Note: This article was first published on October 27, 2020 and is being republished on November 10, 2020. Follow the results here.
Patna/Muzaffarpur/Gaya: The run-up to the Bihar assembly polls is marked by a peculiar phenomenon. The anti-incumbency against chief minister Nitish Kumar is skyrocketing, yet a large section of voters continue to like the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s as if the saffron party wasn’t a part of Kumar’s government. Across Bihar, hardly anyone is heard talking about deputy chief minister and BJP leader Sushil Modi.
When asked, most voters say that only the one who steered the government will be held accountable, and by that logic, Nitish should be shown the way out.
Caste-based political equations which appear to give the National Democratic Alliance an edge on paper are being tossed around across Bihar. The ‘upper’-caste groups (around 15% of the state’s population), ardent followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, want to see Nitish lose. Barring in some pockets, where they may vote for the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led opposition alliance, they are vowing their support to the Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan, who walked out of the ruling alliance days ahead of the elections. He is being seen as a new force to reckon with in state politics among the upper-caste groups, who hope the best case scenario will be a BJP-LJP government.
In seats where the BJP is contesting itself, upper-caste groups are saying that in another 10-15 days, the so-called “jungleraj” by Yadavs and Muslims will be back. They sense that the opposition alliance may actually come to power, which they had perhaps not anticipated even a fortnight ago. In other seats, where Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) is contesting from the National Democratic Alliance, these groups are openly backing the LJP, which has fielded the largest number of “forward caste” candidates, the maximum among them from the influential Bhumihar community. Young men from these groups are seen openly campaigning for the LJP candidates – even though in most seats, the LJP is nowhere close to in the lead.
However, the plank of the possible return of “jungleraj” isn’t resonating with the rest of the electorate. The economically backward classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits, who have supported Nitish in the last few elections, are scattered in their opinions. A significant section of this electorate is extremely resentful of the possibility that Nitish may return to power, and therefore switching their allegiance to the RJD-led alliance in many places.
For instance, in Muzaffarpur, where Mallahs are largely associated with or drawn towards Hindutva, they are talking about voting for the RJD in several seats as they want Nitish out. The Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), which jumped ship to the NDA at the last moment, is a new organisation representing the aspirational Mallahs, but the party lacks a cadre base and structure on the ground. There has been historical rivalry between this fishermen community and Yadavs, but all of that doesn’t appear to be leading to any counter-Yadav polarisation in favour of the NDA as anti-incumbency runs high.
Similar is the case with Dalits, who want badlaav (change) in Bihar. Paswans, Pasis, Chamars, Dom and many other such Dalit groups want to vote “Lalu” (Lalu Prasad Yadav) – and not so much his son Tejashwi Yadav – back in power. In the assembly seats of Bochaha and Kurhani in Muzaffarpur, Paswan and Chamar voters preferred the lantern (RJD’s election symbol) over JD(U)’s arrow. Such is their anger against the current regime that even in Muzaffarpur town – considered to be a BJP bastion – they expressed their wish to vote out the government and two-time MLA Suresh Sharma.
For both these groups, alleged corruption in tenders, thekedaar contractors’ highhandedness, a decline of education standards and health facilities are the primary issues. They blame the chief minister for hollowing out administrative mechanisms in the last term.
Adding to the whole cocktail of emotions in Bihar is NDA’s basic lack of appeal. The NDA is seen as a divided house, with Chirag Paswan walking out of the alliance at the last moment. His rebellion against Nitish is being viewed positively in most places, although his party is unlikely to make much of a mark in the final tally. The other NDA partners, single-caste parties VIP and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), do not add much to its stable. The high number of rebels in the BJP, most of whom are choosing to contest on LJP tickets, has further muddied the NDA’s image.
At the same time, the opposition alliance, or the Mahagathbandhan, has emerged as a credible alternative for many. The RJD-Congress-Left coalition is being seen as a united front, with no possibility of any partner walking out of the alliance like Nitish did in the last term. The minorities, too, are viewing the alliance as a truly anti-BJP front, which has the potential to emerge as a strong force in the longer run. There is a division among Muslims with regard to the RJD. A large section of backward Muslims, who have traditionally supported Nitish, feel that the RJD has only represented the rich, “upper caste” community members. Many of them are also unhappy with the underrepresentation of Muslims in the opposition alliance. But a majority of the community is unlikely to vote for the JD(U), especially after Nitish’s turncoat act in the last term.
The only fault most voters found in the RJD was that it lacks a leader. However, Tejashwi has managed to change much of that perception with his rallies. His speeches are being well received even by RJD’s opponents.
He has also foregrounded the problems of high unemployment levels and poor education in the state by focusing his speeches on the two issues. Multiple voters The Wire spoke to talked about his promise of 10 lakh jobs. When asked how he will deliver this, people said he may at least start the process. RJD’s evolution from a “samajik nyay” (social justice) party to one whose slogan is “arthik nyay” or economic justice too has also resonated among the poor.
The NDA has lost the perception battle that it has mostly won in other states. With Nitish out of favour among a cross-section of people, this election may turn out to be the JD(U)’s worst performance. Almost all political observers agree that the JD(U) may finish a distant second to the BJP in the seat tally.
However, there is also a strong chance that the BJP may finish with its highest-ever figures in the state, irrespective of NDA’s victory or defeat. The BJP remains an untested force in Bihar. It has been in different governments but never led them. Both the rich and poor among the Hindus think that Modi is doing a good job at the Centre, and that his financial support to the state is being siphoned off by the state government. Modi’s popularity remains intact among a majority of Hindu voters, irrespective of whether they are “backward” or “forward”.
Even if the NDA loses, it may not hurt the BJP as much as the JD(U). There is a collective attack on Nitish from all fronts. No section of the population is defending him fully. With no second generation leadership in the JD(U), a defeat may sound the death knell for his political career.
In that respect, the BJP is in a situation from where it can actually emerge as the primary opposition in the long run, and present itself as the Hindutva pole. The larger consensus for social justice politics within a Lohiaite framework has characterised Bihar’s polity. Both the opposition and ruling parties have remained in that space. Sushil Modi, a product of the Jayaprakash Narayan anti-corruption movement, has always refrained from making communally-sensitive statements. Consequently, there was a default resistance to Hindutva.
The new crop of leaders like Nityanand Rai and Giriraj Singh in Modi-Shah’s BJP, however, are avowedly anti-Muslim. This section has consciously distanced itself from the JD(U) and is barely seen defending Kumar as they are itching to carve out their own space that is independent of Nitish’s influence. Irrespective of victory or defeat, the BJP is poised to assert its political weight in the state’s polity, and present a Hindutva alternative in Bihar.