Bihar Will be a Tough Test for Both Alliances

Every election is important in a democracy but the Bihar assembly elections will not only shape the future power structure of the state but also decide, and possibly alter, the course of the country’s polity

Former Bihar chief minister and chief of Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) Jitan Ram Manjhi meeting Bharatiya Janata Party President, Amit Shah in New Delhi on Thursday.  PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

Former Bihar chief minister and chief of Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) Jitan Ram Manjhi meeting Bharatiya Janata Party President, Amit Shah in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

The upcoming assembly elections in Bihar will not be a walk in the park for either of the two grand alliances that have taken shape.

After the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the ruling Janata Dal (United) announced their decision to fight the elections together, it had seemed as if the new alliance might prove dangerous to its main adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Lok Janshakti Party combine. Going by the vote shares and political equations in previous elections, it is easy to conclude that the Nitish-Lalu alliance – which is expected to be joined by the Congress and NCP – has a larger vote base. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, where the BJP scored its greatest electoral success ever, the RJD-JD(U)-INC-NCP alliance secured nearly 45 per cent of the votes in Bihar compared to the 34.8 per cent the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won. It’s a different matter that the division of votes meant the BJP got 22 seats out of 40 despite polling only 29.4 per cent of the votes. The RJD won just four seats with a vote share of slightly more than 20 per cent while the JD(U) and Congress shared two seats each with a vote share of 15.8 and 8.4 per cent respectively.

While the BJP met with unprecedented success in Bihar under the leadership of Narendra Modi during the national elections – and has decided to fight the assembly elections in his name rather than declaring a chief ministerial candidate – the party benefited from the fact that backward class, minority and Dalit votes got divided between the RJD and JDU. Today, the tables have turned and the Nitish-Laloo alliance seems to have an arithmetic edge. However, BJP president Amit Shah, who emerged from the Lok Sabha elections as a master of electoral manipulation, has a point when he says ‘two plus two does not always make four in politics’. Nevertheless, it can’t also be said that two plus two will equal two or even zero either.

BJP’s upper edge

In reality, the result of the upcoming assembly election will depend majorly on the strategy, campaign and candidate-selection of both alliances. For the present, though, it would seem the BJP has been more adept at political management than its rivals have been.

Last week saw two major developments that point to this. First, the ex-Chief Minister of Bihar, Jitan Ram Manjhi, formerly a member of the JD(U), formally decided to join the NDA. This was predictable. There was also the announcement from RJD’s controversial MP, Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav that he was quitting the party to form a new regional political outfit. Both Manjhi and Pappu Yadav have loyal local support and whatever more they can muster will dent the RJD-JD(U) support base and benefit the BJP. The BJP, which had once called Pappu Yadav a ‘sinner’ and a ‘political criminal’, is now wooing him. The party leadership is reportedly weighing its options on how it would benefit more – by including Pappu Yadav in the NDA, or by leaving his newly formed party to fight independently in the Kosi belt, thereby eating into the RJD vote bank. Either way, this one-time criminal has now become an undeclared ‘strategic partner’ of the saffron party.

While the Lalu-Nitish alliance is definitely strong on the votes they can corner, one must not forget that theirs is a marriage of convenience between two men who have been adversaries for two decades. Both leaders are going through tough times and have lost their political sheen. Nitish is in power, so he also faces the burden of anti-incumbency. While both men started their political career around the slogan of social justice, they have disappointed their supporters and voters over the past two decades. Nitish had formed the Samata Party in 1994 after his differences with Lalu. He then became an ally of the BJP and eventually defeated the RJD leader in the elections. This was the period in which Bihar’s upper class and feudal communities shifted their loyalty from the Congress to the BJP. With the help of the media and the dominant classes, Nitish acquired the tag of a leader who stood for development. ‘Jungle raj’ was a term the BJP-JDU alliance had coined to describe Lalu’s rule; Nitish, in his initial years, led people to believe their destiny had changed thanks to the advent of his ‘vikas raj’.

Social justice neglected

In those days, development in Bihar was synonymous with making good roads. Though the construction work initially helped the state achieve a high growth rate, Nitish stayed clear of the larger agenda of rejuvenating the state’s economy and ensuring social justice. What else could be expected of Nitish who was now an ally of the BJP! In a half-hearted attempt to  implement land reforms, D. Bandopadhyaya, the chief architect behind ‘Operation Barga’ was brought in from Bengal. However, his project report on land reforms never saw the light of day. Eventually, a disappointed Bandopadhyaya packed his bags and returned to Bengal. Similarly, Nitish suspended the Ameer Das Commission that was formed to investigate Dalit massacres in Bihar and ensure better monitoring of the related judicial cases. Soon after, the accused in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre were acquitted. Nitish’s failure to work on issues of social justice disillusioned the Dalits and other suppressed communities. To them, he was simply a political ally of forward caste ‘feudal oppressors.’ In any case, feudal leaders began to gain the upper hand in his party. Some were considered his closest advisors. Among them, a few are are now moving towards BJP-led alliance.

After his embarrassing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, Nitish made a calculated political move: He brought in Jitan Ram Manjhi as his successor. Nitish had presumed that resigning from the Chief Minister’s post would paint him in a selfless light and appointing of Manjhi as CM would earn him brownie points from the very same Dalit and oppressed communities that had turned their back on him due to the patronage he gave feudal henchmen like Anant Singh, Sunil Pandey and various feudal clans. His relationship with the private army of landlords in central Bihar, the ‘Brahmarshi Sena’, also did not sit well with the backward classes. Many ministers in the JDU-BJP alliance were devotees of the Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh. Some of them are now part of Narendra Modi’s cabinet at the Centre.

‘Manjhi experiment’ backfires

Even as Nitish was trying to kill two birds with one stone, Manjhi – long trained in the Congress-brand of politics and a ‘political disciple’ of Dr. Jagannath Mishra – dealt him a severe blow.

The BJP’s leadership had decoded the logic behind Nitish’s ‘Manjhi experiment’ at a very early stage and were busy trying to puncture it from day one. If it seems that the BJP has an upper hand in the political equations of Bihar today, it is only due to the possibility that a section of  Dalit and oppressed community voters – disappointed by the Laloo-Nitish alliance – might back its ally, Manjhi. As far as the Left is concerned, it is already in dire straits. Their traditional support base among the Dalits and other oppressed groups has been rapidly shrinking. Effectively, Manjhi is the only choice the Dalits have currently, but unfortunately for them, he is acting at the behest of the same BJP whose leaders have Dalit blood on their hands and who patronise the private armies of feudal landlords.

If, however, the Nitish-Lalu duo succeeds in winning back the support of the minorities, backward classes and Dalits, then Bihar may even prove to be a Waterloo for the BJP.

Every election is important in a democracy but the Bihar assembly elections of 2015 are of special importance for both alliances. They will not only shape the future power structure of the state but also decide, and possibly alter, the course of the country’s polity.

If the BJP wins in Bihar, it will be a major boost to the party for other elections and will help it move towards the majority it so desperately needs in the Rajya Sabha. Defeat, on the other hand, will prove costly. Remember the great jolt the loss of Delhi to the Aam Aadmi Party in January gave the BJP?  If the Lalu-Nitish alliance manages to stop the saffron chariot on the plains of Pataliputra, then we are likely to see the advent of ‘burre din’ for the BJP. Either way, the results will generate speculation about what is likely to happen in 2019. For parties directly in the fray, the upcoming election is a clear case of ‘do or die’. But those watching from the sidelines have as much at stake, for the manner in which the people of the state vote will determine the future direction of national politics..

Urmilesh is a Hindi journalist and writer. He is the author of the acclaimed 1991 book, ‘Bihar ka Sachh’, on the politics of Bihar and the related problems of land reform.

This article has been translated from the Hindi original by Abhishek Srivastava.