March 11 will present the first electoral test to the NDA in Bihar since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s return to the alliance in July. A Lok Sabha and two Assembly seats are going to bypolls, which hold additional significance because of the defeat the BJP suffered in a set of bypolls in Rajasthan, where an Assembly and two Lok Sabha all went to the Congress.
It is not Nitish’s party, however, that will be contesting. The JD(U) has decided to stay out of the bypolls. “We have decided not to contest but we will strongly campaign for NDA candidates,” JD(U) Bihar president B N Singh said. Another JD(U) leader added it did not want to cause heartburn among other NDA constituents by demanding a seat.
From the other camp, the RJD is keen to contest all three seats although the Congress has said the breakup has not been decided yet.
Araria Lok Sabha seat fell vacant after the death of RJD MP Mohammed Taslimuddin, the Seemanchal strongman, Jehanabad Assembly seat after the death of MLA Mudrika Prasad Yadav (RJD principal secretary), and Bhabua assembly seat after the death of MLA Anand Bhushan Pandey (BJP).
Its ties with the JD(U) severed, the RJD faces a stiff challenge from the NDA. It is banking on its Muslim-Yadav-EBC combination to retain Araria, which it had wrested from the BJP’s Pradeep Kumar Singh in the last Lok Sabha polls.
The late MP’s son, Sarfaraz Alam, is set to be the RJD candidate. Until now the JD(U) MLA from Jokihat, Sarfaraz quit the party Saturday and joined the RJD, more or less putting to rest all speculation about the RJD candidate. “We could not have asked for a better candidate than Sarfaraz to contest from Araria and retain the stronghold of his family,” said a senior RJD leader.
From the NDA, the BJP is set to contest from Araria. Among its likeliest candidates is Pradeep Singh, the sitting MP who lost in 2014. “Although the party is thinking about Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, the former Bhagalpur MP might not agree and prefer to focus on Bhagalpur and try to wrest it from the RJD in 2019,” said a BJP leader, who felt Shahnawaz should not be transferred to Araria as a temporary measure. In 2004 and 2009, the BJP had won three Lok Sabha seats — Araria, Purnia, Katihar —out of Seemanchal’s four.
The RJD has expressed confidence of retaining Araria because of its dominant Muslim presence (over 45%) besides a sizeable population of Yadavs and a large chunk of EBC voters. “Mohammed Taslimuddin was the tallest leader of the region. There will be overwhelming support for any candidate backed by the RJD and the Muslim leader’s family,” an RJD source said. Before Taslimuddin’s son crossed over, the RJD source had said: “There could be a surprise candidate. Who knows, someone from Taslimuddin’s family could make the cut.”
Until the JD(U) opted out of the bypolls, it was being seen as likely to contest Jehanabad. Now the most likely contender seems to be NDA constituent RLSP, which was runner-up from that seat in the 2015 assembly poll. The RJD, sources said, is looking at fielding someone from the family of its late MLA.
In Bhabua, too, the BJP is said to be looking at choosing someone from the family of late MLA Pandey, possibly his wife. This seat is set to witness a direct battle between BJP and the RJD. Though Bihar Congress working president Kaukab Quadri said the grand alliance would sit together to decide who between the RJD and the Congress should contest, RJD chief Lalu Prasad made it clear to reporters in Ranchi, while being produced in court, that the RJD would contest all three bypolls.