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Bihar polls: A to Z of one of India’s most watched elections

Arhar dal to khichdi, cow to quota, ‘jungle raj’ to vikas vote. Vandita Mishra lists the A to Z of one of India’s most watched polls.

Written by Vandita Mishra |
Updated: November 8, 2015 8:58:38 am
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A for arhar

The modest yellow dal, a staple on the Bihar menu, best teamed with aaloo bhujiya and boiled rice, threatened to be the onion of this election — even as soaring onion prices were reducing voters to tears in their own right. Dal touched Rs 200 a kg, and launched a poll slogan, “Arhar Modi”, a send-up of “Har Har Modi”. Especially in the village, dal created a political faultline. Between those who complained bitterly that they could now have it only in their dreams and the Narendra Modi-led Centre was to blame, and those who insisted the Centre had nothing to do with it, it was a problem of production and Modiji was doing quite well as PM, thank you.

B for Bihari versus Bahari

With the Patna skyline taken over by giant posters featuring Modi with Amit Shah, the Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan began talking of Biharis and Outsiders. To drive home that both the PM and the BJP chief belong to Gujarat. To draw attention to the absence of a chief minister candidate the NDA called its own, and to a campaign strategy that relied heavily on the PM’s touchdowns from Delhi. In invoking Bihari pride every time Modi attacked him, Nitish was also wielding a subnational identity in the hope that it would help him straddle caste, class and community cleavages in the state.

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C for caste

In an overwhelmingly rural state, caste is writ large on the village ground, where different groups reside, together but separate, in distinct clusters or tolas. The rise of Lalu Prasad to power in the 1990s overturned the monopoly over power enjoyed by the numerically small upper castes in the state. It was the outcome of, and a trigger for, independent mobilisations of backward caste groups, as opposed to their cooption in upper caste-dominated agendas. Till date, however, the allegation of casteism is hurled at the politics of the backward caste grouping, seldom at the upper caste-dominated coalition in the state. Ahead of this election, both the Mahagathbandhan and NDA worked hard to get the math of their respective social coalitions right. But that does not mean development does not matter, or even, that it matters less. The challenge is to understand the relationship between caste and development as framed in this election — not just their tension and antagonism but also their interweaving.

D for DNA, and Dadri

In July, in his very first election rally in Muzaffarpur, Modi made a comment about Nitish Kumar’s DNA. In August, the JD(U) gleefully launched a campaign for “shabd wapsi”. Nitish and his strategists exploited Modi’s remark to the full, painting a picture of injured Bihari pride, collecting DNA samples of men and women of the state to mail to the PM for testing.

The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri near Delhi, by a mob driven by rumours that he had consumed or stored beef, resonated in this election, especially among its politicians, not as tragedy but as farce. In the last phase of the campaign, the BJP brought out advertisements of a woman hugging a cow with a message berating Nitish for his alleged silence on remarks on beef made by his allies. Whatever its effect on voters, the EC was not impressed. It prohibited all political advertisements unless approved by the state election machinery.

E for EBC

About 109 listed castes, with no individual segment an overwhelming presence like the Yadavs, they make up almost 32 per cent of the population. Yet till recently, the Extremely Backward Classes, the Kahars, Dhanuks, Kanus, Kumhars, Nais, Mallahs, Tatmas and Telis, were subsumed in the Other Backward Classes. The story within the story of backward caste empowerment in Bihar has been this: while the upper backwards, also known as Annexure 2 castes, including the Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris, and Banias, rode the Mandal wave, the lower backwards or EBCs or Annexure 1 castes languished as electoral fodder for the former. The 2005 polls saw the debut of a new cast of political characters: an EBC leader was spotted in the passenger seat in the helicopter campaign of every major player. The EBCs have not looked back since. It has been a conscious Nitish strategy to consolidate these castes — along with the Mahadalits, they formed the lower end of the coalition of extremes he forged in partnership with the BJP. In a move that upturned power equations in the countryside, the Nitish government gave EBCs 20 per cent reservations in panchayats. In this election, the BJP sought to join the game, even projecting Narendra Modi as a leader of and for EBCs.

F for five phases and festivals

It was a very long election, and from October 12 to November 5, it folded in two major festivals — Durga Puja/Dussehra and the more solemn Muharram. In most parts of Bihar, the last major communal disturbance happened in 1992 — unlike in large parts of neighbouring UP, here the backward-forward faultline is more salient than the Hindu-Muslim cleavage. Yet, this hard-fought election had sparked fears of communal tension. In the end, the festivals passed, there was no disruption of peace. In an election environment otherwise leached of gaiety or colour by EC strictures, Durga Puja celebrations ended up providing some background lighting and a lot of noise.

G for guardian (in which ‘d’ is pronounced as ‘gee’)

In what was, by every reckoning, a very tight election, the voter didn’t make it easier. All too often, he turned infuriatingly opaque. Nitish is good and Modi is fine, he would say, but he would finally cast his vote for whoever the “guardian” told him to support. Guardian refers to an unnamed family elder, invariably male. Guardian could also be a euphemism for voter exasperation with the intrusive journo in his village. Go figure it out for yourself, the voter was telling the reporter.

H for the Hindustani Awam Morcha

HAM was formally launched on May 8 and recognised as a political party by the EC in July. It quickly gravitated to the NDA, and in this election, was projected as the vehicle for the aspirations of the Scheduled Castes in the state. The HAM was certainly the carrier for the grievance, and ambition, of Jitan Ram Manjhi. Manjhi, a Musahar, was installed as chief minister by Nitish Kumar in his own place after he stepped down in the wake of the Lok Sabha rout, and unceremoniously ousted less than a year later. One of this election’s tantalising questions: Has Manjhi’s HAM significantly chipped away support among the Mahadalits for Nitish, whose government wooed this constituency with targeted programmes and schemes?

I for IPAC or the Indian Political Action Committee

The organisation headed by Prashant Kishor that took charge of the Nitish campaign had an intriguing strategy and a past. It aimed to turn this messy election of two coalitions and at least two spoilers (Pappu Yadav’s JAM and Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM) into a referendum on Nitish. The IPAC certainly succeeded in giving the big fat BJP election machine a run for its money in Patna, jumla for jumla, oversized poster for gargantuan hoarding. Its earlier version, the Citizens for Accountable Governance, had helped Nitish’s arch rival, Modi, craft the nation-wide campaign that won him the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The result in Bihar will also be a verdict on the stage presence and longevity of the IPAC as the new actor on India’s poll scene.

J for jungle raj

Throughout this election, the Modi-led NDA’s sharpest attack was on the Mahagathbandhan’s Lalu Prasad, not Nitish Kumar. It went something like this: If Nitish wins, Lalu will be in power again in Bihar, and that will mean a return to lawlessness and rampant crime. The NDA was obviously stoking the fear of Lalu, especially in the Bihar town. Here, stories still abound of the unchecked lumpenism in the last phase of a 15-year rule, which started with the radical reversal of upper caste domination.

K for khichdi

If there was one issue that launched the most contention in this election, it was the midday meal served in schools. The khichdi was the real polarising issue. It divided any group, not into forward and backward castes, but across them, into those who said the khichdi needed better regulation and management but was essential to attracting children of the poor to school and keeping them there, versus those who believe the programme is fundamentally flawed. Khichdi has eaten up shiksha (education), the latter said, melodramatically.

L for Lalu Prasad

He did not contest this election, having been convicted in a corruption case. But he was the campaigner with the one-liner. Friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Nitish is the leader of the Mahagathbandhan and its chief ministerial candidate, but it was Lalu who added sharpness and flamboyance to Nitish’s understated style. In this election, the Mahagathbandhan choreography resembled the Sangh Parivar’s: Lalu-Nitish spoke in two voices, talking up governance and, simultaneously, the backward-forward divide. After 15 years out of power, Lalu, who is remembered among the backward castes as the leader who gave them a “voice”, desperately needs the Mahagathbandhan to win. His future relevance depends on it.

M for Mahadalit

In 2007, after a recommendation by the Bihar State Mahadalit Commission, the Nitish Kumar government renamed 18 of the state’s 22 Dalit groups as Mahadalit. At the time, the logic was persuasive: benefits for the state’s SC were disproportionately monopolised by the relatively more organised groups among them, and those relegated needed welfare schemes to address them separately. Subsequently, however, three of the remaining SC groups were also brought into the Mahadalit category, leaving out only the Dusadhs or Paswans. In his brief tenure as chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi expanded the Mahadalit bracket to include the Paswans, effectively demolishing the dividing line between Dalit and Mahadalit.

The battle for the support of the lowest of the low became more intense in this election. The Lalu-Nitish Mahagathbandhan was competing with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and  new entrant HAM, both with the NDA.

N for Nitish Kumar

Both his friends and opponents, those who pledged their vote to him and those who didn’t, acknowledge that Nitish has worked hard for Bihar, restored law and order, built roads, revived the decrepit government health centre and school. Voters in regions still marked by grave absences — of potable water, electricity and sanitation — listed ways in which they had been touched by Nitish rule. Whether he wins this election or loses it, this is a remarkable achievement. But if he loses, Nitish is unlikely to see the silver lining. He is famously thin-skinned — he resigned as CM in the wake of his Lok Sabha setback. If he wins, he will establish himself as Modi’s real challenger in 2019.

O for Owaisi, Asaduddin

The man from Hyderabad has made himself a factor in Bihar. He has been accused of playing the BJP game, dividing the secular vote in a close election. He has described his own mission as one of alerting the Muslims in Bihar, about 17 per cent of the population, to the fact that they have been exploited and taken for granted in the political game: Secular parties have traded on their fear of the communal parties to make them a captive vote bank. Its performance in the six seats it is contesting in the backward and Muslim-dominated Seemanchal belt will tell whether the MIM is more than a party of Hyderabad, or not.

P for Prime Minister Modi

It is difficult to recall another prime minister as enveloped in the heat and muck of an Assembly election. India’s PM led from the front his party’s campaign for Bihar, setting a precedent and, many would say, a low. He accused his political opponents of sheltering terror, and of conspiring to gift away job quotas meant for the backward castes to minorities. He painted apocalyptic visions of the state, should the BJP’s opponents come to power (the RJD stands for “Rozana Jungle Raj ka Dar”, the PM said). His party fought the Bihar poll in his name, did not declare a chief ministerial candidate. For a while back then, it seemed a burden too heavy and too bitter for the prime minister’s office to bear.

Q for quota

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comments proposing a review of the policy of backward caste reservations resonated, but mostly among the politicians, and in upper-caste and middle-class voters in urban Bihar. Large numbers of rural and backward caste voters hadn’t heard of Bhagwat.
Among those who had, many were not taking him seriously. After all, wasn’t the reservation policy inscribed in the Constitution, it cannot be taken away at whim, they said. And then, job reservations are too faraway a prospect for groups in which families still struggle against the weight of historical disprivilege and poverty to send their children to school and keep them there.

R for remote control, and Rahul

In an election in which the onus was on the voter to explain why she wasn’t voting for Nitish — who, everyone agrees, has worked so hard for Bihar — the remote control that Lalu could wield in a future Nitish dispensation seemed to be the most compelling anti-Nitish argument. Nitish will no longer be his own man, many voters said, especially among the upper castes, with gloomy foreboding.
Even as political temperatures soared in a high-stakes election, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, given 40 seats in the Mahagathbandhan, did a good job of playing dead. The party seemed to rouse itself enough only to ride piggyback on its allies, the RJD and JD(U).

S for sameekaran or caste alignment, and for the Saheb of Siwan

This time, the space occupied by both main contenders, Nitish and Modi, showed up the limits of sameekaran-based frameworks — the appeal on both sides is sameekaran-plus. Just as the Nitish appeal is more than the sum of the parts of the social coalition that backs the Mahagathbandhan, support for Modi cannot be reduced to the communal card he and the BJP played so openly at the campaign’s end. The fact is, both Nitish and Modi have caste and religion and “development” on their side.
But for all the ways in which this election represents a new moment in Bihar, Siwan’s Mohammad Shahabuddin showed how things have remained the same. If the Mahagathbandhan’s candidates in Siwan were chosen by “Saheb”, in jail for 12 years now, the NDA played by his rules too — its candidate in Raghunathpur, for instance, is widely known as a former “shooter” from Saheb’s stable.

T for Tej Pratap and Tejaswi

Scions of the Lalu dynasty and first-time candidates in this election. You could catch Tej Pratap in his constituency of Mahua, sitting silently on the rally stage, his mother by his side, while his father wooed and hectored voters on his behalf. Tejaswi, on the other hand, full of words and views and tweets, made his presence known beyond his allotted seat of Raghopur. Will Tejaswi be deputy CM if the Mahagathbandhan wins — was a question.

U for Uttar Pradesh

The Bihar results, it is being said, will resonate in the nation. Certainly, they will shape the future trajectory of the Opposition, laid low since the crushing defeat of 2014. The Opposition has had little to celebrate since, except in Delhi, which is seen as a uniquely AAP victory. But the Bihar verdict will echo most of all in the other Hindi heartland state of UP. An NDA victory will embolden the BJP to raise the pitch for the election in that state due in 2017. A Mahagathbandhan win will show the way to the Opposition to take on the Modi-BJP. Who knows, it could even nudge Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati to bury the blood feud, get back together again.

V for vikas or development, and videsh niti or foreign policy

In 2005, when Nitish first came to power, development meant simply the freedom to step out of home after 7 pm. Or, in the city, to watch a night show in the cinema hall. After two Nitish terms, it has come to mean the pucca road in the village, an NH and state highway that is more road than pothole, electricity in most homes, high attendance in the government school, and medicines and doctors available in the public health centre and district hospital. In Bihar 2015, development also means the glossy mall that is elsewhere. And the jobs and industrial investment that are still elusive in Nitish’s Bihar.

Perhaps this is the first Bihar poll in which foreign policy became a talking point in the village chaupal. Modi supporters, especially among the younger Yadavs and EBCs, spoke admiringly of how the PM has burnished India’s image abroad, while his critics complained that, as dal prices climb, he has little time to spend at home.

W for women

In this election, the female turnout was higher than the male. This is not the way things have always been. The gap between male and female turnout in Bihar, more than 20 percentage points in the 1960s, held for the next three decades. It began to narrow in the 1990s. By 2005, the differential in voter turnout between men and women shrank to single digits. In 2010, female turnout outpaced male turnout for the first time.
But figures don’t really tell the tale. Of women assertively and vigorously participating in the poll conversation. Of women intervening in poll discussions to say that in the Nitish chief ministership, they stepped out of their homes more freely because the government had put away the goons, and their daughters rode the cycle to school.

X for ex-CMs

There are a number of them in the fray — Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, and Jitan Ram Manjhi.

Y for yuva or young

Almost 31 per cent of Bihar’s electorate in this election — nearly 85,000 voters on average in each of the 243 Assembly seats — is under 30 years old. This is five times more than the average winning margin of 15,000 votes in the last Assembly elections in 2010. But do the young vote as a separate, self-conscious block? It’s not clear, even though young voters are said to have contributed to the BJP’s surge to power at the Centre in 2014.

Z for the zeroes…

…in the special package Modi announced for Bihar — 1.25 lakh crore. Nitish claimed there was nothing special about the package, and that it was merely a repackaging of existing schemes. Whatever the truth behind the lavish figure, the package and its many zeroes did provide ballast to an argument that was also heard in this election — Bihar, many said, would benefit if the party that ruled the Centre also ruled the state.

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