If the recently concluded Bihar local body elections were touted as a litmus test for the BJP, pitted against the combined might of the JD(U) and the RJD, which formed a Grand Alliance once again last year, it safely passed the test.
Of the 17 municipal corporations in the State, BJP-supported candidates and RJD-JD(U) supported candidates won six mayoral posts each. The BJP won three of the four major corporations, namely, Patna, Muzaffarpur, and Bhagalpur, whereas the Grand Alliance won Gaya.
The elections were not fought on party symbols but candidates were either from within party folds or closely aligned to a party.
The BJP’s good show in the civic elections follows its reassuring wins in Gopalganj and Kurhani Assembly byelections held in November and December 2022, respectively.
In Kurhani, a stronghold of the ruling JD(U), the BJP’s Kedar Prasad Gupta won by a slim margin of 3,645 votes, while in Gopalganj, BJP candidate Kusum Devi defeated the RJD’s Mohan Gupta, indicating that the party was steadily consolidating its position in a State where many analysts believed the coming together of the JD(U) and the RJD would severely limit its ambit.
In the 2015 Assembly election, the two parties had come together to trounce the BJP, which won a measly 53 of the 243 seats.
The BJP’s string of recent election victories suggests that it has been able to expand its voter base, going beyond its traditional dominant-caste constituency to make inroads into the Dalit community, hitherto firmly behind Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Expanding voter base
Although the BJP lost power in the State in August 2022 after Nitish Kumar moved back to the Grand Alliance, of which the RJD and Congress are key allies, it may be a blessing in disguise as the party is now free to nibble at the Dalit vote, which was not possible as long as it was in partnership with the JD(U).
The local body elections to 17 municipal corporations, two nagar parishads, and 48 nagar panchayats across 23 districts were held in two phases on December 18 and December 28. For the first time, mayors and deputy mayors were directly elected by the public.
Women candidates scripted history by securing 16 of the 17 mayoral posts, except Gaya, where Ganesh Paswan won. In Gaya, Chinta Devi, a manual scavenger for decades, won the deputy mayor’s post.
The BJP was upbeat after the results were announced on December 30 and asserted that the “grand alliance of convenience” had received a “thumbs down from the people”. Although technically, the results tend towards being called a tie, the fact that the BJP fought the elections alone after it was recently abandoned by the JD(U) gives some credence to its claims of victory.
Soon after the results were declared, the BJP’s State spokesperson Arvind Kumar Singh told mediapersons that the outcome “has relayed a clear message that the people disapprove of the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance”.
The RJD protested, with its spokesperson Mrityunjay Tiwari stating: “As the elections were not fought on party lines, how can individual victories be claimed by any political party?”
JD(U) spokesperson Ranbir Nandan, on the other hand, made light of the outcome, arguing that had it been a State election, “consolidation of votes would have been stronger”.
It is clear, however, that with the BJP getting free rein to operate in Bihar it is going all out to replicate the Uttar Pradesh model, where it added votes from a section of Dalits and non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to its dominant-caste vote bank to assemble an electorally helpful social coalition, along with distribution of sops, social welfare programmes, and undertones of Hindutva as the major blandishments.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s Dalit supporters have historically been at loggerheads with the Yadavs, who have been patronised by Lalu Prasad, thus raising questions on the transferability of votes. It is this social friction that the BJP aims to exploit.
For some time, the RJD and the JD(U) in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have been seriously parleying to make caste census the pivot of their politics, hoping that a Mandal 2.0 will successfully stop the Hindutva juggernaut. This line of thought is often upheld by friends of these parties in the media.
What they tend to forget is that the BJP is no longer the “Brahmin-Baniya” party of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that internal caste competitiveness has made the OBCs anything but a monolithic voter bloc (“Bihar politics sees new twist as Nitish Kumar, Tejashwi Yadav join hands,” Frontline, August 26, 2022).
Lack of vote transfer
It seems the knotty issue of vote transferability has come to haunt the Grand Alliance sooner than expected, as the election outcome in Gopalganj and Kurhani suggests.
An interaction with a diverse group of non-Yadav OBCs gave one the impression that they harbour a deep-rooted apprehension of a re-emergence of Yadav dominance. This fear is shared by Dalit voters, too, and it is this voter apprehension that the BJP is seeking to exploit to widen its ambit in Bihar.
The Grand Alliance’s less-than-reassuring show at the hustings has also dampened Nitish Kumar’s widely speculated prime ministerial ambitions. There have been reprots of intermittent communications among Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray, Lalu Prasad, and Mamata Banerjee about the possibility of a national alliance not helmed by the Congress.
RJD insiders said that they had been marshalling support for Nitish Kumar as Prime Ministerial candidate as his vast experience and pro-development image would encourage people to view their coalition as a stable house.
The election setbacks have come at a time when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is boosting his image with a pan-India march and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal has been rekindling public scepticism of a disparate third front, hinting that it is not in sync with “national interest”.
At a public meeting in Nagpur in May 2022, Kejriwal said: “I do not understand their alliance of 10 or more parties, and an alliance being formed to defeat someone [Narendra Modi]. I don’t want to defeat anyone, I want the country to win.”
Political analysts said that the Grand Alliance’s inability to create jobs, the RJD’s main talking point in the 2020 Assembly election, was another reason behind the latest defeats.
In early December, Bihar Police lathicharged TET and CTET aspirants who were protesting the lack of recruitments. Previously, in August, the police had lathi-charged and used water cannons on young protesters demanding jobs, soon after Nitish Kumar joined hands with the RJD. Also, Nitish Kumar’s refusal to give any compensation to victims of a recent hooch tragedy and his terse remarks in that context quickly cast him in poor light.
With the BJP also eyeing the Pasmanda Muslim vote in Bihar, the Grand Alliance badly needs to campaign actively at the grass-root level, address general voter apprehension about caste predominance, and deliver on the economic front rather than rely solely on their voter base’s theoretical support.
- BJP-supported and RJD-JD(U) supported candidates won six mayoral posts each.
- Women candidates bagged 16 of 17 mayoral posts.
- The BJP won three of four major corporations. The saffron party also won the Gopalganj and Kurhani Assembly byelections towards the end of 2022.
- Vote transferability haunts the Grand Alliance.
- Meanwhile, non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits fear re-emergence of Yadav dominance.
- The Grand Alliance’s performance has also dampened Nitish Kumar’s prime ministerial ambitions.