Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has decided to go it alone in the Bihar elections, fighting against the JD(U), while continuing to be part of the BJP-led NDA at the Centre. This has been an arrangement a section of BJP leaders has been keen on. Why does this section prefer a divided NDA?
Playing for the long term
The proposal that LJP fight alone in Bihar while being part of the central NDA is part of a long-term plan suggested by BJP strategists. The JD(U), the bigger partner in the Bihar alliance, is on the verge of disintegration. It banks entirely on the popularity of three-time Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whom BJP leaders see as being in the last leg of his career. Once he retires, the BJP can push for merging it with the BJP and sidelining the remaining leaders. The BJP has already made the JD(U) agree to an equal share of seats in the polls. As the JD(U) is committed to providing seats for smaller ally HAM, the BJP could end up contesting more seats than the JD(U). If it manages to become the single largest party post the elections, it would expedite JD(U)’s disintegration.
Surveys ahead of the poll announcement have indicated voter fatigue against Nitish Kumar. Having “ditched” the BJP and joined hands with Lalu Prasad’s RJD for the 2015 election, Nitish is anyway not wholeheartedly accepted by the committed BJP vote bank.
In such a situation, BJP emerging as the bigger partner could energise the cadre. Although BJP leaders including party general secretary-in-charge of Bihar Bhupender Yadav have insisted Nitish would complete another five-year term as CM, at least four BJP leaders agreed that the cadre expects a change by the middle of the next tenure, if the NDA returns to power.
The LJP fighting separately could help the BJP mop up a section of the anti-incumbency votes, the BJP hopes.
Besides, the BJP fighting as a bigger partner can help the party make the election Narendra Modi- centric.
A survey has indicated Modi still enjoys popularity despite unemployment and the migrant worker crisis. The BJP’s strategy is to maintain its base among urban voters and the forward castes, and use welfare schemes to woo rural voters whom it failed to win over in 2015. The PM recently launched a series of development projects worth Rs 16,000 crore.
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Gains for LJP
On the face of it, Chirag Paswan and other LJP MPs have consistently attacked Nitish Kumar for his performance over the last five years, claiming there is anti-incumbency. Paswan has reportedly brought this up with BJP chief J P Nadda at meetings as well. The election move helps separate the LJP from anti-incumbency against the JD(U), setting itself up as some sort of opposition.
Second, after months of posturing, the LJP has managed to step out of the alliance with the BJP yet remain with it in the NDA. Its effusive praise of the BJP and Modi has meant that Ram Vilas Paswan continues to be Union Minister, and the LJP can now fight alone.
Its insistence that it is a better friend of the BJP than the JD(U) means that in public perception, it is with the BJP. The posturing, and the announcement of going it alone have given considerable airtime to LJP, a party with just two seats and a vote share under 5%.
Again, the LJP is now free to fight the JDU in as many seats as possible. LJP leaders believe that as long as Nitish is in a position of strength, the LJP will not be able to flourish. Its target will be to bring down the JD(U)’s numbers while ramping up its own. It will look to fight more than half the seats — if it wins more seats, it grows; if not, it at least sets up booth-level workers for the future.
Finally, most see Chirag Paswan as an ambitious politician. He believes that after the generation of Nitish and Lalu, he needs to position himself for the future as a contender for CM.
What could go wrong
Going solo also involves risks for the LJP. It could adversely affect its Dalit votes, and a BJP candidate can win in certain constituencies.
If the LJP is not able to win a slice of the anti-government vote, it could help the Opposition consolidate those votes. This would upset the coalition’s arithmetic.
The current strategy could also trigger mistrust among workers of both the BJP and the JD(U) when they are conscious of the differences among themselves.