Assembly Elections

The battle begins

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad at the Swabhiman rally of the grand alliance in Patna on August 30. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing NDA's Parivartan rally in Bhagalpur on September 1. Photo: PTI

As the countdown starts in Bihar, the contest appears evenly balanced, but it is widely believed that the BJP will build the element of communal polarisation into its campaign strategy.

WITH the Election Commission of India (ECI) announcing a five-phase election schedule for Bihar, the State has firmly moved into election mode. Elections to the 243-member Assembly will be conducted on October 12, 16, 28 and November 1 and 5, and counting will take place on November 8. An atmosphere of electoral politics had been steadily building up in the politically conscious State even before the ECI’s formal announcement came on September 9. The competitive and spectacular rallies held in August and early September by the grand alliance consisting of the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress on the one hand and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the other are concrete illustrations of this build-up. Apart from these two main contenders, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and a coalition of six Left parties—the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP)—are in the fray, banking on their own limited pockets of influence.

With electioneering gathering momentum, the growing refrain is about the stiff contest expected between the grand alliance and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Given the big stakes the Bihar results have for the BJP-NDA following the thorough and unexpected drubbing it suffered in the Delhi Assembly elections at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi is leading the NDA’s campaign. The grand alliance’s campaign is led collectively by Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar and RJD president Lalu Prasad, with Congress president Sonia Gandhi providing active support to the two Bihar leaders.

It was expected that the ECI would announce the election schedule in the first week of September, following which election restrictions would automatically come into play. As this did not happen, the perceived delay in the announcement was used by the grand alliance and the BJP-NDA, which were already holding big rallies, as “extra time” to advance their unique brand of the so-called development-oriented politics using government machinery. In fact, on September 9, the Central government as well as the Janata Dal (U)-headed Bihar government approved a 6 per cent increase in dearness allowance for Central and State government employees respectively. The Union Cabinet also sanctioned an additional allocation of Rs.1,850 crore to strengthen the measures to enhance the electricity situation in Bihar.

On August 18, Modi announced a development package Rs.1.25 lakh crore for the State and a few days later, he stated that the 14th Finance Commission would set aside another Rs.3.74 lakh crore for Bihar in the next five years.

These “extra time” manoeuvres and pre-election sops apart, direct political campaigning on the ground is picking up with the projection of a number of forcefully argued political themes.

The central theme of the grand alliance is the need to retain the creative and effective leadership of Nitish Kumar, whose term is credited with improving the socio-economic indices of Bihar and enforcing the rule of law in a State that was once known for lawlessness. The NDA argues that the Janata Dal (U) made these achievements when it was in alliance with the BJP and that the breaking of that alliance took away the sheen off the Nitish Kumar government. It also maintains that the Janata Dal (U)’s alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD signifies the return of the “jungle raj” in Bihar since that is how the RJD’s tenures have been characterised by its political opponents.

The NDA constituents are also certain that the leaders and cadres of the Janata Dal (U) and the RJD will never be able to get along given the fact they have been sworn opponents for over a decade. They also contend that the projection of Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate and his leadership will not be acceptable to a large section of the RJD cadre.

In the days immediately following the formation of the grand alliance in early June, many leaders of the parties in the alliance too expressed similar concerns. However, the August 30 “Swabhiman” rally held by the grand alliance and the camaraderie displayed by the cadres at the rally underscored the fact that the integration of the alliance had gone far beyond their expectations. People from villages in different parts of Bihar, cutting across communities, attended the rally and raised slogans projecting Nitish Kumar as the Chief Minister and hailing Lalu Prasad as the popular leader of Bihar. At that time, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s S.P. was also part of the alliance, but the ruling party of Uttar Pradesh decided to part ways with the grand alliance professedly over differences over seat sharing.

The S.P. is a minor player in Bihar and its departure is not expected to substantially alter the chances of the grand alliance although the party has decided to contest all the seats. In any case, the big debates and concerns regarding the grand alliance revolved around the Janata Dal (U) and the RJD, and, in particular, about the compatibility of the two parties. On this count, the Swabhiman rally showed that all the parties in the alliance had taken special efforts to build substantive integration on the ground.

According to Lalu Prasad, this new integration has resulted in instilling fresh energy into the political campaign of the alliance. He told Frontline that for a long time Modi’s rhetoric was not countered actively and effectively in Bihar. “The alliance and the new energy it has brought is changing all this. Modi and his bhaktas are facing a resounding counter attack from us now.”

Lalu Prasad’s views were echoed by the Janata Dal (U) spokesperson Sanjay Singh. He was of the view that the counter-attack on Modi and the BJP was more effective now than it was in the past two and a half years.

Political jugalbandhi

Several senior activists of the grand alliance and a number of Bihar-based political observers told Frontline that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad were devising a unique political jugalbandhi as they got more and more immersed in the campaign. This apparently involves carrying out two different types of tasks to produce a striking unitary effect.

“As part of this, Nitish Kumar has taken Modi on in the realm of development, citing facts and figures which clearly expose his claims as far-fetched. He has described the Rs.1.25 lakh crore package announced by Modi for Bihar as a fraud and listed facts and figures about the ‘duplication’ of projects worth Rs.1.08 lakh crore. Similarly, he cited the National Crime Records Bureau’s figures to show that the law and order situation in Bihar was better than it was in the BJP-ruled States of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. While Nitish Kumar has called Modi’s bluff, Lalu Prasad has matched Modi in the rhetoric and demagogue department by developing a broad social alliance of communities, primarily belonging to the Other Backward Classes [OBCs] and minorities,” a senior Janata Dal (U) leader explained.

The NDA’s original strategy for Bihar, as conceived by BJP president Amit Shah, was to “divide and surge”. Put simply, this envisioned ensuring that the RJD and the Janata Dal (U) did not forge an alliance so that the BJP and its allies—the Ramvilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP)—could repeat their 2014 Lok Sabha performance. The NDA and the BJP pursued many stratagems, political as well as administrative, to make the “divide and surge” tactic a reality. There were also suggestions to include the graft and disproportionate assets cases involving Lalu Prasad’s family members as part of this drive. But despite all these strategies, the grand alliance did come about and is showing signs of integration on the ground, too. In this context, the BJP and its allies are working on a strategy of chipping away at the grand alliance’s support base.

Two new players have been co-opted as part of this strategy. They are former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who broke away from Janata Dal (U) to form the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), and Pappu Yadav, who fell out with the RJD and formed the Jan Adhikar Morcha (JAM). The HAM is expected to snip at the Janata Dal (U)’s Maha Dalit and Most Backward Classes (MBC) support base, which has been assiduously cultivated by Nitish Kumar. Pappu Yadav has influence over a small percentage of Yadavs in some pockets of Bihar. The BJP would make an effort to help him enhance this marginal support.

Sections of the NDA believe that the presence of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in some constituencies will work against the grand alliance and favour the NDA. In the perception of some senior BJP and NDA activists, this type of chipping away at the voter base has worked in many constituencies. A senior BJP leader told Frontline that “this in turn is expected to lead to significant shifts in the balance of vote share between the two sides”.

Electoral arithmetic

It is generally agreed in the context of the 2015 Assembly elections that the only reasonable vote share statistics that can be used for evaluation are those of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. All other calculations are problematic because the electoral formulations were dramatically different. In 2014, the partners of the grand alliance were opposed to the BJP although the Janata Dal (U) fought separately.

In terms of seats, the BJP and its allies swept the Lok Sabha elections. The NDA won 31 of the 40 seats. The BJP won 22 seats, while the LJP and the RLSP won six and three respectively. The Janata Dal (U) and the Congress won two each and the RJD four. One seat went to the NCP. But, the NDA’s crushing victory was not reflected to the same degree in its vote share. As per the ECI figures, the BJP and its allies put together polled 38.56 per cent of the votes—the BJP 29.86 per cent, the LJP 6.50 per cent and the RLSP 2.2 per cent—while the total vote share of the BJP’s opponents was around 45.95 per cent—the RJD 20.46 per cent, the Janata Dal (U) 16.04 per cent, the Congress 8.56 per cent and the S.P. 0.89 per cent. Thus, on paper, the electoral arithmetic is such that the grand alliance is ahead of the NDA by about seven percentage points. It is in this context that the BJP and its allies plan to chip away at the vote base as an important element in their electoral strategy.

As per the calculations of the BJP State leadership, the HAM will take nearly two percentage points from the Janata Dal (U)’s votes while the JAM could take away about 1 per cent of the Yadav votes from the RJD. With the S.P. breaking away from the alliance, the cumulative loss for the grand alliance, as calculated by the BJP leadership, is to the tune of four percentage points. “Although all of it may not accrue to the BJP and the NDA immediately, it is hoped that the strategy will result in a stiff contest situation,” a senior BJP activist in Patna told Frontline.

By all indications, the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar are expected to build the element of communal polarisation into this “stiff-fight field”. Already, the methodical pursuit of the Hindutva agenda has resulted in over 400 low-intensity communal conflicts across the State in the past six months. If this has created polarisation at the local level, the strategy to chip away at the opponents’ vote base will have a decisive impact.

According to the political analyst Surendra Kishore, it is too early to say whether the BJP and its allies have been able to create that kind of impact at the ground level. In any case, in the stiff-fight situation, a lot would depend on the allocation of seats and the selection of candidates.

With the formal announcement of the election dates, the next big step for all the forces in the fray is the massive and undoubtedly contentious exercise of identifying the right parties for forming an alliance and the right candidates for the seats even as they try to steer the larger political debate in the direction they want.