Mainstream, VOL LIII No 45 New Delhi October 31, 2015
Bihar Poll: Mother of all Elections
Wednesday 4 November 2015
by Sanjay Mishra
Dubbed as “the mother of all elections”, the five-phase election for the 243 seats of the Bihar Assembly has justifiably evoked a lot of media attention and buzz among political parties, psephologists and commentators. Bihar has not only been the epicentre of the earliest empire in India presided over by an emperor who later converted to Buddhism and non-violence and gave to the world some of the earliest principles of governance and secularism, but it has also been the cradle of one of the earliest democratic experiments not just of India but perhaps of the world. The world renowned Chanakya’s “Artha-shastra” is a classic book on administration and foreign policy.
More recently in the 1970s, under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan (JP), Bihar acted as one of the earliest citadels, mobilising the Opposition forces across the country, against the authoritarianism of the Emergency pro-claimed by Mrs Gandhi. While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that the ongoing election deserves to be placed alongside the great political tradition of the hoary past, it certainly appears to be a watershed election in the annals of the electoral history of India. Bihar is at the cusp of rewriting electoral history with political repercussions not only for the State but the entire country.
Importance for the BJP
The Bihar poll is of immense importance for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Paradoxically, the party, which has no qualms in being a self-professed champion of Hindus and Hindi, has not been able to ensconce itself in the driving seat of power in Bihar, a key State of the Hindi heartland. Even at the height of the Ram Janma-bhoomi agitation in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the party acquired an absolute or relative majority in the Legislative Assemblies of four States in the north (Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) and even captured 28 per cent of the votes down south in Karnataka (Jaffrelot 2010), Bihar remained out of bounds for it. The appa-rently impregnable fortress of Laloo Prasad’s regime in Bihar, established in 1990, was breached for good only when the BJP jointly contested the elections with the Janata Dal (United) or JD (U), originally the Samata Party, formed by Nitish Kumar after parting ways with Laloo. Since 2005, the BJP remained in power only as a junior partner of the JD (U), until Nitish Kumar broke up with it in 2013.
A victory for the NDA would certainly mean that the last elusive bastion of the Hindi heartland has finally been triumphed by the Right-wing party, by and large, on its own,1 and that too when the track record of the incumbent Chief Minister (CM), whether on governance or personal integrity, has been impeccable, to say the least. It would mean that the Modi magic is still on, which many surveys seem to suggest, even though some of its sheen may have faded since the parliamentary elections. Indeed, this election is, in one sense, also about a personality clash between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, a contest between their personal egos and models of governance and development; after all, Nitish Kumar broke the alliance with the BJP, forged about 17 years back, when Narendra Modi was anointed as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP in 2013. Since then, both the leaders have been engaged in a war of words so much so that Nitish resigned as the CM when his party put up a dismal performance compared to the stellar performance of the BJP in the parliamentary poll. The non-declaration of the CM candidate by the BJP pits Modi, by design or by default, against Nitish and makes the inference inescapable that the election is about Nitish versus Modi.
At stake for the BJP is not just the personal popularity of the PM and his grudge against the CM but also the micro-management electio-neering skills of the party President, Amit Shah. Both of them have been credited, to the exclusion of any significant contribution from other top leaders of the party, with the BJP’s unprecedented victory in the parliamentary poll and the subsequent Assembly elections for the States of Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. The results of the Delhi elections are dismissed by them as an exception. Moreover, a loss in Bihar would severely damage the morale and confidence of the party for the upcoming electoral contests in the States of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala apart from making it cautious in pushing the pending reform measures in Parliament.
Harbinger of a Broad anti-BJP Front
Simultaneously, it will give impetus to the hawkish stance of the Opposition parties in Parliament. It could also possibly be the harbinger of a broad anti-BJP front on a pan-India basis. If Nitish were to reverse the Modi juggernaut, his stature as a ‘giant killer’ would indisputably soar to dizzying heights. He could become a pole for the broad anti-BJP front for the 2019 parliamentary poll and, who knows, a la Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in the 1990s, could become the next PM! Of course, such a prognosis and scenario is replete with many pitfalls and caveats. No wonder, the BJP is firing all cylinders with the Prime Minister himself leading the charge from the NDA side, indefatigably holding rallies in the various districts of Bihar, calling the CM treacherous, citing Jitan Ram Manjhi’s unceremonious ouster from the CM’s chair as a proof of Nitish’s lack of respect and concern for the Mahadalaits, announcing a mega-package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore at a rally, accusing the incumbent government of allowing the economic growth to slacken and the crime rate to grow and promising a slew of policies to spur agricultural and industrial development.
Moreover, the BJP has been trying to play on the people’s fear that with Laloo as the ally of Nitish, ‘jungle raj’ would again haunt Bihar if they were to come to power. It has also been pointing out that anti-Congressism was the leitmotif of Lohia’s politics and Nitish, a follower of Lohia, has betrayed the philosophy of Lohia by teaming up with the Congress. Similarly, the tirade goes, an alliance with Laloo smacks of the worst kind opportunism on the part of Nitish because opposing Laloo had been the very raison d’être of his entire political career of the last 20 years.
Conducive set of Circumstances
How much of all these accusations and promises will cut ice is a moot question. The party fortuitously, with stakes being so high, could not have asked for a more conducive set of circumstances to propel it to power. For one thing, since the alliance was called off by Nitish on the pretext of Modi’s anointment as the prime ministerial candidate without so much as an ideological fig-leaf, the BJP has been able to drive home the message that the alliance was broken by Nitish because of his arrogance and pathological hatred of Modi. This charge has been levelled against Nitish ad nauseam even as the split has afforded the BJP a golden opportunity as the head of another alliance to test the waters. Can it pull it off?
It is true that the upper castes have rallied behind the BJP like never before. “In the CSDS 2014 Lok Sabha survey, an unprecedented 78 per cent of the upper castes voted for the BJP, even more than in the polarised era of the early 1990s. But unlike the 1990s, this occurred without a parallel consolidation of votes on the other side.”(Witsoe 2015) It is also true that even as an adjunct of the JD (U), the BJP’s strike rate in the 2010 Assembly elections—89.2 per cent—had been better than its senior partner the JD (U) which notched up 81.6 per cent.2 Of the 102 seats allotted to it, the BJP won 91 seats while the JD (U) could win 115 out of the 141 seats. There are indications that even large sections of the backward castes and Dalits voted for the party in the 2014 parliamentary poll. The party’s chances have also been apparently brightened by the SP and NCP walking out of the grand alliance and three Left parties—CPI, CPM, and CPI (ML)—not having any tie-up with the mahagathbandhan. Owaisi’s decision to contest 24 seats in the Seemanchal having significant Muslim population could further possibly spoil the chances of the grand alliance.
Surely, the supporters of the party would like us to believe that the party is in a vantage position vis-a-vis its political adversaries. The party, having hit a purple patch with Narendra Modi, has certainly been on a roll. The party is certainly buoyed by the unprecedented victory in the parliamentary elections of 2014 when it received 282 seats and the subsequent victories in the Assembly elections of Maharashtra, Jharkhand and seemingly difficult States like Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. But its exceptional performance in Bihar in the parliamentary poll has given the BJP confidence and optimism in the Assembly elections. Out of the 40 parliamentary seats, the BJP bagged a good 22 seats while its allies, the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan won six seats and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) of Upendra Khushwaha won three seats. This performance appears even more encouraging when compared with the paltry seats that its rivals bagged—two seats by the JD(U), four by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and two seats by the Congress. The shifting vote-shares of the two conglomerates make the position of the NDA appear even better than its rival. When the BJP and JD (U) were allies, they secured 16.5 per cent and 22.5 per cent of the votes respectively in the 2010 Assembly elections. It was not very different from the vote-shares of the 2009 parliamentary poll. When they parted ways in the 2014 parliamentary poll, the gap between their vote-shares, like the gap between their seats, had become really yawning. The BJP had a vote-share of 29.9 per cent compared to the JD (U)’s mere 16.5 per cent.
On top of that, the party, although a believer in Hindu consolidation, has not fought shy of playing the caste card lest it should lag behind the mahagathbandhan’s caste calculus built around the consolidation of the ‘backward castes’, Dalits and the minorities. Alliance with caste-based parties—the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan, Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) [HAM(S)] of Jitan Ram Manjhi, RLSP of Upendra Khushwaha—may certainly help the BJP to garner the votes of a significant chunk of the Dalits, the Mahadalit and the other backward castes (OBCs) and the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). If ground reports are to be believed, this election is likely to see the emergence of a Mahadalit caste, constituting about 2.8 per cent of the population, the “Musahars as a strong constituency determined to vote en bloc displaying an assertiveness and solidarity till now associated with Yadavs, Bhumhars and Paswans”. (Diwakar 2015) It will of course be a bitter irony if the Mahadalidts, comprising 21 castes and about 11 per cent of the population, whom Nitish carved out as a separate category for special treatment, leaving out the more empowered Duhads (Paswans), turn their back on him.
Similarly, within the EBCs, which constitute about 33 per cent of the population and consist of some 100 castes, there are reports that a big chunk of them, particularly the small traders and some occupational castes, who had supported Nitish in the past do not like his alliance with the Yadavs, the dominant OBC, and may vote for the BJP. Giving tickets to more than 20 Yadavs, who constitute about 15 per cent of the population of Bihar and who have been solidly behind Laloo, is another master-stroke on the part of the BJP.
So far, so good. But the challenge from the side of the grand alliance is quite formidable if not insurmountable. For one thing, an extrapolation from the results of the parliamentary poll may be misleading because the politically savvy voters of Bihar know the distinction between the parliamentary poll and Assembly election and in any case the alliance between the JD (U) and RJD had not materialised in the parliamentary poll. Even in that poll, the RJD commanded a vote-share of 20.5 per cent. For the numerically dominant Yadavs, Laloo remains the tallest leader and they know that voting for the grand alliance is the only way to end their political wilderness. Bypolls for the 10 Assembly seats held in the month of August 2014 could be a better guide than the parliamentary poll for mapping the electoral trend. The JD (U), RJD and Congress contested the elections together and won six seats, confining the BJP to just four seats.
Hate-mongering statements from some of the leaders of the BJP may not just push the minorities en bloc towards the grand alliance but may even engender doubts about the BJP among sections of the upper castes, OBCs and EBCs, who still hold Nitish in high esteem. In the absence of a credible chief ministerial candidate from the NDA side, Nitish remains the preferred choice across communities in Bihar. On top of that, Laloo has been trying to convert the elections into a ‘forward-versus-backward’ contest and with the RSS chief’s exhortation for reviewing the policy of reservation, this appears to be a distinct possibility. Nitish has also been assiduously trying to empower women who could vote for him and become the real game-changer. Providing 50 per cent reservation for women in the panchayati raj system and recruitment of primary teachers and 35 per cent in the appointment of police constables and giving cycles to girl students have helped him to win the hearts of the women. (Srivastava 2015)
All said and done the wild card in this election appears to be the somewhat heterogeneous EBCs and to some extent the Mahadalits. It is in this context that the election has baffled all psephologists and commentators alike. Pre-poll surveys have given mixed signals, reflecting the voters’ dilemma.
1. For the 243 seats, the BJP is for the first time contesting on 160 seats, while its allies LJSP, RLSP and HAM (S) have been allotted 40, 23 and 20 seats respectively. In the 2010 Assembly election, the JD (U), as the senior partner, contested elections on 141 seats, leaving the BJP with 102 seats.
2. Of the 102 seats allotted to it, the BJP won 91 seats while JD (U) could win 115 out of the 141 seats.
1. Diwakar (2015): ‘Rallying behind Manjhi, Musahars vow Revenge’, The Times of India, October 9.
2. Jeffrelot, Christoffe (2010): ’The Hindu Nationalists and Power’ in Nirja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Politics in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 205-218.
3. Srivastava, Arun (2015): ’Nitish’s Search for Strategy to Uplift Women ahead of Elections’, Mainstream, Vol L111, No 18, pp. 9-11.
The author is an Associate Professor of Political Science, MMH(PG) College, Ghaziabad. He can be contacted at e-mail dr.sanjaymishra_1969@ yahoo.co.in