who will don the crown in bihar?
For more than one reason, the 2020 Bihar assembly polls is far different than similar electoral contests going back to nearly three decades. This is the first assembly polls in 30 years when the so-called Mandal messiahs such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ramvilas Paswan, and Sharad Yadav will not be around to mobilize the voters. This is also a contest where the outcome is a foregone conclusion, but the post-elections scene remains highly uncertain.
The absence of the Mandal troika does not mean that the issue of caste polarization will be less intense. In fact, despite all the talks of “vikash”, the result will be greatly decided by the mobilization on the basis of caste and religion.
If this was not the case, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would not be sitting in the driver’s seat and the BJP doing everything possible to keep him in good humor by repeatedly assuring the voters that irrespective of the number of seats BJP and (JDU) win, Nitish will again be the Chief minister.
Nitish may be facing the burden of a huge anti-incumbency due to his handling of the migrant crisis, administrative corruption, rising crime, unemployment and other issues that are endemic to the state, but he remains darling of the extremely backward castes who constitute nearly one third of the total voters in the state.
This caste factor has forced the BJP not to antagonize him even though the Saffron party is far better placed than the JD(U) and its strike rate is bound to be much higher than that of Nitish Kumar’s outfit. The BJP national leadership has also pacified a section of the state leaders who think that the time has come to go for a kill and anoint a saffron CM in the state.
For the first time in Bihar, the BJP has been successful in forcing Nitish Kumar to part with half of the seats. In the past assembly polls , the JD(U) always contested far more seats than the BJP, but this time the BJP was allotted 121 seats and the JD(U) 122—just to maintain the façade that the Nitish Kumar remains the Big Brother in the state politics. But the fact is not hidden from anyone: It’s the JD(U) which has to climb down from the high horse of one-upmanship.
The RJD has to do the same and is forced to concede as many as 70 seats to the Congress, which contested only 42 seats in the 2015 polls. The RJD will contest 142 seats and the rest will go to the left parties.
The importance of the caste factor finds reflection in the selection of candidates across the party lines. The JD (U) has fielded nearly two-third of candidates from backward castes while giving tickets to 19 Yadavs and 11 Muslims. This shows that despite talks of development, Nitish Kumar is also playing the same caste card that kept Lalu-Rabri combine in power for 15 years at a stretch.
Nearly 15 percent of voters in Bihar come from the Yadav case and 17 percent are Muslim. Together they could decide the fate of as many as 110 seats.
If the MY combine had remained intact behind the RJD, Tejashwi would have been a formidable challenger to Nitish Kumar. But over the years, a section of Yadav’s have shifted to the BJP camp, while Nitish Kumar has been able to woo a section of Muslims.
JD(U) strongly refutes charges that Nitish is playing the caste card s just like the RJD. They claim that Nitish has tried to accommodate every section of the society and point out that despite being in alliance with the BJP he has given the tickets to 11 Muslim candidates.
“ We have given tickets to more Muslim candidates than the Congress, which has fooled the minority community for decades. The JD(U) has tried to give representation to every segment of society. It’s wrong to see it from the prison of caste and religion, “ said JD (U) spokesman Sanjay Singh.
In the 2015 state assembly polls, the Congress contested 42 seats and fielded 10 Muslim candidates. This time so far the Congress has fielded only 8 Muslim candidates.
Somehow there is feeling in the opposition parties that in the options of any option Muslims will be forced to support the anti-NDA candidates . This is where the Owaisi factor can come in.
Owaisi’s AIMIM is contesting the polls as part of the Third front consisting of Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP, Mayawati’s BSP, Devendra Yadav’s SJDD, and SBSP as the ‘Grand Democratic Secular Front.
Kushwaha is the chief ministerial candidate from this front. Kurmis and Kuswahas are seen as a unified political and social block and have played a key role in keeping Nitish Kumar in power. Together they form around 12 percent vote bank in which Kuswahas have the lion’s share.
By propping up Kushwaha as the CM candidate, the third front hopes to inflict serious damage to the prospect of Nitish Kumar. On the other hand, the presence of Owaisi could create trouble for several RJD and Congress candidate, especially in the Muslim dominated Seemanachal region consisting of Kishnaganj, Araria, Purnea, and Katihar. The Muslims account for nearly 25 percent of voters in the four districts, and their population is more than 70 percent in Kishangnaj.
Also in the race for a portion of the electoral pie is the Progressive Democratic Alliance (PDA) comprising Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party (JAP), Chandrashekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party, MK Faizi’s Social Democratic Party and Bahujan Mukti Party.
Most of these smaller players are in the field to corner the votes of their castes. They are trying to put up rebel candidates from mainstream parties who have been denied tickets.
Like every single election in the last three decades, Yadavs and Muslims continue to dominate the electoral scene in the state. In the 2015 Assembly election, the Janata Dal-United seats to 12 Yadav candidates and 11 of them had won the election. This huge strike rate was possible because the Muslims aligned with the Yadavs and the M-Y combination nearly become invincible on more than 100 seats.
Similarly, the RJD allotted 48 seats to Yadav candidates and 42 of them emerged winners.
Cut to the BJP. and the weakness of the Yadav factor is exposed when it is not backed by the Muslims. The BJP fielded 22 Yadav candidates in 2015, but only six of them were winners. This shows that without the backing of the Muslims, Yadavs are as vulnerable as any other castes in the polls.
This is the reason why Nitish Kumar has fielded 11 Muslim and 19 Yadav candidates. So much for the thrust on development in the Bihar polls.
Unlike the RJD and JD (U), the BJP has played the upper caste card, sensing too well that the Brahmin, Rajput, Bhumihar, and Kayastha voters will have few options but to back the party. After all, both the RJD and JD(U) have remained fierce votaries of the Mandal movement and played a big role in the marginalization of the upper caste in the Bihar political and social life.
As part of a unified strategy in which the JD(U) will woo the backward castes and the BJP will be a pied piper for the Upper castes, the saffron outfit has fielded 16 upper caste candidate out of the 27 seats it will be contesting in the first phase of the polls.
Rajputs have been able to grab seven seats, followed by Bhumihars (6), Brahmins ( 3), and Kayastha (one). Other than this, the BJP has fielded three Yadav candidates and fielded an equal number of candidates from the scheduled castes. The party has not put up a single Muslim candidate in the first phase.
If the NDA is better placed than the RJD-led grand alliance it is also because the ruling alliance is able to accommodate the aspirations of both the upper castes and Mandal groupings, one wooed by the JD(U) and the other by the BJP.
On the other hand, the RJD-led alliance has no such cross-section appeal. The RJD is so strongly identified with the Yadavs and Muslims that both the upper castes and non-Yadav backward caste, as well as extremely backward castes, are apprehensive to align with it. Even though the Congress will try to reach out to the upper caste voters, the party has become so rootless in the state that its appeal will have a few takers in the absence of organisational support.
The 2015 polls had seen some of the most brazen attempts at communal polarization when Home Minister Amit Shah said that crackers will be burst in Pakistan if Nitish Kumar came to power in Bihar. Of course, nothing of that sort happened when Nitish returned as chief minister. Five years down the line, Shah’s deputy in the Home ministry , Nityanand Rai, has once again stoked that fear by claiming that Bihar will become the hub of terror outfits if the RJD-led Grand alliance came to power. His claim betrays an anxiety in the BJP to woo the voters who have reasons to feel that the state government faltered and fumbled on many counts—especially education, health, and employment—during the last five years.
Both BJP and JD(U) are spending a lot of comparing Nitish’s 15 years with Lalu-Rabri 15 years. This also shows that slogans of “ vikash” alone will bring them votes. Caste politics and Hindutva appeal remain major factors in the state.
Let’s shift the focus to LJP chief Chirag Paswan, the man who wants to be the “kingmaker” after the polls. Chirag’s LJP lacks the nature of broad base support that could catapult him into a mega player from an “also-ran” participant. The death of his father Ramvilas Paswan has been a heart-breaking episode for a large section of people who have seen his rise from a near-destitute struggler to the voice of the dalits in the national politics. But it’s doubtful if that sense of loss can be translated into a sympathy wave.
In the absence of any such sympathy wave, Chirag has to solely rely on BJP rebels to turn his dreams into reality. The fact that he has put up his candidates only against the JD (U) nominees has created some degree of confusion among the voters, who think he enjoys the blessing of the top BJP leaders.
The BJP is now forced to take steps to counter than perception. The party has already expelled nine of their rebels who are contesting in the first phase on LJP ticket and sent a loud and a clear message that Chirag was pursuing his own agenda and had nothing to do with the BJP.
If the NDA was able to clear the air, then Chirag can at best be a “vote katwa” and will struggle to cross even double-digit marks. On the other hand, if this perception crisis is not handled effectively, the JD(U) could pay a heavy price because of the likely shift of the pro-saffron voters to the LJP camp in the hope that the lesser the seats the JD(U) win, the better the chances for the BJP to have its own chief minister.
Chirag is still young and can hope to make a place for himself due to the vacancy created by the absence of the likes of Lalu Prasad, Sharad Yadav, and his own father. With the age catching up with Nitish Kumar, too, the junior Paswan can hope to play long innings in the state politics where his only rival is Tejashwi Yadav. While Tejashwi has the backing of the powerful MY combine. Chirag does not carry any baggage the likes of which the RJD leaders find himself saddled with due to his family’s involvement in a series of major corruption scandals and the dreaded memory of “jungle Raj’ that prospered in Bihar during the RJD’s 15-year-rule in the state.
If that is Chirag’s long-term plan then he may have just started on an arduous journey that has no shortcuts. Irrespective of the outcome of the polls, he will have to prepare a new narrative to counter both caste and communal politics in the state. The success of any such endeavor will depend on the commitment, perseverance, and untiring hard work. The sunset of the stalwarts can give way to a new sunrise, but then Chirag has to make it happen. He can’t hope to play opportunistic politics of the type he had practiced by relying on rebels and giving the impression that he was out to settle a personal score against Nitish Kumar.
There is little doubt that the NDA will return to power with a comfortable majority. But the real battle for the leadership of Bihar will be fought after the poll results are out. The facts that the BJP is left with only a handful of allies at the national level may force it not to dump Nitish Kumar even if the Saffron outfit emerges as the single largest formation in Bihar. But how long that compulsion will force it to keep Nitish Kumar in the chair is the million-dollar question on the mind of everyone in the state.
By Navin Upadhyay
(The writer is Political Editor, The Pioneer.)