Bihar Assembly elections

No holds barred

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and RJD Chief Lalu Prasad at a conference of the extremely backward castes in Patna on August 13. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with NDA leaders at an election meeting at Begusarai on October 8. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Multiple factors impart a distinctively unpredictable character to the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar.

KADA sangharsh hai” (It’s a stiff fight). This is the popular refrain across Bihar as the campaigning for the Assembly elections, to be held over five phases in October and November 2015, progresses in different parts of the State. The “stiff fight” is between the Grand Alliance—consisting of the ruling Janata Dal (United), or the JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress —and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose constituents include the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and the Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha. Other players in the fray are the alliance of Left parties consisting of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of India, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a coalition of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Nationalist Congress Party and the Jan Adhikar Morcha. The campaigns waged by the latter group and the limited presence of the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the 28 seats of the Seemanchal region do not find mention in the context of the “stiff fight”.

“They have their pockets of influence, but even those pockets are getting swayed by the no-holds-barred electoral battle between the two principal contestants,” said Professor Nil Rattan, political scientist associated with the Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Political Studies. “In the early stages of campaigning, some of these parties, such as the S.P. and the AIMIM, were perceived as potential spoilers in a number of constituencies, but they are increasingly becoming non-players in the intensity of the battle between the Grand Alliance and the NDA,” he said.

Intense debates on several social and political situations have come up in the State as part of this “stiff fight”. Four factors, along with their diverse shades and nuances, have emerged as key components in these debates. One: The widespread appreciation of JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar’s 10-year record as Chief Minister combined with the apprehensions whether his current electoral association with the RJD would divest the appeal of his government. Two: Questions regarding the continuance of reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and doubts regarding a hidden agenda of the Narendra Modi-led Central government to dilute it. Three: Efforts by the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar to communalise the social and political climate of the State by employing different stratagems. Four: The churning among some communities belonging to the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) and the Maha Dalits for a number of reasons. These factors, both individually and collectively, have varying degrees of impact across different regions of the State.

These multiple factors and their impact have imparted a distinctively unpredictable character to the 2015 Assembly elections. It is also vastly different from the last two major elections that the State witnessed—the 2010 Assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Both these were personality-oriented. If the 2010 elections were all about bringing back “the time-tested and effective” Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were about elevating “the dynamic” Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Both these personalities continue to have a significant presence this time too, but the current elections are not solely about them. Other factors add a vastly different quality to the upcoming elections.

‘The Nitish Kumar appeal’

Travelling across a dozen districts of Bihar, Frontline found that the “Nitish Kumar appeal” and the challenges it faced got debated both in official political functions and in informal discussions among the people. The campaign meetings of the Grand Alliance are energised by presentations on “Nitish Kumar’s glorious governance” using different communication formats—from speeches to videos to skits and street theatre. Leaders and activists of the alliance highlight in campaign gatherings the government’s achievements in sectors like public health and education and the empowerment of weaker sections of society, including women.

At the grass roots too, interactions with the people in villages, small towns and cities overwhelmingly underscored Nitish Kumar’s appeal. However, his new association with Lalu Prasad and his RJD is used to raise doubts as to whether Nitish Kumar will be able to repeat his past performance if he returns to power with the new coalition. All NDA campaigns, including those by BJP president Amit Shah, highlight the argument that Nitish Kumar cannot provide good governance in the company of Lalu Prasad, whose tenure in power is termed as “jungle raj”.

This campaign and the facts behind it do have an impact on the ground: Segments of both the urban and rural populations share the apprehension whether Nitish Kumar would be as effective in the company of Lalu Prasad as he was in the past. These fears get reflected most prominently among the urban middle classes, particularly those belonging to the upper castes. In rural Bihar, this apprehension is present strikingly among sections of the MBCs, particularly in such areas where they have been directly in conflict with OBC Yadavs, who form the support base of the RJD.

Debate on reservation

The comments by RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat calling for a review of the OBC reservation policy have triggered a debate. The very first reactions from even within the State BJP unit to Bhagwat’s call were characterised by shock and dismay. “This is like taking a pointed shot with a huge rifle on one’s own feet,” a senior BJP MLA from Patna told Frontline. Several other voices within the party also stated that the negative impact of the statement had been compounded by two other elements. One, the long silence of Narendra Modi on Bhagwat’s statement. Two, the context of an all-in unity between the biggest political forces of dominant OBC communities led by their tallest leaders Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.

“Of course, senior leaders have sought to correct Bhagwat’s statement. But if the Prime Minister had responded immediately after Bhagwat’s statement and said that it was not government policy, it would have helped in damage control. But the long silence has complicated things. The dominant OBC castes of Yadavs and Kurmis [communities led by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar respectively] account for close to 20 per cent of the population, whereas the upper castes account for just 15 per cent. So we need to garner the votes of other backward, MBC and Dalit communities. And they are not going to take this confusion lightly,” the BJP leader said.

Lalu Prasad has been in the forefront of championing the reservation issue. On an average, the RJD chief addresses four public meetings a day, and every meeting of his reverberates with references to the “conspiracy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar to do away with reservation and give short shrift to the OBC, MBC and Dalit communities”. His repeated assertion is that Bhagwat’s statement is a warning for all backward castes and Dalits to come together and fight the efforts to reinstate upper-caste hegemony. Indeed, this is one of the most forceful campaign themes in Bihar, where caste-oriented politics is still the primary factor at the micro level.

The rise and growth of the OBC-versus-upper castes debate has intensified the efforts of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates to polarise the social and political climate of Bihar along communal lines. Towards this end, they have been actively engaging in the debate on cow slaughter and beef consumption in the context of the Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) lynching. Law and order records of the past six months and the campaign launched by Sangh Parivar organisations at various selected regions of the State underscore how the Hindutva combine engineered hundreds of small communal flare-ups that have significant impact at the local level.

Indications from the State intelligence agencies are that there would be an aggravation of these low-intensity communal flare-ups in the third and fourth weeks of October, around the Navaratri festival. How these stratagems would impact the larger electoral scenario in the State is not clear, especially because the minority Muslim community has adopted an extremely cautious attitude, to refrain from reacting to the provocations of the Sangh Parivar outfits.

MBCs and Maha Dalits

The churning among the MBC and Maha Dalit communities is for several reasons, including the departure of former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi from the JD(U) as well as the coming together of the RJD and the JD(U), the two major parties of the OBCs. A sizeable number of the 114 small castes who make up the MBC communities have traditionally been at loggerheads with a number of OBC communities, particularly the Yadavs.

Having accrued greater political and financial power after the 1990s, as the OBC assertion on the basis of the Mandal Commission recommendations gathered momentum, the Yadav community practically assumed the role of an oppressor of many of the small MBC communities and Maha Dalits. During Nitish Kumar’s tenure, the JD(U) cultivated these MBC communities assiduously through several welfare schemes and empowerment initiatives. However, during his second term (2010-15), many of the MBC communities complained that the upper-caste bureaucracy in his regime was torpedoing the schemes advanced by the political leadership. “Our complaints about the upper-caste bureaucrats’ policy of indifference were not completely resolved till 2015. And now, Nitish Kumar has gone ahead and joined hands with a political force driven by a community whose conduct is not palatable to us. Indeed, there is a sense of unrest among many of us. And many have joined Manjhi and even the BJP as a refuge,” said Ajit Kumar Lohar, an MBC rights activist in Muzaffarpur.

While this resentment is indeed a factor in the elections, MBC rights activists themselves admit that the disillusionment with Nitish Kumar is not a universal phenomenon. In many regions of the State, where they are numerically strong and have accrued political and financial power, the MBCs stand equal to the Yadavs and do not shy away from joining hands with the OBC community on a political platform. Cases in point are the Gangautiyas of Bhagalpur district and the Malhas of Sitamarhi district. In both these places, the communities are overwhelmingly with the Grand Alliance. Moreover, of the 114 MBC castes, 29 belong to the Muslim community. In an election that the BJP and its associates are fervently trying to communalise, there is little doubt where these Muslim MBCs would stand.

While these social and political factors are getting discussed avidly, there is a deafening silence on the over Rs.1 lakh crore development package that Modi announced with much fanfare. It is as though the people have dismissed it as a bad joke, a group of RJD activists in Patna told Frontline.

Beyond this, there are organisational factors that impact campaigning and election trends. Here, the Grand Alliance seems to be relatively (and uncharacteristically) more composed than the BJP this time. The BJP is facing serious revolts in close to a dozen districts. This, in turn, has forced Amit Shah to camp constantly in Bihar.

Party insiders say that the impression in the early stages of campaigning was that with Manjhi’s induction into the NDA, it would be easy to overcome the Grand Alliance. But the varied impact of the four social and political factors and the internal revolts have created some cause for concern for the NDA alliance. In this situation, the BJP has put nine Ministers and a half a dozen MPs in charge of different districts.

Meanwhile, opinion polls of different agencies have given the NDA an edge. But this apparently does not match the internal assessments of the BJP. A senior BJP leader from Patna said there was a firm resolve in party president Amit Shah and his team to turn things around during the last three phases of polling, whatever it takes.