Bihar Assembly elections and the Paswan factor
Intense social and political churning, the play of minute and deep caste divisions, realpolitik intrigues and chicanery, all throwing up extraordinary political drama. The electoral history of Bihar, especially since the 1990s, when identity politics based on Dalit and Other Backward Class (OBC) assertiveness and Hindutva became ascendant, has been marked by these factors. The Assembly elections of 2020, the first major electoral battle in India amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, are also building up true to this historical form, with unexpected twists and turns.
The resemblances the political combustions in the run-up to this election—to be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and 7—have with some others in the not-so-distant past are uncanny. The previous Assembly elections, held in 2015, witnessed the formation of a new social and political coalition in the form of the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Janata Dal (United) or the JD(U), and the Congress, which brought together the dominant OBC caste Yadavs, large sections of Maha Dalits, Most Backward Castes (MBC), Muslims and a small segment of upper-caste Brahmins.
This combination was made possible because the then and now serving Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, who was also the president of the JD(U), decided to join hands with his arch-rival for many decades, Lalu Prasad, the founder of the RJD. For 14 years, from 2000 to 2014, Nitish Kumar had an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and had become Chief Minister twice in this period as the head of the coalition. However, the projection of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Minister candidate in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was not acceptable to Nitish Kumar, and his JD(U) fought the elections separately. The JD(U) was routed:it won just two Lok Sabha seats out of 40. This was a huge drop from the 20 seats the JD(U) had won in 2009. The BJP was the biggest gainer in 2014 with 22 seats. The saffron party repeated crushing victories in many other parts of India and Modi became the Prime Minister with a huge majority in the Lok Sabha.
It was in this context that Nitish Kumar allied with the RJD and the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress. This formidable social and political combination literally thumped the then dominant Modi-led BJP. It was reduced to a mere 53 seats out of the 157 it contested for the 243-member House. The saffron party’s expectations about a continuation of the trend in the 2014 election lay in a shambles. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprised the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP). If the 2014 trend had continued, the NDA should have won 172 Assembly segments, but it won just 58. The LJP and the RLSP won two each and the HAM won one seat.
The Mahagathbandhan won 179 seats and formed the government, with Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister. This was despite the fact that the RJD had emerged as the single largest party, winning 81 seats out of the 101 it contested. The JD(U), which had also contested 101 seats, could win only 71 seats, yet RJD supremo Lalu Prasad honoured his commitment to make Nitish Kumar the Chief Minister. In this Grand Alliance, the Congress too had done surprisingly well, winning 27 of the 41 seats it contested.
But the euphoria did not last long as Nitish Kumar left his new partners dramatically barely eight months after the coalition came to power. He joined hands with the BJP again and continued as Chief Minister with the saffron party’s support. In other typically Bihari flip-flop political games, the Jitan Ram Manjhi led-HAM and the Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP, which had intermittently shifted between the Mahagathbandhan and the NDA, are with the NDA in this election. On the other side, the RJD and the Congress have joined hands with the Left parties.
However, the biggest drama of this election is around the LJP, which has adopted a unique technique of being part of the national-level NDA even as it openly opposes the coalition’s principal constituent in the State, the JD(U). The LJP is now led by Chirag Paswan, the son of the party’s founder Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away recently. The party is contesting 143 seats on its own. Chirag has announced that the LJP would not field candidates against the BJP, but only against the JD(U) and the HAM. This has certainly queered the pitch for Nitish Kumar and the JD(U). This, in turn, has resulted in angry responses from Nitish Kumar, causing some trouble for the BJP leadership too.
The LJP, particularly Chirag Paswan, had been openly critical of Nitish Kumar’s performance as Chief Minister for almost a year now. This criticism has risen to feverish levels since March 2020, after the State government was seen to be hugely ineffectual in handling the COVID pandemic, the consequent migrant labour crisis, and the floods. Chirag Paswan’s criticism has been pointed and concrete. Several political observers have found much merit in his observations. However, these observers are also of the view that at the level of realpolitik, the LJP leader’s decision to be with the NDA but fight against its senior component is a ploy set up by the BJP leadership, particularly Amit Shah, Union Home Minister and former BJP president. The argument is that the LJP has been set up as a proxy by the BJP to cut Nitish Kumar to size. His principal electoral slogan, “BJP se bair nahi, Nitish teri khair nahi” (no enmity with the BJP, but would not spare Nitish Kumar), is seen as a clear pointer to this.
This perception has gained strength because Chirag Paswan had a number of meetings with Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda before finally adopting this seemingly nuanced electoral strategy. Regionalism is at the core of his political and organisational programme as encapsulated in the slogan “Bihar first, Bihari first”. A significant section of political observers from the State point out that there are factors that goad the BJP leadership to make subterranean manouevres to put Nitish Kumar in his place. Says a senior journalist in Patna: “Modi and Shah are not people who would easily forget an insult. They have not forgotten that it was Nitish Kumar who had refused to accept Narendra Modi’s leadership in 2014. So far they had no option because Nitish Kumar’s Kurmi-Koeri-and Mahadalit vote base was required to form the government in Bihar. It was their political compulsion to tolerate his inflated ego and arrogance. Now, with a huge anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar, the BJP has got its chance to get even with him, and the LJP has become their prop to this end.”
Political observers point out that the LJP has a history of turning the tables on its national-level alliance partner and making the bigger party eat humble pie. The current situation is strikingly similar to what the LJP, then led by Ram Vilas Paswan, did to Lalu Prasad in the February 2005 Assembly elections. Then too, the LJP had decided to contest against the RJD even while remaining a part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the ruling coalition at the national level led by the Congress. The LJP fielded its candidates against all the 178 RJD candidates but did not fight against Congress candidates. The elections ultimately threw up a fractured mandate, with the RJD becoming the single largest party but far from getting a majority. The LJP won 29 Assembly seats. It was this result that ultimately diminished the overwhelming sway Lalu Prasad had over Bihar politics since the early 1990s.
The reason for the LJP taking this position at that point was the tussle for the Railway Ministry. After the UPA’s famous victory in 2004, toppling the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, both Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad demanded the Railway Ministry in the Manmohan Singh government. Manmohan Singh finally chose Lalu Prasad for the post. Ram Vilas Paswan had to be content with the Chemicals and Fertilizers portfolio. He waited for an opportunity to strike back and got it in the 2005 elections. In the final analysis, the real gainer from this fratricidal battle within the UPA was the BJP. This time around too, the gainer seems to be the BJP, at the cost of the JD(U).
BJP leaders on the LJP ticket
Several developments have boosted this impression. The most important among them is the offer that the LJP, which does not have a big cadre base of its own, has openly given to those BJP leaders who have been denied the ticket by their own party. There are at least 10 such seats where the LJP has given hardcore Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS-BJP) leaders the ticket as they could not get the ticket in their own party, either because of the seat-sharing formula or for some other reason. Some of the notable names in this context are Rajendra Singh, Usha Vidyarthi, Rameshwar Chaurasia, Mrinal Shekhar and Ravinder Yadav, all of them prominent BJP leaders, now in the fray as LJP candidates. Rajendra Singh’s case is the most striking because he has been an RSS member all his life and was the BJP candidate in 2015 from the Dinara Assembly segment, which has now gone to the JD(U). He has switched to the LJP and is contesting against the JD(U)’s Jaikumar Singh. “All those BJP supporters, who are harbouring a grudge against Nitish Kumar and want him out will vote for Rajendra Singh. Anyone who wants to see a BJP government has now a choice to vote for LJP candidates,” said a senior LJP leader in Patna.
Rameshwar Chaurasia is yet another prominent BJP name who is contesting as the LJP candidate from Sasaram against the JD(U). Similalry, Usha Vidyarthi from Paliganj, Mrinal Shekhar from the Amarpur Assembly segment in Bhagalpur, and Ravinder Yadav from Jhajha are prominent BJP leaders now in the fray as LJP candidates. According to political observers, Chirag Paswan may or may not have a pan-Bihar base as yet, but his message that voting for his party would pave the way for a BJP-led government in Bihar has gone down to BJP voters across the State, including those from the upper castes. This election is the BJP’s big opportunity to unseat Nitish Kumar and install a government with or without his support.
Another interesting factor is that the BJP’s vote base is mainly in the towns and cities, where it does not face much competition, but the JD(U), which has won a large part of its seats in rural areas, will now face an additional challenge from the LJP, apart from competition from the Mahagathbandhan allies. It is a matter of record that the JD(U)’s strike rate is lower than that of its alliance partners. In 2010, when the JD(U) and the BJP contested together, the BJP won 91 seats, with an 89.2 per cent strike rate, while the JD(U), which won 115 seats, had a strike rate of 81.6 per cent. In 2015, however, when the JD(U) contested the election with the RJD, its strike rate was 70.3 per cent, with 71 seats, while the RJD’s strike rate was 79.2 per cent with 81 seats. Both the parties had then contested an equal number of seats, 101 each. Now, if a similar scenario is repeated, since both the BJP and the JD(U) are contesting almost an equal number of seats, 121 and 122 respectively, the JD(U) could definitely end up with fewer seats than the BJP. Thus, even if the two continue to be together in the government, the BJP would enjoy a more prominent status and greater control over the reins of power.
Signs of the future
The signs of such a scenario was evident in the big fracas between the two alliance partners on October 6, the day a press conference to announce the seat-sharing formula was held. According to BJP insiders, an upset Nitish Kumar had thrown a fit and refused to come for the press conference unless it was publicly announced that he only would be the Chief Minister irrespective of the number of seats each party won. According to informed sources, senior BJP leaders Bhupendra Yadav and Devendra Phadnavis had both given him a piece of their mind. According to the sources, Bhupendra Yadav had menacingly told Nitish Kumar that this was not Sushil Kumar Modi’s BJP anymore. The insinuation was that State BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, a personal friend of Nitish Kumar since the Emergency days in the mid 1970s, may have been submissive to the JD(U) leader, even at the cost of his own party, but Nitish Kumar can no longer expect such accommodation from the current crop of BJP leaders. All the same, State BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal was compelled to make some gestures after Nitish Kumar’s reported tantrums. Jaiswal announced at a press conference that Nitish Kumar was the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate, irrespective of post-election figures.
However, the fact remains that even though the BJP had fared poorly in 2015, its vote share, at 24.4 per cent, was the biggest for a single party. If the vote share of the LJP, which stands at 4.8 per cent, is added to its kitty, it substantially enhances its prospects. Even though the LJP had won only two seats out of 42 it contested in 2015, its appeal among a substantial section of Dalits remains intact. With the passing away of Ram Vilas Paswan, it could garner some sympathy votes as well. The more the LJP improves its prospects, the worse it would be for the JD(U), which only commands a vote share of 16.8 per cent. Hence, this election, if anything, is more about the political future of Nitish Kumar than anything else.
The new opposition alliance comprising the RJD, the Congress and the Left parties—namely the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India—has undergone its share of internal political and organisational commotions before settling down to an amicable seat-sharing agreement. The initial opposition to accepting RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav, son of Lalu Prasad, as the Chief Minister candidate from coalition partners has also been settled. Indeed, the anti-incumbency sentiment against Nitish Kumar is a political factor that can help the opposition campaign, but the moot question is whether the relatively young and immature Tejaswi Yadav has the charisma and organisational skills to pull it off for the opposition. The absence of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad from the campaign scene, he being in jail since his conviction in a corruption case in 2018, is also a major handicap.
However, to Tejaswi Yadav’s credit, there is a sense in large sections of the opposition as well as among political observers that the young leader is overcoming his limitations and is managing coalition affairs with some finesse and diplomacy. In terms of political support base, the RJD commands a respectable 18.4 per cent vote share, essentially comprising of the party’s loyal MY (Muslim-Yadav) votes. The big question is whether Tejaswi Yadav can rally this social combination effectively enough and add other social forces to this as done effectively by the Mahaghatbandhan in the 2015 elections. The young leader has been seen to be hamstrung from time to time by the intense Sangh Parivar-driven campaign about the political baggage of Lalu Prasad’s 15-year rule, which the BJP describes as jungle raj.
The RJD can also not expect that the alliance with the Congress will yield big dividends. The grand old party of Indian politics has lost its moorings in Bihar for many years. The show in 2015 was the party’s best performance in more than a decade, when it could win 27 seats out of the 41 it contested, with a 6.7 per cent vote share. What, however, could change the picture for the RJD is its alliance with the Left parties this time. Though the CPI and the CPI(M) have only marginal presence in Bihar, they are contesting from six and four seats respectively, and the CPI(ML) is a force to reckon with. Senior Congress leaders admit that in the Bhojpur and Siwan areas the CPI(ML) has a good support base and that it is in a position to win 10-15 seats on its own out of the 19 it is contesting. The RJD is contesting 144 seats while the Congress is contesting 70 seats.
In the background of all these factors, and especially the LJP’s “joker act”, election 2020 is expected to throw up dramatic results. Also important is the fact that this is the first big election globally to be held during COVID times. Bihar is one of the worst-affected States. The State has reported close two lakh cases, and the government claims an impressive recovery rate at 92 per cent. State government officials attribute the good recovery figure to the effective management of the crisis, with timely detection, isolation and treatment.
However, as is evident, the opposition as well as the LJP, a national-level NDA partner, question this and lambast the government for mishandling the situation, especially the migrant crisis. Even though the government has announced rigorous punishment for violating the COVID protocol, pictures of political workers without masks in public rallies are all over the social media. The government imposes a fine of Rs.500 for not wearing the mask. A total of Rs.52,95,000 has been collected as fine from 1,05,900 people from September 1 onwards for not wearing masks. But once electioneering gathers steam, with more public meetings and rallies, it is scary how the infection would spread. On that count too, Bihar is keeping its fingers crossed.