Battles in Bihar

Print edition : August 12, 2005

The National Democratic Alliance's Legislature Party leader in Bihar, Nitish Kumar (left), addresses a press conference after the dissolution of the Assembly. With him are NDA convener George Fernandes and former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

The major NDA constituent in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United), is worried that the RSS-Advani tussle will adversely affect its prospects in the Assembly elections.

THE setting was almost ideal for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar. Ram Vilas Paswan, who had weaned away a substantial section of the upper-caste votes in the February elections, blocking the NDA's chances to form the government, appeared to be a spent force after failing to keep his promise of forming the government. Laloo Prasad still faced a strong anti-incumbency wave and the Congress, once again forced to toe the Laloo line, appeared to be confined to a limited role. The NDA hoped to sweep the forthcoming Bihar elections. Till Jinnah struck.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president L.K. Advani's statement appreciating Mohammed Ali Jinnah during his Pakistan visit opened a Pandora's box for the NDA in Bihar. The alliance's Bihar dream could become the biggest casualty of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Advani fracas, unless things get sorted out in a "dignified" way. It was for this reason that NDA convener and Janata Dal (United) leader George Fernandes advised the RSS to confine itself to socio-cultural activities and not to meddle in the political affairs of the BJP.

The JD(U) is actually worried that the ongoing tug-of-war between the Sangh PArivar and Advani, and its sad public spectacle, could result in the NDA losing the Assembly elections in Bihar. Leaders of the JD(U) fear that the leadership crisis in the BJP will make the NDA alliance appear to be an "unviable entity". Their concern stems from their experience in the past. A senior JD(U) leader, who has long experience of Bihar politics, said: "In 1999, the NDA won 43 of the 54 Lok Sabha seats in undivided Bihar. But in the next Assembly election in February 2000, we frittered away our gains because of the public display of fighting among alliance partners and bickering over seat distribution. That cost us dearly, and we could not get a majority. We lost the trial of strength in the Assembly, paving the way for the return of Lalooraj."

According to this JD(U) leader, Fernandes has conveyed his feelings to top BJP leaders and emphasised his point once again in his meeting with BJP general secretary in charge of Bihar Uma Bharati on July19. "If Advani has to go despite everything, he should be allowed to go with dignity, without a public show of the whole business and without generating a controversy. If a leadership change has to take place in the BJP, it should take place without any drama. Otherwise, the NDA can be assumed to have lost Bihar already," the JD(U) leader said.

Leaders of the JD(U) describe the situation in Bihar today as "a most opportune one" for the NDA to assume power. Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which had emerged as a strong anti-Laloo force in the February elections, stands totally discredited because of his failure to deliver a government. This would help the NDA consolidate and attract upper-caste votes like never before, especially with the strong anti-Laloo feelings of this section of voters overriding everything else. A JD(U) leader said: "The consolidation of upper-caste and intermediate non-Yadav backward-caste votes is visibly in favour of the NDA this time. This is the best time for the NDA to form the government in Bihar. The only spoiler could be the leadership crisis in the BJP." Leaders of the JD(U) base their assessment on the tremendous response to Nitish Kumar's nyaya yatra, which was flagged off on July 11 and will cover all of Bihar in the next few months.

Leaders of the alliance also hope that the anti-NDA votes will be split between the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal combine and the LJP, as it did in the last elections. Leaders of the JD(U) say that Paswan, despite all his travails, still commands 6-7 per cent of the Dalit votes and is likely to win nine or 10 seats. His presence as a third force in Bihar, they say, would help the NDA to get closer to a majority.

Leaders of the BJP, however, do not think that the leadership crisis will affect the NDA's electoral fortunes. They say that even if the RSS does not support Advani, there will be no impact on the alliance's electoral prospects because the RSS, unlike in some other States, is not a major force in Bihar.

The BJP's State president Sushil Kumar Modi says the leadership issue is an internal matter of the party and will in no way affect the BJP's electoral prospects. Besides, he says, the "anti-Laloo feeling will eclipse all other factors". BJP leaders also hope to attract sympathy because of the way in which the Bihar Assembly was dissolved at midnight when the NDA was on the verge of forming the government.

While the NDA, for the time being, seems to be planning its strategy in the right direction, the opposite camp is still in a fluid state. At present, there is little possibility of the non-NDA camp projecting a united face. The Congress has decided "not to repeat the mistakes" it made the last time and go all the way with Laloo Prasad's RJD. The newly appointed Bihar Congress president, Sadanand Singh, said: "We made the mistake of not making our position clear to the voters. We tried to carry everyone along, with the result that we were neither here nor there. We paid a heavy price for our ambiguity, which created confusion in the minds of voters."He was categorical that this time the party would make its stand clear on alliances. "There was no alliance last time. Since we tried to accommodate both Laloo Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, we got into a situation where we were facing each other in many seats. This led to a split of our votes. We will avoid it this time," he said. According to him, there was a "political compulsion" for the Congress to go with Laloo Prasad in order to prevent the NDA from forming a government and ensure the survival of the UPA government at the Centre.

"Our first and foremost priority is to prevent the communal forces from forming the government. For us, the question is of choosing the lesser evil," Sadanand Singh said. He admitted that siding with Laloo Prasad would mean bearing the burden of an anti-incumbency factor, but said his party had no other option. He said that the party would once again try and convince Paswan to come on board, but would not do so at the cost of its alliance with the RJD. He said: "The choice before Paswan is either to come with us in the alliance, or be on his own. The Congress will not support him this time."

Sadanand Singh thinks that Paswan will not cause much damage to the Congress-RJD alliance this time because the minority votes, unlike last time, will consolidate in favour of the combine. "The minority community voted for the LJP in February in many seats because it perceived the Congress to be with Paswan. Minus the Congress, he will not attract many minority votes," Sadanand Singh said.

The party most likely to suffer reverses this time is that of Paswan. Though Paswan has reiterated his "anti-BJP, anti-RJD" stand, his position is tenuous. It seems unlikely that he will be allowed to continue in the UPA if he sticks to his anti-RJD stand. All the more so if it leads to the formation of an NDA government in Bihar. Though Laloo Prasad has said nothing openly, he has let it be known through his friends in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that Paswan will now have to decide whether he wants to be in the UPA or not.

The CPI(M), which is of the opinion that Paswan should either go with the RJD-Congress alliance or get out of the UPA, made it clear once again on July 19. "If the LJP is not prepared to fight alongside other UPA partners against the NDA in the Assembly elections, it should come out of the UPA and lend its issue-based support from outside. There is no point in remaining in the UPA and fighting the polls against its constituents," CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechuri told reporters in Patna on July 19.

He said Paswan's party was a constituent of the UPA at the Centre and hence there was no logic in its fighting against other alliance constituents in Bihar. "We hope the LJP will take a lesson from the past instance when a secular government could not be formed in Bihar. The CPI(M) does not want secular votes to be divided once again as it would only benefit the NDA," he said.

Paswan seems to be aware of this situation. He is constantly harping on "making any sacrifice" for the sake of installing a government that would work for the welfare of the people, while making it clear that he will have nothing to do with the RJD. "Government formation is not important. It should be a government that works for the welfare of the people," he said on July 19. Addressing his first press conference after recovering from a heart attack, he said, significantly enough, that Bihar needed to be "freed from the misrule of the RJD". He made it clear that the onus this time was on others too (read Congress) to ensure that the NDA did not form the government in Bihar.

"I tried my best last time. I even shed my opposition to the RJD and offered them my support if the RJD made a Muslim the Chief Minister. But it was not acceptable to them. Now my priority is to see that a government that will work for Bihar's development and social harmony comes into existence there," he said.

He said he already had an understanding with the CPI and the CPI(ML) and would not mind talking to other parties such as the Samajwadi Party to achieve this end. He also made it clear that he was not willing to undergo the "bitter experience" of the last Lok Sabha elections when his own alliance partners worked to get his candidates defeated. He pointed a finger to the RJD, saying that there was a conspiracy to get his candidates defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. "I have learnt my lesson and will not repeat the same mistake," he said.

According to political observers, this could mean he is mulling over the possibility of getting out of the UPA as a "last resort" because this would bring him greater returns in the long term. As the elections approach, Bihar could become a test case for both the NDA and the UPA. The outcome could trigger a chain reaction, with far-reaching implications for the polity.

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