E ven as the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, was making preparations to launch the second innings of the Adityanath government in mid-March 2022, the saffron party initiated a deft political manoeuvre in neighbouring Bihar that had diverse implications for both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The manoeuvre involved the “political swallowing up” of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), a component of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State, with all three of its MLAs joining the BJP.
While the move had concrete dimensions in Bihar, as it catapulted the BJP to the position of the single largest party in the State, the significance for Uttar Pradesh was more subtle: it served as a warning to smaller allies on making political demands.
With the addition of the three MLAs, the BJP’s strength in the Assembly went up to 77, ahead of the principal opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which was so far the single largest party with 75 MLAs.
As the MLAs—Rajkumar Singh from Sahebganj Assembly constituency, Misrilal Yadav from Alinagar and Swarna Singh representing Gaura Bauram—met Vijay Kumar Sinha, Speaker of the Bihar Assembly, and intimated him of their decision to join the BJP, VIP’s founder Mukesh Sahani found himself completely isolated. A couple of days after losing all his MLAs to the BJP, he was also removed as Minister of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries from Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Cabinet. Following these developments, Mukesh Sahani went on record stating he had made a “big political mistake” by aligning with the BJP in the 2020 Assembly election.
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The immediate significance of the Bihar manoeuvre in Uttar Pradesh, according to several leaders and activists of the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), is that it has turned out to be a stern warning to the BJP’s smaller regional allies in the State to not flex their political muscle too much, especially in relation to ministerial berth allocations.
Incidentally, during the election campaign, when Adityanath and his team faced a stiff challenge from the principal opposition Samajwadi Party (S.P.), BJP allies such as Apna Dal and Nishad Party got into a tough bargaining mode with leaders of the saffron party, including Amit Shah, and succeeded in getting a higher number of seats to contest. The message to them from the Bihar manoeuvre is that the BJP leadership will no longer tolerate such tactics, especially while allocating Ministries and departments.
Beyond the immediate realpolitik implications, the BJP’s “swallowing up” of the VIP’s legislature party is very much in keeping with the Sangh Parivar’s well-thought-out perspectives and strategy and the brand of politics it practises. The Sangh Parivar has followed this route for several decades with varying levels of success.
Way back in the early 1990s, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, then senior vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the outfit termed as the ideological sword arm of the Sangh Parivar, had explained the strategy in detail to Frontline .
He said that all political and electoral alliances made by the political arm of the Sangh Parivar have the ultimate objective of capturing the core support base of the coalition partner. Such additions, he added, would ultimately take the political arm of the Sangh Parivar to all-round political dominance across an overwhelmingly large section of the population.
When Giriraj Kishore divulged this strategy in the early 1990s, its success rate was limited. Parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and various regional parties of the Janata Dal variety had allied with the BJP but still managed to hold on to their support base in a big way.
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However, since the late 2000s, the Sangh Parivar’s politics of poaching the support base of allies has grown by leaps and bounds. Strong regional parties such as the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) in Bihar and even the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu & Kashmir have suffered big losses on account of the Sangh Parivar’s brand of politics. The PDP became a pawn in the hands of the BJP despite having a large Muslim support base, which is inherently antithetical to the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology. The JD(U) too has played into the hands of the Sangh Parivar repeatedly in the past decade and a half.
The BJP’s massive electoral victories in the last two general elections, with a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, was greatly facilitated by this politics of poaching support bases. In both the elections, the BJP had moved beyond its core support base comprising north Indian upper caste communities such as Brahmins and Thakurs, making deep inroads into a number of Other Backward Caste (OBC), Most Backward Caste (MBC) and Dalit communities. The “swallowing up” of the VIP is an extension of the accretion of such marginalised Hindu communities.
Mukesh Sahani’s rise and fall
VIP founder Mukesh Sahani was originally a film-maker and producer in Mumbai’s Hindi film industry. He left it about a decade ago to enter Bihar politics, with the proclamation that he wanted to uplift the marginalised MBC community of Mallahs (fishermen and boatmen), to which he belonged. The community has a significant presence in about 12 Assembly constituencies of the State, especially in the Mithila and Tirhut regions.
Mukesh Sahani initially allied with the Lalu Prasad-led RJD but broke that alliance on the eve of the 2020 Assembly election and became a part of the NDA. The VIP was given 11 seats to contest and the party bagged four, although Mukesh Sahani himself lost. Subsequently, he was accommodated as a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) and a Minister in the Nitish Kumar government.
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But even in allotting the MLC seat the BJP had a game plan. It made sure that he was given an MLC seat that did not last the entire term of the current Assembly. The seat’s tenure ends in July 2022. Mukesh Sahani, who has lost his MLAs and his Ministership, will also cease to be an MLC in a few months.
Both Sangh Parivar activists in Bihar and supporters of Mukesh Sahani told Frontline that the appropriation of the Mallah community by the BJP into its support base was a well-thought-out project, which was carried out steadily and systematically.
They also said that the dole-based government projects launched by the Centre and the BJP governments at the State level played a big role in developing this shift.
A senior Sangh Parivar activist based in Patna told Frontline that the Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, which entails a dole of Rs.6,000 a year in three instalments, as well as free rations, houses and toilets, had influenced the Mallah community in a big way, along with many other OBC and MBC communities. He said: “All this is steadily breaking the hold of smaller caste parties and their leaders over their respective communities.”
The phenomenon manifested in the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh election where the S.P. succeeded in roping in leaders of several numerically smaller castes, but those community members largely stayed with the BJP with the reasoning: “Modi baithakar khila raha hai (Modi is feeding us without making us work).”
The voters complained about price rise, unemployment, shortage of oxygen and beds during the pandemic and the widespread menace of stray cattle, but still they largely stuck with the BJP. Obviously, the doles directly transferred to the beneficiaries’ accounts overrode the issues of price rise, unemployment, economic distress and shoddy governance.
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Another important reason for the BJP to specifically target Mukesh Sahani was that he had fielded VIP candidates in over 50 Assembly constituencies during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. His campaign platform was centred around criticising the policies of the BJP governments, especially targeting Narendra Modi and Adityanath. The BJP leadership had made it clear that Mukesh Sahani could not do this as he was a Minister in Bihar’s NDA government.
But Mukesh Sahani came up with the counter-argument that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) too had fielded candidates separately in Uttar Pradesh, challenging the BJP.
Even as this tussle was going on, the Assembly seat of Bochahan, which had elected Musafir Paswan of the VIP, fell vacant on account of his death. Under normal circumstances, the seat should have gone to the VIP in the forthcoming byelection to the seat. But the BJP’s poaching politics extended to the seat too and it fielded its own candidate. Mukesh Sahani has put up a brave face and stated that this byelection would teach the BJP a lesson.
As things stand now, the general impression in Bihar’s political circles is that if Mukesh Sahani and the RJD are able to work out a proper electoral understanding, it would be possible to defeat the BJP. However, even if that happens, the value of the BJP’s latest gain in the practice of its brand of poaching politics would remain. Likewise, the larger threat it poses to smaller allies, including in Uttar Pradesh, will continue to loom over the political landscape.