Chirag Paswan's Manoeuvre Has Essayed a Crucial Moment in Bihar's Politics

Chirag has cast a new political formula in Bihar in his attempt to unite 'forward' and 'backward' caste groups. His natural ally is BJP, a more powerful party with the same objective.

New Delhi: The Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has finished with only one seat in the Bihar assembly polls and yet somehow Paswan has established himself as a political player to reckon with.

In a state like Bihar where political parties depend on exploiting caste contradictions to chalk out their social engineering strategies, LJP has emerged as a galvanising force for two opposite ends of the social spectrum. 

While LJP has a noted ability to consolidate Dalits beyond the Paswan community – who are said to make up 4% of the Scheduled Castes – the 2020 polls became an instance in which LJP also became the second-most preferred political party after the Bharatiya Janata Party for the ‘upper’ castes.

‘Upper’ castes – mostly known as ‘forward’ groups as opposed to ‘backward’ groups which hold sway in Bihar – form around 15% of the state’s population. However, representatives from these groups insist that their numbers are hugely underestimated, and that put together, they comprise at least 20% of the electorate – significant by any standard.

On Wednesday, LJP chief Chirag Paswan quite pertinently emphasised on the “impact” the party has made in the election. He said that his “prime focus” had been to make the BJP stronger than the Janata Dal (United) in the Bihar chapter of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He added that his party would not support a government led by Nitish Kumar. 

Chirag’s affinity to the BJP is nothing new.

Ram Vilas Paswan and Chirag Paswan. Photo: PTI/File

Even when he had walked out of the NDA, he made it a point to oppose only Nitish, while claiming to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Hanuman”. With his father Ram Vilas Paswan’s demise, it was a challenge for Chirag to cement his position not only in his own party but also as an NDA partner. He knew that in order to carve out a space for his party, he would necessarily have to be seen as a distinct political pole, one which is opposed to the two dominant parties in the state, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the JD(U). 

To do that while opposing the BJP, and without the support of the Centre, would have been practically impossible for him. For one, his party barely has any significant vote bank. And two, in his campaign, he had sowed the seeds of a BJP-LJP alliance in the future. 

LJP fielded its candidates primarily in seats that went to JD(U)’s share in the NDA. Many observers believed that LJP was propped by the BJP to weaken Nitish’s influence in the state’s polity, so that it could emerge as the bigger party.

Even at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1990s, the BJP could not find a foothold in Bihar because of the then chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s staunch opposition to Hindutva politics. After the RJD’s fall, the saffron party was reduced to playing second fiddle to JD(U), and although the party and its Hindutva agenda fattened under Nitish’s chief ministership, it could never actually come out of the larger Lohiaite social justice politics that is deeply entrenched in Bihar. 

Also read: Bihar’s Election Has Shown That When it Comes to Politics, Social Justice Is Here to Stay

Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s project to expand their party in all states had triggered hope among party workers that BJP could actually break the social justice cage and establish its Hindutva politics in Bihar. LJP, thus, gave the party a way out.

LJP leader Chirag Paswan. Photo: Facebook/ichiragpaswan

Chirag’s reverence for Modi, and the latter’s conspicuous silence on LJP even while it undercut its ally JD(U) explain that the BJP hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a separate front bereft of Nitish in the future. In that respect, LJP’s gamble paid off.

But did this strategy work?

Only one of the party’s candidates, Raj Kumar Singh, won out of the 137 it had fielded. Singh defeated sitting JD(U) MLA Narendra Kumar Singh in Matihani in Begusarai district by a margin of only 333 votes. Chirag perhaps already knew that given his party’s strength and the largely bi-polar focus of the assembly poll, it may not emerge even as a kingmaker. 

Yet, LJP has conspicuously increased its vote share from 4.83% in 2015 to 5.63% this time around. Its vote share in the seats it contested is much higher, enough to have affected JD(U)’s chances in as many as 60 seats. The party got over 10,000 votes each in 89 seats. In at least 30 of them, where it got between 10,000 to 50,000 votes, it managed to affect JD(U)’s chances.

In 27 constituencies, at the very least, LJP candidates polled more votes than the margin of JD(U)’s loss to the mahagathbandhan candidate. 

Chirag also roped in 25 BJP rebels – mostly from ‘upper’ caste communities – who could not manage a ticket from their party, and, in the process, even managed to ingratiate himself with ‘forward’ communities. 

Chirag’s father Ram Vilas Paswan was widely known as the most accurate weathervane of Indian politics. He jumped ships ingeniously to remain a Union minister until his death. Yet, his rivalry with Nitish goes a long way. He lost most of his Dalit support base because of Nitish’s wily moves to segregate and empower the most marginalised among Dalits as the chief minister.

Nitish Kumar at the JD(U) party office in Patna on November 12. Photo: PTI

Nitish’s creation of the conglomerate ‘Mahadalits,’ a large section of whom have been supporting the JD(U) chief in the last three assembly polls, had left Ram Vilas seething. Left with the support of only the Paswan community, who Nitish did not include in the Mahadalit list, he had accused Nitish of dividing brothers in a community. 

Yet, Ram Vilas Paswan managed to hold his own by joining ‘upper’ caste groups who had been struggling to find electoral representation in the state’s two dominant Lohiaite social justice parties, RJD and JD(U). Chirag expanded his father’s strategy to give almost two-thirds of his party tickets to ‘forward’ community candidates in the 2020 polls.   

LJP’s gamble or a political experiment?

Chirag’s electoral strategy is an expansion of the experiment his father had started, soon after he floated LJP in the year 2000. In a state characterised by the ‘backward versus forward’ bi-polarity, both in elections and in day-to-day political practice, LJP under Chirag has set out to break that mould with much more vigour than Ram Vilas.

Also read: Can Chirag Paswan Do to Nitish Kumar What His Father Had Done to Lalu Prasad in 2005?

Ground reports indicated that a large section of around 16% Dalits broke away from Nitish, a fact that even Lokniti-CSDS established in its post-poll analysis. This may be the right time for LJP to make inroads in the community once again. However, at the same time, its model of allying with ‘upper’ caste communities breaches the existing political binary in the state. 

By attempting to unite these historically inimical groups, Chirag has cast a new political formula in the state. Both the groups feel that Mandal politics and the resultant dominance of OBC communities, have taken their political shine away. LJP hopes to fill that vacuum. In a way, its position is quite similar to the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, which too has been making recent strides to gain the trust of Brahmins in a kind of repeat of its tried-and-tested social engineering formula in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls.

However, a smaller party like LJP needs constant patronage from a national force, which explains Chirag’s multiple efforts to stay in the good books of BJP. The saffron party itself has been attempting to break the social justice-driven political ecosystem and establish a Hindutva pillar in Bihar for decades. In that respect, LJP and BJP are natural allies.