RJD-led combine trounced the NDA by capturing 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats. While the RJD combine got 46.32 per cent of the votes polled, the NDA got 37.08 per cent. The RJD combine had a lead in 150 of the 243 Assembly segments and the NDA in 70.
But these figures are not of much use in the current context, basically because the alliance led by the RJD does not exist in the same shape. The LJP has parted ways with the alliance and its leader and Union Fertilizers and Chemicals Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has become one of the most aggressive campaigners against the RJD and its State government, though the two parties continue to share power at the Centre in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The RJD has tried to make up for the loss of the LJP by roping in the Communist Party of India (CPI), which was not part of the alliance for the Lok Sabha elections. The CPI(M) and the NCP continue to be part of the coalition.
The Congress is engaged in an amazing political feat - it has an electoral understanding with both the RJD and the LJP. While the RJD says that it has left 14 seats to the Congress as part of an electoral arrangement, the LJP claims to have "clear alliance" in all the 80 seats contested by the Congress. This certainly makes the Congress look like a party in demand, but by no means does it provide clarity with regard to its electoral position. If the Congress has an arrangement with the RJD, it should mean that it supports the 15-year-old RJD rule in the State and will essentially seek a mandate for its return. On the other hand, if its alliance is with the LJP, it has to be critical of the RJD government's track record and should be working towards its ouster. However, Congress leaders at the State and Central levels had not made clear the party's position at the time of going to press.
On the face of it, the break-up of the 2004 alliance of secular parties and the disorientation among them should benefit the NDA. But the leaders of both the JD (U) and the BJP, including such stalwarts as former Railway Minister Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi, display a lack of confidence. Instead, the NDA leadership claims that the Congress, the LJP and the RJD are involved in a clever political game aimed at cutting into their support base. Talking to Frontline, Nitish Kumar likened the Congress, the LJP and the RJD to partners in a consensual love triangle. "There is no real conflict here, it is all shadow boxing," he said.
Leaders of the NDA are convinced that the ultimate beneficiary of all the pre-election turmoil in the secular camp will be the RJD. Many of them pointed out that the Congress candidates in 80 constituencies would take away a large section of the BJP's upper-caste vote, thereby ensuring the victory of the RJD combine. "One can rest assured that the Congress wants the RJD back in power and that it has evolved a deliberate game plan to achieve this," a JD (U) leader said.
Interestingly, however, the RJD leadership does not seem to be so sure. The party, no doubt, is happy with the despondency in the NDA camp. But, that is about all. Informed sources in the RJD told Frontline that the leadership was worried that in several constituencies the Congress-LJP understanding would harm the party's prospects. Their main concern is that a Congress-LJP combination may attract the Muslim vote away from the RJD, at least in a few seats. "In fact, we have not faced a situation like this for more than a decade," said a senior RJD leader.
The RJD's 15-year-long sway over the State's politics owed much to the social combination of the Muslims and the Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav community. The RJD enjoyed the near-complete support of these communities - who together constitute more than 30 per cent of the State's population - in all the elections since 1990. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the RJD-led alliance had the added strength of the Dussadh community, which predominantly supports Ram Vilas Paswan and the LJP. That community accounts for approximately 6 per cent of the State's population. According to the senior RJD leader, if the LJP is able to retain its vote share and the Congress weans away a large chunk of the upper-caste voters from the NDA, a significant section of Muslims will also turn towards this combine. "This could bring down our vote share and consequently our seats in the Assembly," he said.
The confusion is aggravated by the fact that Bihar's electorate, despite the intense caste and communal polarisation, springs surprises on political parties and delivers seemingly irrational election verdicts. For instance, in the Lok Sabha elections held in October 1999, the NDA trounced the RJD alliance by winning 41 of the 54 seats (14 seats later became part of Jharkhand). The RJD had to be content with seven. But in four months, when Assembly elections were held, the Bihar electorate did a turnaround. The NDA - of which the LJP was a part then - was pushed to the second spot and the RJD once again emerged as the single largest party in the 324-member Assembly (81 seats later became part of Jharkhand). With the CPI(M), the NCP and the Congress extending support, the RJD returned to power. In the outgoing Assembly, the RJD has 109 seats, the JD (U) 46, the BJP 39, the Congress 14, the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) eight, the CPI(ML)(L) five, the CPI three, the CPI(M) two, the Kosal Party two and Independents 15.
The current sense of caution and concern in the RJD camp is, by all indications, based on the experience of 2000. An RJD leader said: "Five years ago we were the beneficiaries of the electorate's surprise-throwing tendency. We do not want to be taken by surprise this time." But the party's track record of the past 15 years in terms of development work undertaken in the State will not be of much help in its efforts to retain power. It is more or less unanimously accepted that the RJD regime has elevated the social status of a number of OBC and Dalit communities and successfully thwarted all machinations to destroy communal harmony in the State. But, apart from that, there is not much to show in the social and economic spheres, especially in vital sectors such as education, health and infrastructure development. In fact, the RJD leadership, particularly party president and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, used to run down the very idea of infrastructure development. "People should have sammaan [dignity] first, roads, bridges and other facilities can come later," according to him.
However, in the current context, Lalu Prasad and his party have clearly stopped deriding the need for development. In fact, he has integrated the need for development into the RJD's campaign agenda in his own unique style. His contention is that the State did not have proper development in the past because opponents of the RJD were ruling the Centre. "Now all that has changed. We have favourable governments both in the State and at the Centre. My wife Rabri Devi is Chief Minister and I am Minister in a Central government, and this will ensure that Bihar is in the fast lane of development," he said.
Along with this promise about a better future, the RJD campaign is marked by an effort to remind repeatedly its Muslim support base that the community was constantly protected under its regime from vile communal attacks. The Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee report on the Godhra train fire has come in handy for the RJD in this context. "In a sense, it once again reminds the Muslim community in Bihar how it has been sheltered from situations like the one in Gujarat and in a way cautions them not to get carried away by the propaganda about lack of development," said RJD leader and Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.
By any yardstick, the drive to retain the support of the Muslim community is the most crucial component of the RJD's campaign. Given the caste arithmetic that dictates Bihar's politics, the success or failure of this drive could well decide the outcome of the elections. If the RJD is able to hold on to the support of the minority community, the party and its allies could well return to power on their own. Retention of the minority community's support would mean continuation of the MY (Muslim-Yadav) social combine.
On the other hand, if Paswan is able to attract the votes of the minority community, the LJP and the Congress will have an important say in the formation of the next government. The two parties themselves may not be able to form the government, but they could make any new government overly dependent on them. The LJP would have had an eminently winning proposition if Paswan had managed to get the Congress and the JD (U) as his formal partners in a secular alliance. In fact, Paswan's efforts in the last three months were towards this end. But the BJP succeeded in retaining the JD (U) in the NDA, even as the LJP failed to win over the Congress to a definitive anti-Lalu Prasad, non-RJD government plank. An LJP leader told Frontline that the humming and hawing of the Congress with regard to a clear political position in Bihar may well affect the combine's performance "because the upper castes of Bihar are essentially anti-RJD and would tilt towards the Congress only if the party takes a clear anti-Lalu Prasad position".
Meanwhile, sections of the NDA leadership fervently hope that the alliance's campaign slogan of Pandrah Saal, Buraa Haal (15 years of plight) will be powerful enough to override all other concerns. This hope is based on the fact that for the first time the "development agenda" is in the reckoning of all parties. The BJP and the JD (U) had been trying, albeit with little success, in the last three elections in the State - two to the Assembly and one to the Lok Sabha - to highlight the RJD's "misrule" and "poor development record". Nitish Kumar said: "That the RJD has been forced to join the issue is in itself a small victory. The point is to consolidate this campaign victory and convert it into electoral gains."
The proposition sounds good, but do the BJP and JD (U) have the organisational machinery and political initiative to make it a reality? More important, will the NDA cadre have the morale to carry out this task even if leaders like Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi continue to harp on the point that the RJD, the LJP and the Congress are actually on the same side? If the style of functioning of the NDA in the early stages of the campaign is anything to go by, the answer to all these questions would be in the negative. Perhaps, the real hope for all the major players is in the duration of the election process. The three-phased polls are spread over a long period - the polling dates are February 3, 15 and 23 - and this may give them enough time to contemplate, carry out mid-course corrections and probably devise a winning strategy.