Assembly elections

Twists and turns

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing a rally in Sultanganj constituency in Bhagalpur district on September 28. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party and Jitanram Manjhi (right) of the Hindustani Awam Morcha in Banka on October 2. Photo: PTI

Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah addressing an election rally in Gurua in Gaya on October 12. Photo: PTI

A hoarding showing portraits of local leaders of the National Democratic Alliance, in Patna on October 20. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

After two phases of the five-phased elections in Bihar, the main rivals, the National Democratic Alliance and the Grand Alliance, tread carefully, with a sense of anxiety and cautious optimism.

AS Bihar’s Assembly elections in five phases move towards completion, the principal electoral rivals —the Grand Alliance consisting of the ruling Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress on the one side, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose constituents include the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Ramvilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and the Jitanram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha on the other—are in a state of animation tempered by caution. However, their moods are marked by nuanced differences.

As has been evident from the early stages of campaigning, the other players in the fray—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); the coalition of the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Jan Adhikar Morcha; and the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which is contesting in a limited number of seats—do not partake of this excitement or caution.

Palpable among the constituents of the Grand Alliance in the last week of October is a sense of elation at having done unexpectedly well in the first two rounds of polling held on October 12 and 16. However, their top and middle-level leaders are careful not to be carried away by the sense of doing well in the early rounds. Conversely, the mood in the NDA camp is tinged with anxiety and its constituents are making fervent efforts to do better in the remaining three rounds of polling scheduled for October 28, November 1 and 5. NDA leaders have been telling their cadre that with concerted efforts they can still pull off a victory.There is a growing acceptance among them that they have messed up in the area of crafting and polishing their electoral strategies. There is a grudging admission that the key factors in this election have evolved in such a nuanced way that their cumulative effect may not be positive for the BJP.

Discussions of this election had revolved around four points. The first was whether the popular appeal of JD(U) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would be dented by his party’s alliance with the RJD. After the first two phases of polling, the impression among all sections of the political class, both practitioners and observers, is that the negative impact of the alliance is not decisive and that the image of the Chief Minister is even now a huge positive for the Grand Alliance.

The second point was in connection with reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the context of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader Mohan Bhagwat’s statement advocating a review of the policy. The perception in the BJP was that it would be counterproductive for the party and the NDA. The campaign has underscored this perception. With the considerable campaigning skills of Lalu Prasad, the Grand Alliance, exploiting Bhagwat’s statement, has created ground-level debate centred on the theme of backward castes versus upper castes. This, in turn, has upstaged the third factor: the not-so-concealed efforts of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates to communalise the social and political climate of the State using different stratagems, foregrounding emotive issues such as cow slaughter and beef consumption.

Finally, the NDA had great expectations about the churning among some communities belonging to the Most Backward Castes (MBC) and the Maha Dalits on account of factors such as the JD(U)’s alliance with the Yadav-dominated RJD and the break-up of Mahadalit leader and former Chief Minister Jitanram Manjhi with the JD(U). However, indications from the first two phases of the election, particularly the second phase, are that the MBC shift to the NDA was not to the extent required to upset the Grand Alliance’s chances. “At best, the division of the votes of these sections between the NDA and the Grand Alliance is fifty-fifty and this will not help the NDA march ahead,” a Patna-based leader of the LJP told Frontline.

Women’s support

Over and above all this, the NDA leader said, Nitish Kumar’s trump card will be the massive support from women, who are voting in large numbers in this election (story on page 122). In fact, this was evident to journalists travelling across Bihar during and after the first two phases of the election. In Bodh Gaya, which went to the polls in the second phase, Frontline walked into a Dalit hamlet with around 450 households where it found large groups of Manjhi women rooting for Nitish Kumar and praising the Chief Minister for all that he had done for the women of the State. What came in for special praise was the 50 per cent reservation his government had accorded to women in panchayati raj institutions since 2006. In many ways, that village symbolised Nitish Kumar’s continuing popularity among Maha Dalits and MBCs. It also indicated that his party’s association with Lalu Prasad has not had too much of a negative impact among these social constituencies.

In Sitamarhi, which is bound to go to the polls in the fourth phase, on November 1, a group of upper-caste Bhumihar women made bold to say that some of their men were forcing them to vote for the BJP, but they could not forget what Nitish Kumar had done for them, especially in terms of reservation. “Hence, we are going to be with Nitish ji whatever the menfolk say” was the refrain from these women belonging to an upper-caste stronghold, which consequently should be a BJP stronghold. This, indeed, was a significant straw in the political wind.

Changing campaign themes

The political analyst Surendra Kishore told Frontline that the BJP leadership seemed to have got so rattled by the lack of resonance to its main campaign themes that its general slogans and minute planning have also gone awry. “The manner in which it has changed the main election slogan from one that called for a Modi government in Bihar to a plea to have the same party’s government at the Centre and in the State encapsulates this confusion. This has even led to the removal of the portraits of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah from the posters of the BJP across the State. In all these shifts, twists and turns, the BJP seems to going through the kind of organisational tumult that it faced in the Delhi Assembly election [early this year]. The internal talk in the BJP now is about its failure to project a local leader as the chief ministerial candidate. Initially the argument was that Nitish Kumar needed to be taken on by Modi himself. And now Amit Shah’s tactics are being more openly questioned within the NDA constituents and even within sections of the BJP,” he said.

According to Kishore and many other observers, what has upset the BJP leadership the most is its performance in the second phase of the election, where it had expected to win a majority of the 32 seats that went to the polls. The seats are spread across the districts of Arwal, Aurangabad, Gaya, Jahanabad, Kaimur and Rohtas. In this phase, Manjhi and his support base was supposed to turn things in favour of the BJP, especially in Gaya and Jahanabad. But the internal assessment of the NDA after the election here was that polling was not up to its expectation.

With three phases of polling remaining at the time of writing this, the BJP and the NDA need to make extra efforts to overcome the perceived reverses in the first two phases. In the third phase, which has an equal mix of urban and rural areas, with districts such as Patna, Bhojpur, Buxar, Nalanda and Saran, the electoral equations are considered to be in favour of the NDA. However, a large number of constituencies that go to the polls in the fourth and fifth phases of the election have significant sections of the minority communities. It would indeed be a long haul for the BJP and the NDA to get the upper hand in these seats.

Incidentally, most of the low-intensity communal conflicts that had erupted over a period of six months before the announcement of the elections were in these regions. However, the campaigning in these regions has been incident-free. According to Grand Alliance leaders such as K.C. Tyagi, this absence of flare-ups also seems to have added to the discomfiture of the BJP.

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