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A Scattered Party System And Bihar’s 16th Assembly Election

Updated: November 5, 2015 11:30 am

Nitish’s gamble for a halo misfired when after the 2014 general election he resigned as the CM, bringing his protégé a non-descript MLA Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister. Manjhi soon began seeking an independent identity and rebelled when asked to quit in his favour

The sixteenth Legislative Assembly election to being held in five phases in October-November 2015 in Bihar is a significant one for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the Grand Alliance (GA) woven together by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav. Both are seeking more than a mandate in a state, they are looking for vindication of their politics in Bihar in particular and in India in general; Modi and BJP for their right of centre politics based on Hindutva as well as the reform push given by the PM and the alliance for Nitish Kumar’s development model. For Lalu Yadav it is significant to regain his lost ground in the state, and if possible in national, politics. The BJP also needs to expand its numbers in state assemblies to get a firm foothold in the Rajya Sabha since it is coming in the way of several policy measures of the Modi government.

In this context, a comprehensive critical view of Bihar’s party system would give a window to two parallel coalitions—social and political—that have signified the race for political power in India since the electoral process began in 1952. Though together and separately they presuppose power sharing amongst multiple stakeholders, the process has entailed fierce politics whether one or more parties have been in the race. Fault lines emerge when the ‘dominant’ in either realm is either reluctant or attempts an inequitable sharing, seeking to command the power space. A good leadership as well as a sound party organisation as the basis of the party system takes care of the ruffled feathers.

Contextually, ever since the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assembly elections were decoupled in 1971 by Indira Gandhi, assembly elections have assumed greater political significance for the contesting parties and state and national politics alike. Splintering and reconfiguring of the Indian party system into alliance politics since the 1980s, and the emergence of states as significant political determinants of national electoral outcomes during the 1990s, distinct state party systems, whether linked to the national party system or not, as also smaller parties and alliances added significance to state politics and their aggregative role in national politics. There has been a larger fragmentation of the party system beyond the decline of the Congress and its persisting organisational weaknesses. The Left not only failed to expand by stirring the imagination of the people, an ideologically doctrinaire stance made it organisationally cocooned and it lost a touch with times. Being organisationally fractious and politically opportunists, the socialists could never emerge as a viable alternative political force in the country or a state. Such continuing frailty of the centrist outfits nationally and in states to step into the alternative space, have given a resurgent BJP a never-before chance and optimism to aggressively compete in states it has had little or half chances. That in 2014 Congress has been reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and since the mid-1980s lost bases and political organisation in a majority of states, and in Bihar since 1989, creates a larger political space for the BJP.

The 1967 general election showed fractured nature of the party system in Bihar with five distinctive features. First, the Congress followed the national trend of electoral loss and organisational disintegration, ridden as it was with the internal factionalism. Second, the existing factionalism in the party also revealed power driven post poll disintegration. Third, the socialists (Samyukta Socialist Party and Praja Socialist Party) emerged with 86 out of 318 seats 24.58 percent votes. Fourth, the non-Congress parties (across the ideological divide) got 49 percent votes. Fifth, the intermediate castes staged their first resurgence under the socialist banners. Paul Brass appeared right in visualizing emergence of ‘highly complex systems in which parties, factions, and individuals all play important roles.’

The post-1969 realignment attempted by Indira Gandhi, however, introduced organisational coherence in the Congress in Bihar along with elsewhere in the country stabilizing temporarily since 1971. But it was redefined between 1975 and 1977. Importantly, the caste arithmetic in the state realigned in a decade between 1967 and 1977. Bihar’s party system was among the first to be reconfigured following the JP movement. Yet, given the brittle alternative space across the country, the 1980s witnessed an organisationally fragile but electorally strong Congress. The 1990s brought out two things—i) stability did not mean development; ii) the alternative space in Indian politics was weak.


Bihar’s sixteenth assembly election is apparently being held as a fight between two alliances—the national level BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the chief minister Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal(U) and Lalu Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal) led GA in which the Congress is an inconsequential partner. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) lead the third front, more as a spoiler for the GA than with any major hope of making a significant presence in the assembly. In all, nearly 80 parties are in fray; but four party NDA and three-party GA are the main contenders. The caste equation is further disaggregated and despite harping on development, the BJP too is taking care of it.

Leadership is a jumbled issue in Bihar election. While Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, with the former as the chief ministerial candidate, are a duumvirate for the GA, the NDA has not projected anyone. Former deputy CM Sushil Modi has been toiling for the BJP for years and would indeed be hoping to get the throne, the party has allowed speculations to neutralise the hopefuls and from Jitan Ram Manjhi to Shahnawaz Hussain, there are several expectant CMs, no one knowing who the dark horse would be should the party and the alliance win. After independence, however, the two tallest stalwart state leaders—Dr. Sri Krishna Sinha (a Bhumihar) and Anugrah Narayan Singh (a Rajput)—steered both the Congress and the state for fifteen years after independence. If the leadership strength in the initial years was a weakness is a moot point, but the party system in Bihar in the first two general election displayed two features. First, while the plains of Bihar were with the Congress, the Chhotanagpur plateau nurturing a separate statehood dream was with two Jharkhand outfits. Second, the main contenders for the alternative space in the state were either the socialists or the communists; only briefly the Swatantra Party and the Jharkhand parties. The Congress, however, did not project any leader from the plateau.

Without the two pillars of the party, the Congress displayed weaknesses the third general election (1962) onwards and was among the seven states in 1967 where the party lost power. The Bihar party system’s integration with the national party system was visible post-1962 too—the leadership changes, the Kamraj plan, the orgnanisational and leadership confusion during the 1967-72, the parties in the alternative space being weaker in organisation than in leadership and the ‘suitcase politics’ of horse-trading the MLAs. Ram Guha writes about the time in India after Gandhi, ‘In a political lexicon already rich in acronyms a new one entered: “SVD”, Samyukta Vidhayak Dal … a Rag, Tag and Bobtail outfit, a coalition of legislators left, right and centre, united only by the desire to grab power…. These SVD governments were made up of the Jana Sangh, socialists, Swatantra, local parties and Congress defectors—this last often the key element that made a numerical majority possible…. the SVD governments were simply the product of personal ambition.’ Though politics is about personal ambition too, Guha is succinct that this factor has largely shaped Bihar’s party system since then.


The mid-1970s, however, was the defining hour of Bihar politics, as the state became the epicenter of political change that shook Indira Gandhi’s historic two-thirds majority government from its roots with the youth surging with the quiet Gandhian and socialist Jayaprakash Narayan. The JP movement too set a trend, though not lasting in its positive intent, in bringing in assertive social (caste) groups, a new bunch of leadership, new political organisations (if not political cohesion) in the alternative space and a new political realignment. However, having squandered the opportunity in just three years, they took a decade to be on a firm footing.

The party system in Bihar since then, though a part of the national post-Congress polity, presents a far from cohesive picture. While the Congress has steadily declined since 1990, self-destructing its organisation and political leadership resulting in a single digit presence in the assembly, the splits and reunification journey of the Janata family in this period has been beyond principles and ideology. If Lalu Yadav personalised power to family and a clique for pelf bringing his descent, the rise and plateauing of Nitish Kumar reflected the quagmires of coalition, ideology and caste politics. Having broken away from the Janata for his ‘Samata’, he coalesced with the BJP. But in his desire for an independent ‘secular’ path he snubbed the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi following the 2002 Gujarat riots and exited the coalition. Even as part of the NDA, he declined all opportunities to share dais with Modi, even declining the financial aid from Gujarat for flood. Projecting himself no less tall a CM than Modi, he floated his prime ministerial claim too. His gamble for a halo misfired when after the 2014 general election he resigned as the CM, bringing his protégé a non-descript MLA Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister. Manjhi soon began seeking an independent identity and rebelled when asked to quit in his favour. Bihar now has one more political party and another BJP ally. Whether he is in any of the Janata outfit or with his Lok Jan Shakti Party, the great political survivor Ram Vilas Paswan is always ready to mingle with any political suitor.

The panoply of parties during the sixteenth legislative assembly election thus displays an interesting alignment and contest of the national with the state system. Predominantly, it is the BJP that has the strongest stake in the election. Looking stronger than ever, the party has gone beyond the NDA format to enlist the disgruntled elements from far and near. The BJP has decided to have the PM as its election mascot, leaving a leadership flank open for some ‘disciplined’ party soldiers, even allies, to remain disgruntled. Many of the 80-plus outfits and independents could be fake, some created by the NDA too. It remains to be seen if in this closely contested election, they would prove asset or liability.


The GA has several liabilities, of an organisationally weak JD(U), of tall claims of Nitish Kumar’s development model, of legacies of Lalu’s ‘Jungle Raj’, Lalu’s own ambitions that he would seek to achieve through his sons, of a fragile alliance with not-so-important Congress that is looking for its lost roots. It is not possible to rule out intra-OBC and intra-dalit caste contradictions to emerge, causing unexpected headaches for Nitish Kumar, should a GA government is formed.

The NCP-led alliance and the Owaisi factor are some of the other straws in the wind that could give a new twist to the post-election scenario. The parties in the system that contribute more as spoilers could be constant irritants too. Whichever formation comes to power, the election promises to produce a ‘stable’ government for five years. However, it has been proved time and again across the world that stability may not necessarily be a recipe for a well-governing government. In any case, it promises to be an election that would contribute to continuing redefinition of Indian politics.

By Ajay K. Mehra

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