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Explained: How the LJP-JDU problem in Bihar may impact political alignments in future

Bihar Assembly Elections: Chirag Paswan has publicly spoken of a total breakdown of communications between the Chief Minister and the LJP, and has revealed that they have not spoken for over a year.

Written by Dipankar Ghose , Liz Mathew , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 13, 2020 11:45:17 am
(From left) Chirag Paswan, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri, File)

The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is holding a crucial meeting on Monday (September 7) to decide whether it will go into the upcoming Bihar Assembly election as a part of the NDA led by Nitish Kumar.

What is the conflict between the LJP and the JD-U?

For over a year now, the relationship between the ostensible alliance partners in Bihar has been acrimonious, in a very public manner.

LJP president Chirag Paswan, son of Union Minister and party founder Ram Vilas Paswan, has been attacking the government of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for its alleged poor governance – especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown that followed, and most recently, the floods that have devastated large parts of the state.

Chirag Paswan, who now controls the party, has publicly spoken of a total breakdown of communications between the Chief Minister and the LJP, and has revealed that they have not spoken for over a year, other than for five minutes on the Sushant Singh Rajput case.

Chirag has complained that the LJP has no Minister in the Nitish ministry, and clarified that while his party has no issues with the BJP and remains its ally, this is not the case with the JD-U.

On their part, leaders of the JD-U have brushed off Chirag as someone with negligible influence in Bihar, the leader of a party that has only two seats, and have compared him to “Kalidas”, an allusion to the fable of the poet and playwright sawing through the very branch of a tree on which he was sitting.

The relationship between Nitish and his older contemporary Ram Vilas Paswan has had its own share of ups and downs, and the two leaders have often not been on the same page.

While Paswan lays claim to being Bihar’s biggest Dalit face, Nitish’s social engineering of creating the category of ‘Mahadalits’ has left the LJP’s influence restricted largely to Paswan’s own community. Interestingly, the LJP’s ads for the coming elections seem to attempt to break this mould, claiming “na dharm, na jaat, karenge sabki baat (neither religion nor caste, we will talk of everyone).”

There has been a fair amount of distrust since 2005, when it was suggested that Nitish’s JD-U tried to poach upon LJP legislators in an attempt to form the government.

So what is Monday’s (September 7) meeting about, and what are the options before the LJP?

The LJP is holding a meeting of its parliamentary board, which will decide its course of action with the Bihar elections two months away.

One option for the party is to continue with the NDA alliance, push aggressively for more seats, but ultimately settle with what they get.

The other option is to fight the elections alone, outside of the alliance. The plan being mooted is to fight half the seats, and in deference to the BJP, only those at which the JD-U puts up candidates.

Political consistency has never been the LJP’s strong suit in its 20-year history. After splitting from the Janata Dal, the senior Paswan took his new party to its first Lok Sabha election (2004) in alliance with the Congress and RJD, but in the 2005 Bihar Assembly elections, he fought with the Congress but against the RJD. In 2009 and 2010, it remained with the RJD, and then in 2014, it joined the NDA.

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Is this just posturing for more seats on the part of the LJP?

One part of this is certainly about the number of seats that the LJP would get under the umbrella of the alliance. The JD-U can argue that the LJP won only two seats in the last state election, and three in the election before that. While the LJP has been pushing to contest a considerable number of seats under the alliance, it is not making much headway. As of now, it would appear that the party does not have much chance of growth in the medium to long term if it were to remain with the alliance.

However, at least three leaders from the state BJP said that the final stand on this question would be taken by the central leadership of the party, which would assess factors such as winnability, the strength of the opposition, and the potential threat in case the NDA breaks. “If the BJP leadership insists that the LJP should contest as part of the NDA, Ram Vilas Paswan will definitely oblige,” one of these leaders said.

What position the BJP leadership takes could be linked to the number of seats in which the BJP wants to field its own candidates. If the alliance fights together, the BJP would want to contest as many seats as the JD-U. “And if the BJP and JD-U take 100 seats each, the LJP is expected to demand 30-36 of the 243 constituencies for itself,” said another leader.

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But if the LJP is only a bit player, what does it gain from taking on the JD-U?

In terms of seats, the LJP’s numbers are on the decline. In the state elections held in February 2005, the LJP won 29 seats, but in the elections held only months later in October-November that year, its tally had crashed to just 10. In the next Assembly election, in 2010, the LJP all but disappeared, picking up only three seats in the House of 243. In 2015, it did even worse, winning merely 2 seats.

But Chirag, a two-term MP who took charge of the LJP in 2019, is an ambitious leader who is understood to have told party colleagues that he wants to be Chief Minister one day. There is a feeling in Bihar’s politics that this election could be Nitish’s last hurrah – and with Lalu Prasad ageing, unwell, and in jail, there is space for a new political leadership to emerge in Bihar. While Tejashwi Yadav is at the forefront for the RJD, the LJP feels that it needs to grow the party at the booth level to be in a better position when the elections of 2025 come around.

There are some who argue that the LJP has no pan Bihar presence. But the counter to that in some minds within the LJP is that if they do not contest more seats than the alliance is willing to offer, they will never be able to increase its footprint.

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What is the BJP’s view in all this?

BJP president J P Nadda has asked the party in Bihar to fight as NDA, and to ensure that every candidate – including those of the JD-U and LJP – wins. But there is a view in a section of the party that it is time that the BJP takes its place as the single largest party in Bihar.

This section, which includes a number of MPs and MLAs, feels it would be good for the BJP if the LJP goes its own way. Their argument goes like this:

The JD-U does not have much of a future after Nitish, and not many leaders will likely stick to the party after he hangs up his boots. “Some senior leaders of the JD-U could join the BJP, or the party itself could merge with the BJP,” a BJP MP said.

In this situation, the LJP can come in as junior partner to the BJP in an alliance dominated by the latter. “If the LJP manages to spread its base to constituencies other than its current strongholds, it will still not dent the BJP’s support base significantly,” the BJP leader said. In fact, with the BJP having a stronger hold over the forward caste support base, it could rely on the LJP to bring in some backward caste support.

And what are the possible political ramifications if the LJP were to fight the coming elections by itself?

To begin with, it will signal fissures in the ruling alliance in the same way that Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM leaving the Mahagathbandhan was seen as sign of discord in the Opposition camp.

Two, while the Paswans may not have a pan Bihar, multicaste support base, Ram Vilas does enjoy significant goodwill among a large section of the Scheduled Castes. If this vote get fractured, tight contests could result, and potentially create a problem for the JD-U.

Chirag Paswan has also been talking of “Yuva Bihari” for over a year, so particularly in and around Jamui, his parliamentary seat, it is possible that some youth vote shifts to him.

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