Elections 2019: Why Bihar is No Cakewalk for the NDA

With an entirely different political dynamic in place in the state, none of the previous elections is helpful as a point of reference.

The on-going 2019 Lok Sabha election in Bihar is unique in the sense that no previous election – whether for the assembly or parliament – can be taken as a reference or guide for analysing the prospects of the different players this time around.

To understand the current political scenario and why historic electoral results may not be so relevant in 2019, we need to go back to 2013 and analyse the manner in which Bihar’s politics has developed since.

The Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal United (JDU), which has been at the core of politics in Bihar for two decades now, has gone through considerable turmoil in the past six years. After leading a formidable alliance with the BJP for 17 years, the JDU severed its ties with the saffron party in June 2013, protesting the decision to declare Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Modi was brought in by the BJP a year before 2014 to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha election on the basis of Hindutva. Nitish Kumar was worried of losing his Muslim support base in Bihar, and so decided to part ways with the BJP. To control the damage created by the exit of the JDU from the NDA, the BJP got the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ramvilas Paswan and the newly-formed Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) of Upendra Kushwaha into the NDA fold. It also worked with Mukesh Sahni, who was then trying to create a base among the Mallahs in Bihar.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw a three-cornered contest in Bihar. Thanks to the ‘Modi wave’ and strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre, the BJP-led alliance won 31 out of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. The result was as overwhelming for the BJP and its allies as it was shocking for Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who had always considered themselves as bigger political forces than the BJP in Bihar.

Also read: Understanding Tejashwi Yadav’s Lacklustre Campaign in Bihar

After coming to power at the national level, the BJP continued to win each and every state assembly election quite convincingly in 2014 and 2015 – be it Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana or Jharkhand. Worried by this momentum, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad joined hands to contest the 2015 Bihar assembly election along with the Congress party. By this time, the former chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, had quit the JDU and formed his own party, Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and had joined the NDA.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav. Credit: PTI/Files

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav. Credit: PTI/Files

During the election campaign, Modi tried his best to make it a contest of Modi vs All, completely failing to understand the state’s political dynamics. His personal attacks on Nitish Kumar backfired. In a replay of what used to be the norm in the Lalu era, the mahagathbandhan secured the complete backing of Muslims, and the majority of OBC and EBC castes. It surprised no one in Bihar when the grand coalition swept the state, winning three-quarters of the seats.

One significant outcome of this election was the revival of the Lalu Prasad-led RJD. But the JDU-RJD alliance didn’t last even two years for reasons well-known to everyone and in 2017, Nitish Kumar finally returned back to the NDA fold.

Before the 2019 general election, with so many parties in the NDA, and each one having its own demands for seats to contest, it was not possible for the BJP to keep its flock happy. To add to this, it was a known fact that Nitish Kumar was not on good terms with Kushwaha and Manjhi. Such a scenario made the RLSP, HAM and Mallah leaders wary of their future in the NDA.

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Meanwhile, in the absence of Lalu Prasad and under tremendous pressure to prove himself, Tejashwi Yadav was eager to welcome any party which wanted to quit the NDA and join his coalition. Finally, before the general election, the RLSP, HAM and Mukesh Sahni (who set up the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP)), quit the NDA and joined the mahagathbandhan.

This means that unlike the 2014 Lok Sabha election, there is now a bipolar contest in Bihar. On one side is the NDA, comprising the BJP, JDU and LJP. And on the other, there is the mahagathbandhan, which comprises the RJD, the Congress, the RLSP,  the VIP and HAM.

What impact will the parties who shifted from the NDA to the mahagathbandhan have in this election? The RLSP won all the three seats it contested in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but the credit for its victory had largely gone to the Modi wave. A year later, in the 2015 assembly election, the RLSP and HAM could win only two out of 23 and one out of 21 seats they contested respectively as part of the NDA. It’s been four years since then, and both the parties, and also the VIP, have grown in strength, yet the 2019 election will be the first test of their ability.

Upendra Kushwaha. Credit: PTI

Hence, neither the 2014 general election nor the 2015 assembly election can be taken as a reference to predict the impact these parties may have in this election – in terms of improving the chances of the mahagathbandhan and causing damage to the NDA.

For the RJD, the biggest challenge this time around is that it is contesting an election for the first time in Lalu Prasad’s absence. His absence has been felt in the form of dissidence in his family, his party and the mahagathbandhan. At many places, officially or unofficially, mahagathbandhan leaders are contesting against the official alliance candidate. Another big concern for Tejashwi Yadav has been the fact that he has not been able to maintain the legacy of Lalu Prasad as the only leader of the Yadavs in Bihar.

If we talk about Nitish Kumar and the JDU, the biggest worry for them is the fact that Muslims seem to be unhappy with him for returning to the NDA. There is a general feeling among the community that under the current Narendra Modi regime, intolerance has increased in the country. And so, at least in the on-going 2019 general election, they seem to have made up their mind not to vote for any candidate who will help the BJP return back to power in Delhi. Nitish Kumar has another worry – the possibility of losing a sizeable chunk of OBC, EBC support to the mahagathbandhan through the smaller, caste-based parties like the RLSP, VIP and HAM. Hence, the JDU in 2019 may not have the same strength as in the previous elections.

BJP chief Amit Shah with Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and LJP chief Ramvilas Paswan. Credit: PTI

For the BJP and the LJP,  their core support base among the upper castes and the Paswans respectively has stayed almost firm, and in recent years they have even tried to broaden that base. However, they are also wary of how recent realignments in the two fronts will impact their own prospects. Many schemes launched by the Union government have benefitted people in rural areas – be it Ujjwala, the toilet scheme, the rural housing scheme, rural electrification or rural road connectivity. People talk positively about this, but how much it will help the NDA in getting votes from out of their conventional support base is not clear.

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If in 2014, there was a triangular contest, in 2015 there was an entirely different political scenario where there was a consolidation of the majority of OBC and EBC castes and Muslims in favour of the JDU-RJD-Congress alliance. If we go further back in history, during the 17 years of JDU-BJP rule, the NDA had the strong backing of upper castes, Kurmis, Kushwahas, a large section of EBC and SC castes and a section of Muslims. If we go further back in history, during the Lalu Prasad era, the RJD had the support of almost all the OBC, EBC and SC castes along with the Muslims. Hence, for the 2019 general election, where there is an entirely different political dynamic, none of the previous elections is helpful as a point of reference.

In an election with such diverse possibilities and with so many facts and claims to be tested afresh, any precise prediction may go wrong. But a minute study of the ground reality suggests there is a close contest on in quite a few of the Lok Sabha constituencies. Tejashwi Yadav has over time been able to contain the dissidence he was confronted with earlier. He has also been able to keep the Yadavs with him in a majority of the constituencies by successfully creating sympathy for Lalu Prasad among the Yadavs and a feeling that the Yadavs need to stay together. The RLSP and the VIP over time seem to have been able to mobilise voters on caste lines in many constituencies. Muslims in Bihar are clear that they will not vote for a candidate who will help the BJP come back to power nationally.

In concluding, the 2019 general election in Bihar is not going to be easy for the NDA – as it was in 2014, and as many political pundits are predicting. The NDA has the upper edge but the best result it can hope for is 28 seats, with the mahagathbandhan winning 12.

In its worst-case scenario, however, the NDA may hit only 22, with the RJD-led coalition taking as many as 18 seats. There can be some surprising results as well; in seats which are being counted as safe for the NDA, there is actually a close contest. The results on May 23 will not only boost or mar Narendra Modi’s prospects for a second term but will also indicate where the politics of Bihar is heading in the years ahead.

Rahul Vats is an IT professional from Bihar.