The erosion in the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Muslim-Yadav support base is palpable, but that by itself may not ensure a victory for the National Democratic Alliance in Bihar.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Patna
"WILL the elephant lose weight and shrink to such a size that it can be put in a cowshed?" This allegorical poser by Birender Kumar Rai, a marginal farmer of Pakhaulia village in Raghopur constituency, probably sums up the most crucial political question in contemporary Bihar as the State completes one of the most laborious and long-drawn-out Assembly election processes in its history.
The "shrinking" elephant is, of course, the political constituency of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has had a redoubtable sway over the State for the past 15 years. Rai, like several socio-political observers, does not dispute the fact that the Railway Minister's influence has waned. But he doubts whether it will reduce so much as to confine the RJD to a political "cowshed".
The final result in the current elections will depend on the extent of erosion in Lalu Prasad's political base. The campaign and even the exit polls after the first two phases of polling, in about 130 constituencies, have given no definitive clue. The situation is equally confusing with regard to the last two rounds of polling, due in the third week of November.
It is clear that the development agenda presented by Nitish Kumar, the chief ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has for the first time had a significant impact on the campaign. So too has the coalition of caste Hindus and a section of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) such as Kurmis and Koeris, represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (United), the two constituents of the NDA. On the face of it, these factors should decisively turn the tide in the NDA's favour. But such an impact, which would dramatically alter the political balance in the State, is not palpable at the grassroots level. The tendency of grassroots-level caste affinities deciding the polling trend still persists in the majority of the constituencies. Such a state of affairs makes quantification of the erosion in the RJD's support base an almost impossible task.
The single-most important factor that affected the RJD-led combine's attempts to regain power in the February Assembly elections was the cracks that developed in the Muslim-Yadav social combine that had sustained Lalu Prasad's all through the 15 years of his political domination. (In February, the alliance comprised the Nationalist Congress Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. The CPI is no longer part of the alliance.) The RJD lost many seats in its strongholds such as the districts of Madhepura, Kishenganj, Supol and Purnea and even Lalu Prasad's home district of Gopalganj.
The most striking manifestation of the collapse was in the Gopalganj city seat, which had been won by supporters of Lalu Prasad in all the Assembly elections since 1990. In February, the RJD's Ambika Prasad Yadav finished fourth in the seat with 7,250 votes (7.58 per cent of the votes polled). The parties led by Lalu Prasad - the Janata Dal and later the RJD - had garnered as high as 73.41 per cent of the vote in 1990, 50.6 per cent in 1995 and 28.1 per cent in 2000. In Madhepura, part of the eponymous Lok Sabha seat won by Lalu Prasad in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the RJD lost four of the five Assembly seats. While areas such as Madhepura and Gopalganj highlighted the drift in the RJD's Yadav support base, Kishenganj highlighted the erosion in its Muslim support base.
The RJD leadership's analysis after the February polls was that the depletion of Yadav vote was caused by the exit of local leaders such as Pappu Yadav and Sadhu Yadav from the party and the antagonistic position that they took against Lalu Prasad. The drift of the Muslim vote was explained by pointing out two factors: the confusion created by the Congress aligning with the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and the lack of interest shown by two Muslim leaders of the RJD, Taslimuddin and Shahbuddin, in the campaign owing to differences with Lalu Prasad. RJD leaders felt that the party's 15-year-long track record in power and mistakes in the selection of candidates too have played a role in alienating a section of its traditional support base. .
This time round all the four leaders have been mollified by Lalu Prasad and this, the RJD leadership hopes, will help the party retrieve lost ground, especially in districts such as Madhepura, Siwan, Purnea, Gopalganj and Kishenganj, which go to the polls in the last two phases of voting. Moreover, RJD leaders said, the Congress was back in the alliance it led. They pointed out that even in February, the RJD garnered the highest percentage of votes polled by any party - 25.07 per cent - and that the latest "corrective measures" would bolster its vote share by 2 to 3 per cent. This increase would enable it to win more seats, party leaders said. After the February elections, the RJD-led combine had 91 seats in a House of 243.
HOWEVER, realistic observers, even those within the RJD, believe that such simplistic calculations may not work. They pointed out that the NDA too had taken some steps which had had a significant impact on the electoral scene. The one with the biggest impact has been the projection of the moderate and "secular" Janata Dal(U) leader Nitish Kumar as its chief ministerial candidate.
In fact, the BJP was even ready to put up with the disgruntlement of film-actor-turned politician Shatrughan Sinha, one of the party's star campaigners and an aspirant to the Chief Minister's post, and accept Nitish Kumar's candidature. Commenting on Sinha's absence from the campaign, a senior BJP leader said: "Shatrughan is a Kayasth and the fact is Bihar is not ready for an upper-caste Chief Minister for the next 10, maybe 20 years." Given this background, he added, Nitish Kumar's projection has enlivened his own OBC community of Kurmis so much that it has taken to electioneering and voting with "greater enthusiasm".
The emergence of Nitish Kumar as the leader has put to rest several organisational inconsistencies in the NDA's campaign. In effect, it is an admission of the Janata Dal(U)'s strength in the State and the reduction of the BJP's task to providing "logistical support" in the form of personnel and infrastructure such as "helicopters, money, and fine-tuning". As this perception and the consequent moves themselves show, the NDA campaign is far more systematic and organised than that of the RJD-led combine's, which more or less revolves around the personality of Lalu Prasad. Undoubtedly, these factors have contributed a lot to the development of the perception that the NDA has an edge this time round.
Another factor that works in the NDA's favour is that the majority of the 29 legislators who won on the LJP ticket in February are now with the Janata Dal(U). These legislators, who include local dons such as Munna Shukla and Rajan Tiwari, have supplemented the NDA's "muscle power" this time round. Above all, the concerted campaign of Ram Vilas Paswan among the traditionally RJD-supporting, but increasingly disillusioned, extremely backward communities is expected to ultimately work in the NDA's favour.
The RJD combine is apprehensive that the Election Commission's aggressive efforts to ensure "peaceful elections" and the large-scale deployment of Central paramilitary forces on election duty have created fear among Dalits and OBCs, traditional supporters of the party, that all are not reaching the polling booths. Given all this, there is a growing perception that Lalu Prasad the man and his political grouping are in for reverses this time.
Still, the million-dollar question is about quantifying the RJD's losses. The RJD has steadfastly held to the support of 25-28 per cent of the State's electorate for more than 15 years and there are no indicators as to how much the party will lose, especially given the fact that Bihar is a State where caste and communal polarisation overtakes everything else.
If the perception about "advantage NDA" gathers momentum closer to the polls and the Opposition unity against the RJD in terms of social groups grows, Lalu Prasad may be left with a result like the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. Then he held on to his vote share but managed to win only 11 out of the 54 seats in the State. If that index of Opposition unity in terms of social classes does not grow, the "elephant" would continue to stay in its natural habitat.