Problem of choice

Print edition : February 25, 2005

With the choices being the RJD which has a poor record in government, the Congress-LJP combine which is unsure of its own strength, and the Hindutva-tainted NDA, which is losing even its upper-caste support base, the Bihar voter is confused.

in Patna

Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi, along with husband and RJD chief Lalu Prasad, filing her nomination papers for the Raghopur Assembly seat.-RANJEET KUMAR

"IF lack of clarity is the hallmark of the election campaigns of different parties, can the electorate be blamed for giving a mixed verdict?" This query from Ahsanuddin Amanullah, a politically perceptive young lawyer of the Patna High Court, possibly sums up the voter's plight in the electoral battle for the Bihar Assembly. The first round of polling - in 64 of the 243 seats - is over and the campaign is in full flow for the remaining two - to be held on February 15 and 23 - and yet the most striking characteristic of the election scene is ambiguity. Not merely in terms of the issues debated but also with regard to the line-up of forces and even the social and political polarisation.

This ambiguity has made the 2005 Assembly polls markedly different from all elections that Bihar witnessed in the past decade. The earlier polls had an element of straightforwardness about them, particularly in terms of the principal issues and factors. This fundamental certainty had propelled various sections of society, including castes and communities, to proceed on definite political lines and consequently forced the political forces to work out clear-cut alignments. And this had naturally reflected in the verdicts.

At the Raj Bhavan in Patna, a protest against the spate of kidnappings of schoolchildren.-RANJEET KUMAR

The primary issue in the last Lok Sabha elections was the non-performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the popular revulsion against its exaggerated "India Shining" campaign. The antipathy of large segments of the population, especially Muslims, towards the aggressive Hindutva communal politics of the BJP which manifested gruesomely in the 2002 Gujarat genocide, was also an important factor in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Five years prior to that the NDA's campaign seeking one more chance to prove its worth determined the outcome of the 1999 Lok Sabha polls.

Issues of caste assertion and secularism, advanced primarily by the demographically significant Muslims and Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadavs, dominated the last Assembly elections in Bihar, held in February 2000. The verdict clearly rejected the charges of non-development and criminalisation of politics that a broad-based NDA had raised against the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and its State government.

The campaign for the 2005 Assembly polls is devoid of a conspicuous central issue. In fact, the campaigns of the major forces in the fray focus on a variety of issues that have held sway in earlier polls and all these issues seem to have made an impact on the electorate in varying degrees. These issues are wide-ranging and include the questions of development, criminalisation of politics, secularism and caste assertion. The effect of these is not uniform across the State or even among communities and castes. And somewhat ironically, the campaign on the same issues has bestowed positive and negative results on different parties in different constituencies.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi campaigns in Bhagalpur on February 1.-

The combine led by the RJD, which obviously carries the burden of anti-incumbency on account of its 15-year-long governance of the State, has built its campaign around the "sammaan" (dignity) it has provided sections of Dalits and OBCs and the "protection" its government has given to minority Muslims. Leaders, including RJD president Lalu Prasad, highlight the fact that Bihar has not had a single major communal riot in the past 15 years . Posters reminding the electorate of the Gujarat carnage were also part of the campaign, though the RJD leadership denied any direct role in their use.

On development, the RJD claims it has done whatever is possible but had limitations on account of "unfriendly governments" at the Centre. It promises that things will turn for the better now that the RJD president is also in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Ministry in New Delhi.

But popular reaction in constituencies like Bhagalpur and Prepainti indicate that even Muslims and Yadavs, major contributors to the party's consistent 27 per cent vote share in previous elections, are not quite convinced about the RJD campaign on secularism and uplift of the oppressed. Commenting on the RJD campaign, Irshad Alam, a supporter of the party in Nath Nagar in Bhagalpur until the last elections, asked rather rhetorically how long Lalu Prasad expected Muslims to be content because he had helped them " keep their heads on their shoulders". "We need jobs, water and electricity and the RJD cannot go on blaming others for not giving us this." Alam's words find agreement among a large number of Muslims in the constituency.

In areas like Buxar, where Daddan Phelwan of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) is emerging as an alternative leader, even a section of Yadavs are questioning the RJD's track record in development. The power struggle that has arisen in the RJD, leading to, among other things, the resignation of the Member of Parliament from Madhepura, Pappu Yadav, from the party's Parliamentary Board, also points to a further division of the Yadav vote.

Alam and many others in Nath Nagar show a preference for the Congress and the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which has an alliance of sorts with the Congress. But in nearby Bhagalpur town, Ahmed Nisar, another Muslim veering towards the Congress and the LJP, doubts whether these two parties will get enough votes from other communities to defeat the "Hindutva"-oriented BJP and the NDA. "If these parties cannot ensure that," said Nisar, "we may have no option but to vote for the RJD-led combine."

LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan at a press conference in Patna.-RANJEET KUMAR

"It is this confusion about their core vote bases that militates against the LJP and the Congress, in spite of the presence of these parties as major players on the campaign scene. The LJP's campaign goes all out against the RJD and its 15-year-long governance even while maintaining that its anti-RJD posture does not mean that it will ally with the principal Opposition of the State, the "communal" NDA. The emergence of the tacit LJP-Congress combine and the "secular opposition" line it has propounded have indeed imparted a new qualitative dimension to the campaign. But the combine's leaders and activists seem to have no clear assessment of its core vote base even in constituencies where its campaign is impressive.

In a seat like Arrah, dominated by the upper-caste Bhumihar community, Muslims have made it clear that they cannot support the Congress if the party does not manage to wean away the upper castes from the BJP and the Janata Dal (United), its ally. Here again, there are no clear indications that the upper castes are shifting loyalty. Sachindanada Rai, an upper-caste Bhumihar inclined to come over to the Congress, complains that unless Sonia Gandhi and other leaders openly criticise the OBC-oriented RJD, he will stay put with the BJP.

But Sonia Gandhi's criticism of the RJD has been far from direct, obviously on account of the limitations she has as the leader of the UPA, which consists of both the RJD and the LJP. In her campaign speeches, Sonia Gandhi talked about the need to improve the law and order situation and enhance the State's education standards, health care system and administration, without directly blaming the RJD for its failures. In terms of strategy, this is considered to be a ploy to align once again with the RJD. But this also is not helping the party attract upper-caste, anti-Lalu votes.

Campaigning at Kharagpur in Munger district, JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar.-RANJEET KUMAR

A major plank of the LJP and the NDA against the RJD government relates to the criminalisation of politics. The spate of kidnappings, including that of schoolchildren, which happened in the midst of the campaign, came in handy as perfect ammunition for these parties. Yet, their very selection of candidates has boomeranged on these parties in terms of the "criminalisation campaign". The LJP has nominated as many as 25 persons with criminal record in the seats going to the polls in the first two rounds and the BJP's list had 10 dons. "Admitting that the RJD regime increased the criminalisation of society, how can we believe that these people would be any better when we see candidates' lists like these?" asked Ram Naresh Jha of Patna.

Another issue that the NDA focusses on is, naturally, development. It tries to assert that the development record of the NDA Ministers from Bihar is much better than that of the RJD's government. It has also carefully desisted from using Hindutva icons like Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the campaign. Even a firebrand Hindutva leader like Uma Bharati is campaigning essentially on the basis of her OBC credentials. The effect of all this is also not uniformly favourable.

The NDA's development claim is shred to pieces by the public in constituencies like Buxar and Bhagalpur, where it has sitting MLAs who have nothing much to show. Its tactical retreat on Hindutva is also not viewed positively by sections of its own support base, including Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists. In their view the appeasement of the minorities under the RJD should have become a part of the campaign, at least in door-to-door canvassing.

Clearly, none of the parties and its leadership has a firm understanding about the impact of their campaign. Leaders across the political spectrum have discerned this unique situation and are in many ways bewildered by it. According to close associates of Nitish Kumar, the Janadal Dal (U) leader and Chief Minister candidate of the NDA, the impact of the issues varies from constituency to constituency. "It would be foolish to predict the results till the last vote is polled," one of his associates told Frontline.

Similar opinions are expressed by key RJD activists as well as those of the Congress and the LJP. Senior RJD leader Sivanand Tiwari hoped that in the midst of all the confusion, the Muslim-Yadav vote base of the RJD would hold and the status quo would prevail. Ram Vilas Paswan can be heard in his indoor meetings exhorting local Congress leaders to go out and capture the upper-caste votes.

The first round of polling and the exit polls have only underlined the possibility of a muddled verdict. If the current trends continue in the next two rounds of campaigning and polling, the final verdict could well be one where not only the major player but also smaller forces like the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have a say in the formation of the Ministry.

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