A divided camp

Print edition : March 11, 2005

As campaigning comes to a close in Bihar, there is evidence that the lack of unity among the secular parties has worked to the advantage of the National Democratic Alliance.

in Patna

Congress president Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Patna on February 19.-RANJEET KUMAR

ON February 18, five days before the third and final phase of polling in the Bihar Assembly elections, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress leader Digvijay Singh came up with a rather strange proposal. He said the secular forces in the State should effect new, mid-course strategic adjustments considering the situation on the ground.

The suggestion was basically aimed at the front led by the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the message was fairly straight: the Congress was ready to withdraw its candidates from the seats it had no chance of winning and support the nominees of the RJD and expected the RJD toreciprocate the gesture in constituencies where the Congress was better placed to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Janata Dal (United) alliance.

In essence, Digvijay Singh wanted the two parties to bury the rivalries that had manifested themselves during the first two phases of polling so that a split in the secular votes did not benefit the BJP-JD(U) at least in the final phase of polling.

Rejecting Digvijay Singh's offer without delay, senior RJD leader Sivanand Tiwari said that electoral wisdom seemed to have dawned on the Congress leadership a little too late in the day. "The people of Bihar will soon make Digvijay Singh and his colleagues realise the Congress' standing in the political hierarchy of Bihar. The RJD will not need the help of the Congress to lead the secular forces in the State," he said.

Clearly, the RJD was in no mood to pardon the Congress for refusing to join the combine led by it and deciding to contest 84 of the 243 seats with a not-so-tacit understanding with the virulently anti-RJD Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) led by Ram Vilas Paswan.

This exchange between Digvijay Singh and Sivanand Tiwari in the last leg of campaigning is indicative of the confusion as well as the rancour that has seeped into the secular camp. If confusion was the hallmark of Digvijay Singh's proposal, the RJD leader's reaction was tinged with bitterness.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad, ready to take a chopper ride from Patna to an election meeting venue.-RANJEET KUMAR

Digvijay's Singh's proposal, by all indications, was the result of a debate that has intensified within the Congress after the two rounds of polling, which took place on February 3 and 15 in 64 and 86 constituencies respectively. In the run-up to the elections the Congress was hopeful of making major gains, particularly in the seats that went to the polls on February 3.

The projections of the Congress leadership when it decided to contest 84 seats was that the party would attract major chunks of upper-caste votes from the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) support base and wean away a section of the Muslim vote from the RJD.

The leadership was convinced that the strategy would help the party increase its tally to around 30 from 12 in the last Assembly elections - and that this would give it enough clout to dictate terms in the formation of the next government. In fact, party president Sonia Gandhi even stated this in so many words during her campaign. However, internal assessments after the polling had it that the gain in terms of seats would not match the expectations.

According to a senior Congress leader from the State, reports from lower units showed that the party had some measure of success in attracting Muslim votes but failed consistently to wean away upper-caste voters from the BJP-JD(U). "Upper-caste voters were ready to support us only if we gave a firm commitment to defeat the Other Backward Classes-oriented RJD regime," he said. Consequently, the projected overall tally of the Congress came down to 20 seats.

This assessment also gave rise to opinions within the party that it should have accepted the RJD's offer of 40 seats during the seat-sharing talks. "With an alliance with the RJD we could have hoped to win at least 30 seats," the senior Congress leader said. Evidently, Digvijay Singh's proposal for mid-course strategic adjustments was in the context of this introspection.

Interestingly, some of the factors cited in the Congress' assessment are brought up by the RJD to justify its rancour against Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), of which it is a constituent.

Prem Chandra Gupta, Union Minister of State and RJD leader, said: "We had pointed out to the Congress leaders that the party will reach nowhere by forging an understanding with the LJP. We had also told them that the basic fight in Bihar was between secular forces and non-secular forces. But they refused to accept our argument and decided to build up the party organisation in Bihar. They have caused great damage to secular politics in Bihar and the RJD cadre, at this stage, cannot accept all this talk about mid-course adjustments."

While his reference to the damage caused to secular politics is loaded with despair, he reiterated that the RJD combine would not need the support of the Congress to return to power.

A similar and more marked despondency is evident among RJD workers across the State. The lack of secular unity and the resultant flight of a significant segment of the Muslim vote away from the RJD towards the Congress-LJP front is one of the most palpable trends in this Assembly election.

Even in Muslim-dominated areas such as Kishanganj, Purnia and Katiahar, several RJD leaders admit that the minority vote has split to such an extent that it may affect the party's electoral prospects. These areas were among the 86 constituencies that went to the polls on February 15. The RJD won 42 of these seats in 2000. Internal estimates of the RJD are that the party will win only 32 seats this time.

According to an RJD leader, the lack of secular unity has practically affected the redoubtable Muslim-Yadav social combine, which had sustained the RJD all through the 15 years of its governance and helped it garner close to 30 per cent of the popular vote in all the elections during this period. "What we are not able to gauge is the extent of the damage. That quantitative element could well decide whether the party can continue to dictate politics in the State or not," he said.

By all indications, the drift of the Muslim vote has become all the more crucial as the RJD has not been able to retain some of its other traditional vote bases - the Most Backward Classes (MBC) and Dalits. Sections of these have been steadily moving away from the party, essentially on account of a perception that the RJD government and its leadership are helping the social and economic advancement of the OBC Yadav community alone. The overall lack of development in the State is also another reason for the disillusionment of traditional support bases.

In fact, sections of the Yadav community have also turned against the RJD, even in constituencies such as Madhepura, which was RJD chief Lalu Prasad's pocketborough, because of the perception about dynastic rule promoted by the first family. This has found expression in the anti-RJD statement made by several middle level politicians. For instance, political muscleman-turned-Member of Parliament Pappu Yadav is irked with Lalu Prasad for not accommodating his supporters properly in the seat allocation.

This socio-political climate has raised the hopes and electoral prospects of the BJP-JD(U). According to BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, this front has made a steady climb through the campaign period. In the Lok Sabha elections the combine had a lead in 73 Assembly segments, and the first exit poll projected a tally of 70 seats. "With every opinion poll and exit poll we have been improving our position. The NDA hopes to attain a clear majority on its own," he said.

However, not everyone in the NDA shares Modi's optimism. Some leaders told Frontline that they were still apprehensive that the RJD would emerge as the single largest party. "Lalu Prasad has ways and means to turn a hung Assembly verdict into one that will help him form a government," said an old associate of the RJD leader, who now supports Paswan.

IF the Congress' proposal to the RJD was confusing, Paswan's statement further confounded the electorate. Paswan had opposed any unity moves. He stated that the LJP would, in the event of a hung Assembly, more willingly accept President's Rule than support the return of the RJD to power. Although he later modified this statement, asserting that he was himself a chief ministerial candidate, it has raised doubts among the electorate.

The RJD was quick to point out that Paswan had struck a deal with the NDA and that his assertion about being the chief ministerial candidate only showed that he would go with the BJP-JD(U) in the event of a hung Assembly. The RJD campaign has made some impact, particularly in sections of the electorate that had seen Paswan as a secular alternative to the RJD. The RJD is hopeful that this rethinking would help the party regain lost ground in most of the 93 seats that go to the polls in the last round.

Evidently, the confusion that marked the beginning of the poll process in Bihar in terms of election issues, strategy of the major players, and the alignment of social and political forces has continued up to the last phase. But the disturbances are certainly more pronounced in the secular camp than in the BJP-JD(U) combine. A defeat in the elections would not alter the NDA's position dramatically either in the State or at the Centre. But for the UPA, the formation of an NDA government in a State that gave it a tremendous victory hardly 10 months ago could raise a number of questions about its commitment to the politics of secularism.

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