COVID-19, a Cornered Nitish and a Teetering Opposition: The Talking Points of Bihar 2020

With no 'hawa' in favour of any particular party, so to speak, the campaigns led by political parties could assume proportions that can define the polls in Bihar.

New Delhi: The upcoming election for the 243-member Bihar assembly is crucial for three reasons. 

First, it will be the first state elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to many experts, is likely to peak in October-November in the state.

The polls would test the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) ability to conduct safe voting in a state which is infamous for its poor health infrastructure. The ECI, for over a month, has occupied itself with making extensive provisions to ensure safe voting but with the festival season on, and political campaigns taking a collective swing at several COVID-19 protocols, getting voters to the booth and ensuring a respectable polling percentage will surely be a challenge.  

Secondly, the incumbent Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) Nitish Kumar, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, will perhaps fight his most difficult contest.

In addition to a perceptible anti-incumbency stir on the ground for a range of reasons – including his reported mishandling of the pandemic and floods in north Bihar, the manner in which he left returning migrants to largely fend for themselves, and a deteriorating law and order situation under his regime – Kumar is also up against an unprecedented bout of infighting in his own house. 

Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan along with party leaders after a a party meeting in New Delhi, October 4, 2020. Photo: PTI

The Chirag Paswan-run Lok Janshakti Party’s (LJP) decision to contest independently of the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), coupled with the entry of the relatively smaller Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) in the ruling alliance, has complicated the political equations which had been hitherto dominated by interests of caste groups.

Out of a stated dislike towards Kumar, Chirag has decided to field his party candidates only against JD(U) candidates – with a couple of exceptions – while giving the BJP a full field to take on the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led opposition alliance, or the Mahagathbandhan. Even while defecting from the NDA, LJP has made it a point to ingratiate itself with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. 

Also read: BJP and LJP Are Hacking Away at Nitish Kumar’s Influence, Perhaps Irrevocably

Out of the 243 seats, JD(U) is perceived as the bigger player with 122 seats in its bag.

From this quota of seats, Kumar has allotted 10 seats to Manjhi’s HAM, while the BJP has given 11 seats to VIP from its quota of 121 seats. However, what has turned out to be quite crucial is that the LJP has given tickets to many former BJP bigwigs like Rajendra Singh and Rameshwar Chaurasia. LJP’s strategy to accommodate rebels who could not secure tickets from the saffron party largely because of the constraints imposed by the NDA’s seat distribution will eventually help the BJP in the long run.

anta Dal United National President and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with BJP senior leader and Dy CM Sushil Kumar Modi during a press conference ahead of Bihar Assembly election. Photo: PTI

Most of these rebel BJP candidates are contesting in seats which fell into JD(U)’s kitty. If the rebel candidates manage to win, both the LJP and BJP will likely assert their weight against the JD(U). Whether the wily and experienced Kumar can find his own feet or not, given his command over electorally-significant economically backward classes (EBC), Mahadalits, and women across most caste groups, remains to be seen.  

Thirdly, the opposition alliance led by RJD will make its last-ditch effort to regain its political prestige.

In 2015, the coming together of arch rivals, the RJD and JD(U), and the resultant social coalition on the ground, became the sole reason for a comprehensive defeat of the resurgent BJP, merely a year after Modi led his party to an unprecedented win by accomplishing the rare feat of getting a majority on its own.

But ever since Kumar dumped the RJD, its leader Tejashwi Yadav, deputy chief minister in the previous government and son of stalwart Lalu Prasad Yadav, has been trying to find his own standing.

He pursued a campaign that alleged that Kumar had betrayed not only the RJD but also the mandate. However, with very little backing from his party leaders and his partners in the alliance, this line of campaign did not take off. Even when Kumar was widely criticised for his government’s poor handling of the migrant crisis, floods, and the pandemic, the opposition alliance could hardly make them statewide electoral issues.

Tejashwi Yadav at Ram Vilas Paswan’s funeral. Photo: Twitter/@RJDforIndia

Consequently, despite a strong anti-incumbency against Kumar on the ground, the Chief Minister may edge past the opposition precisely because of the perception that the state lacks a viable – and better – alternative.  

The absence of Lalu Prasad, who is serving his sentence in Dumka treasury case at the Ranchi jail, has cost the party dear.

Tejashwi’s own inexperience and inability to mobilise his party leaders for a campaign against the ruling alliance have, therefore, put his party in a tight spot. The former deputy chief minister has shown a political spark in raising often-neglected livelihood issues of the state, but has not managed to emerge as the true legatee of his father, who consolidated backward classes and Muslims under a socialist umbrella.

Also read: Amidst JD(U) and BJP’s Eagerness, RJD Questions Authenticity of Raghuvansh’s Last Letters

How the political cards are placed at the moment

Hawa, a Hindi heartland term to describe a distinct political wave that favours a certain side, is not exactly perceptible in the run-up to the Bihar assembly polls. As a result, the electoral contest has become a battle of wits.

Much of it will rest on each party’s ability to manoeuvre the complex caste and community equations of the state – a trend which has firmly established itself as the most crucial factor in the state’s assembly polls in the post-Mandal era. 

Narendra Modi during BJPs Central Election Committee (CEC) meeting to discuss candidate list for Bihar Elections 2020 in New Delhi, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Photo: PTI

The BJP will rely on its upper caste vote bank comprising Bhumihars, Rajputs, Kayasthas, a large section of Brahmins, apart from its traditional appeal among the Baniyas who unlike other states are a part of the backward classes in Bihar. It will also hope to cash into the party’s popularity in urban and semi-urban areas of the state. 

The RJD has historically been the most powerful force among the Yadavs and Muslims, and has been consistently polling around 18% or more votes in each election, irrespective of a win or defeat.

However, its historical support will not be enough for it to ride to power if the Mahagathbandhan it leads fails to gain a considerable chunk of votes from other communities. These floating or undecided votes will shape the outcome of the elections. 

The RJD got a boost because of its alliance with the Left parties, which are strong in different pockets of Bihar. The Left parties, historically, have charted its own path of class politics in these areas and command a sizeable support from the poor across caste groups. 

While the Left parties will influence any increment in the opposition’s vote share, much attention will be paid to the contribution of the Congress, which is the second biggest partner in the alliance.

Over the years, Congress, which had a huge command over upper caste groups and Dalits at one point, has been reduced to a considerably weakened party. It claims to have some influence in the districts of north Bihar like East and West Champaran, Motihari, Darbhanga and so on. However, the lack of enthusiasm of its top leaders in the run-up to the polls may dampen the opposition spirit further.  

It is thanks largely to this precise state of affairs that the JD(U) is in an enviable position. Kumar, during his chief ministerial tenure, has laos carved out a niche among the unnoticed EBCs comprising Kurmis, Koeris, Nishads, Kahars and others, Mahadalits consisting of Musahars, Doms, Bhuiyans, Nats, etc., and a large section of women who together make up a scattered but significant enough constituency for a coalition to win or lose upon.

Also read: Fact Check: BJP’s Claim That Bihar Has ‘Defeated’ Coronavirus Is Nothing But a Poll Stunt

Although support for him in these sections has been reportedly waning, Kumar will hope to get a majority of their votes to keep him in power.

In that respect, the NDA has a clear edge over the mahagathbandhan. A section of Muslims in the state, too, have traditionally voted in favour of Kumar. However, it is unlikely for them to vote JD(U) again after Kumar dumped the RJD, only to join hands with the hardline Hindutva force that the BJP is currently under the Modi-Shah leadership.  

JD(U) state President Vashishtha Narayan Singh along with others releases the candidate list for the first phase of Bihar Assembly Election, in Patna, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

How the campaign may shape up

As the polls dates – October 28, November 3 and 7 – near, opposition’s primary challenge will be to ensure that the elections do not reduce themselves to a fight of Muslims and Yadavs versus the rest. It will also be hoping that BJP and JD(U) rebels perform well enough to land the Mahagathbandhan candidate an edge in different constituencies.

If the newly-created third front – comprising Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and the Jantantrik Party and Samajwadi Janata Dal Democratic – manages to pull any support from the EBCs and Mahadalits, then it may dent the NDA more than it does the Mahagathbandhan.

With the LJP turning the polls into a triangular contest in at least 90 seats, the JD(U) will look to flatten its influence. If the LJP retains its support from Dusadhs or Paswans, and its upper caste or OBC candidates garner additional votes because of their own standing, it will be very difficult to predict the outcome of these polls.    

Precisely for this reason, the ruling alliance’s efforts will be to project these elections as a battle against “dominance” of Yadavs and Muslims. A spree of communal canvassing steered by the NDA, against this backdrop, is likely imminent.

Given that the upcoming polls will perhaps be Kumar’s last attempt to occupy the chief minister’s seat, the JD(U) may not take an exception to such polarising campaigns.