Strategic setback

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (right) greeting RJD chief Lalu Prasad on his 68th birthday in Patna on June 11. Photo: PTI

Jitan Ram Manjhi (right), former Chief Minister and chief of the Hindustani Awam Morcha, with BJP president Amit Shah in New Delhi on June 11. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

The coming together of the JD(U) and the RJD for the Bihar Assembly elections changes the electoral arithmetic and upsets the BJP’s “divide and surge” plan.

REACTIONS across the political spectrum in Bihar to the June 8 press conference in New Delhi led by Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav reflected a uniform sentiment: that the categorical announcements made at the press conference have swung the psychological advantage in the run-up to the forthcoming Assembly elections in the State hugely in favour of the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) combine. Of course, a number of statements were made by Mulayam Singh Yadav and other participants at the press conference, but the most emphatic was the one that dispelled all doubts about the chief ministerial candidate of the ruling combine.

Mulayam Singh, who has emerged as a kind of venerated senior in the context of the discussions regarding the merger of the Janata Parivar parties, said: “It has been decided unanimously to project incumbent Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate in the forthcoming elections, too.” However, in the fortnight preceding the announcement, there were indications of intense tussle between the JD(U) and the RJD on this issue. It was reported that RJD leader and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad wanted to keep the choice open until the elections were over while the JD(U) wanted an early projection of Nitish Kumar. As was evident at the press conference, it was the JD(U)’s position that was upheld at the talks held by the three parties. In fact, Mulayam Singh summed up the ascendancy of the JD(U) line pithily by stating that he was very happy about the unity between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar and that Nitish Kumar’s name was proposed as the chief ministerial candidate by “Laluji” himself.

Commenting on the development, JD(U) leader Ali Anwar told Frontline that the tasks before the JD(U) and the RJD would be to ensure a smooth division of seats and selection of the right candidates, combining it with a united and effective campaign. “With the June 8 agreement clearing all apprehensions about the chief ministerial candidate, all these things are eminently possible. Lack of clarity on this issue could have created very many hitches in reaping concrete electoral benefits out of the formidable social alliance that this political combination signifies. But now those potential hitches have reduced considerably,” Ali Anwar said.

In Bihar’s traditionally caste-driven electoral politics, the JD(U)-RJD combine with the Congress as a potential third pole signifies an expansive social combination consisting of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) as represented by Yadavs and Kurmis, the castes to which Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar belong respectively; the Extremely Backward Communities (EBC), who were empowered significantly during the Nitish Kumar regime; a section of Dalits; and almost the entire minority Muslim community. Evidently, it is the prospect of this caste and community combination falling into place along with the projection of a tested Chief Minister that has inspired the confidence of the ruling combine’s workers.

The reactions from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), to the confidence espoused by JD(U)-RJD combine leaders such as Ali Anwar were palpably divergent. The fact that the JD(U)-RJD combine will be strengthened by the inclusion of the Congress in the alliance makes the challenge before the BJP and its NDA constituents daunting, a senior BJP leader told Frontline. In his view, the June 8 announcement has upset the primary strategic outlook of the party and the NDA in Bihar. “The strategic outlook was referred to as ‘divide and surge’ by some associates of party president Amit Shah. As recently as the first week of June, some of these associates were hopeful that they would be able to prevent the coming together of the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress. However, it is clear now that the several manoeuvres that were initiated as part of this strategy have not succeeded,” the leader said.

While neither this leader nor others in the Bihar NDA are ready to talk about the nature of the “several manoeuvres” referred to, political circles in Bihar and Delhi were rife with stories throughout the last fortnight of May and early June. Some of these suggested that Lalu Prasad’s family was persuaded to make the RJD contest independently with promises of “lenient handling” by Central investigation agencies of the corruption cases pending against him. Some others referred to appeals based on Yadav pride. Apparently, this involved the promise to give Nand Kishore Yadav, the BJP leader who is the Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly, a prominent role in the new government if the NDA came to power, thus paving the way for the re-emergence of the dominance of the Yadav community on the State’s socio-political scene. Time and again in May, the BJP and other NDA constituents circulated stories that the manoeuvres were within striking distance of success.

At the June 8 press conference, Lalu Prasad made a few oblique references to these stories and the strategic outlook of the BJP behind it. “They were spreading all kinds of rumours about me and my family and asserting that Nitish and I cannot come together. But we were clear on one thing: we cannot allow the saffron brigade to take advantage.” Lalu Prasad said he and Nitish had their share of fights and differences but on the question of “crushing the cobra of communalism, we are together”.

With the collapse of the “divide and surge” strategy, the BJP has had to substantially alter its plans. A number of Bihar-based senior activists of the BJP and the LJP told Frontline that had they succeeded in breaking the JD(U)-RJD alliance there would have been a projection of sorts of Sushil Kumar Modi, one-time Deputy Chief Minister in the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-BJP government. “Such a projection would have had some electoral merit if there was a triangular contest between the JD(U), the RJD and the NDA. However, with the coming together of the JD(U) and the RJD, the electoral arithmetic is stacked up in such a manner that the projection of Sushil Modi does not make sense at all. Moreover, the perception that the BJP is now on the defensive will make forces within the party question the projection of Sushil Modi. Both alliance partners, the LJP and the RLSP, will make use of this situation to put their own pressures,” a senior BJP leader from the State told Frontline.

Localised strategy

As things stood now, the leader said, the BJP was gearing to pursue a localised “guerilla warfare kind of strategy”. With the overall caste and community equations and balance expected to favour the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance, “our focus will be on bringing up a fight based predominantly on local factors and localised leadership in each constituency. The selection of candidates is being worked out in such a manner as to stave off anti-incumbency sentiments even at the level of the local legislator.” Localised caste equations would be tapped to win the support of sections of the Yadav community that may be upset with Lalu Prasad’s acceptance of Nitish Kumar’s supremacy. There is also a growing realisation in the BJP leadership, at least at the level of the strategists planning for Bihar but working out of Delhi, that its allies since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, such as the LJP and the RLSP, and its new ally, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) led by former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who broke away from the JD(U) after falling out with Nitish Kumar, may be effective in this localised strategy in several key constituencies. A senior BJP activist based out of Delhi said, “It is a challenging strategy, more difficult to implement since it has not been tried out anywhere else in the Assembly elections after May 2014. It remains to be seen how far it will succeed here.”

Thematically, the BJP plans to highlight the incongruity of values between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. “Nitish Kumar had always projected himself as a paragon of clean politics, but he has now joined hands with Lalu Prasad, a symbol of corruption, fearing the BJP’s march ahead. The people of Bihar realise that good governance and development happened when Nitish Kumar was Chief Minister only because he was in alliance with the BJP. We will focus on these points and emphasise that good governance can be possible only if the BJP comes to power,” Nand Kishore Yadav told Frontline.

Even as these plans are being made, there is a grudging admission by the BJP and its NDA partners that several factors will prevent them from repeating the 2014 performance. Driven by the Narendra Modi factor, the NDA got approximately 39 per cent of the votes in the State in the Lok Sabha elections and the NDA won 31 of the 40 seats in the State. The coalition of the RJD, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party polled approximately 30 per cent of the votes and the JD(U) polled approximately 17 per cent of the votes. The number of seats won by these parties are as follows: RJD four, Congress two, JD(U) two, NCP one. Going by the percentage of votes polled in the Lok Sabha elections, the notional vote share of the emerging JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance will be 47 per cent.

While this in itself is higher than the 39 per cent the NDA got, the BJP’s worries have accentuated also on account of the realisation that the Narendra Modi factor that was dominant during the Lok Sabha elections is fast receding in Bihar. Analysing the political situation in relation to the BJP and the NDA, the Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore pointed out that in the 2014 elections, the Modi factor had raised such aspirations that it cut across traditional caste divisions, but that has changed radically now.

“The Modi government’s track record of one year, especially in terms of addressing the agrarian crisis, has belied these aspirations in a big way. The failure to provide relief to farmers who have suffered losses as well as the amendments being brought to the land acquisition Bill has generated aggressive sentiments across rural Bihar against the Modi government and the BJP. The moral high ground taken by the BJP in relation to corruption in high places during the Lok Sabha campaign has also suffered erosion in Bihar owing to a number of happenings, most recently the exposures relating to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s questionable favours to [former commissioner of the Indian Premier League] Lalit Modi. All this is bound to impact the BJP and the NDA negatively, though there is some hope of gaining some ground from the JD(U) on account of the parting of ways of Manjhi from that party and on account of the hold he has on Maha Dalit votes,” Kishore pointed out.

Evidently, the odds are loaded in favour of the JD(U)-RJD alliance and its potential coalition with the Congress, but the constant refrain within the BJP is that it cannot afford to lose this Assembly election, too, after the drubbing it received in Delhi at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

What political games this realisation will unleash is to be seen. Whatever the form and content of these games, there is little doubt that the excitement quotient of the impending elections in Bihar will be high.