During the Rath Yatra in 1990, Bihar had stalled the onward march of the Hindutva party. Will Bihar do the same again in 2015? The BJP has never won a majority in the state; it has had to be content with a partnership with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) so far. Having won Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand and forged a historic coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP will be looking forward to gaining a firm foothold in Bihar.
As voters of Bihar mull their options, they will find it tough to make a choice. First, should they make a choice considering all-India trends and the outcome of the last Lok Sabha election? If they do so, then the NDA can expect a dream victory. It could match its Lok Sabha election performance when it led in 171 assembly segments. But of course, then Lalu and Nitish were engaged in a dual fight — with the BJP on the one hand and against each other on the other hand. The BJP and its allies polled 38.8 percent (BJP 29.4%, LJP 6.4%, RLSP 3%), the RJD alliance polled 29.7% (RJD 20.1%, Congress 8.4 %, NCP 1.2 %), while the JD (U) managed only 15.8 %.
The task for voters will remain difficult even if they make a choice considering Bihar only. Will the voter be satisfied with the development record of the government during its second term since 2010? In a 2014 NES pre-LS-poll survey, the proportion of people who were fully dissatisfied with the state government was higher than the proportion fully satisfied. A plurality of people (46%) said they were somewhat satisfied. Four of 10 voters thought development had taken place under Nitish Kumar’s rule but not as much as he claims. This halfhearted assessment might prove the toughest factor for the JD(U) and its new allies.
Bihar is also the land of the epic battle between the agdaas and the pichchadas. Will the voter be able to leave behind this legacy of Karpoori Thakur? It is here that the stamp of failure is writ large on the politics of the proponents of social justice. They have neither been able to combine development with social justice nor successfully built a social bloc of OBCs. A look at the community-wise voting pattern for the parliamentary elections suggests the legatees of Mandal are deeply fragmented electorally (that they are not even socially united is in fact a greater failure). Yadavs continue to support Lalu Prasad (and may do so despite Pappu Yadav’s exit and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s walkout from the grand alliance) while Kurmis are still behind Nitish. But whether these communities will extend support to each other’s candidates will really decide this election.
Besides, the balance could tilt depending on how the numerically large, lower backward castes vote. There are many sub-castes in this group and they together constitute nearly one fourth of the electorate. Far from being partners of Mandal politics, a large section of these (44%) voted for the BJP in 2014. Given the fragmented nature of the OBCs, both alliances will have to focus greater attention on constituency-level management.
In contrast to this fragmentation of the Mandal bloc, the BJP is sitting pretty on a solid bloc of the upper castes. There is no reason this segment — Rajput, Brahmin, Bhumihar and Kayastha — will move away from the BJP. Thus, the polarisation between the forward and backward castes is only half-complete and that has an obvious advantage for the BJP. In addition, the split in Dalit votes will be a challenge for the Lalu-Nitish alliance, with Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi on the BJP’s side. Nitish’s policy towards Pasmanda Muslims, too, may not pay him much dividend if the move by Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM to contest in Seemanchal splits minority votes. This would by default benefit the BJP alliance.
It is thus ironical that many of the politically clever moves that marked Nitish’s first term have become almost redundant, and the grand alliance will have to work hard to convert the advantage on paper into an advantage on the ground. For its part, the BJP will have to come up with a face at the state level that can reap the advantage it gained in 2014 and also secure the myriad social forces it is bringing together. Having created a leader-centric atmosphere, the party cannot merely depend upon the prime minister and his rhetorical prowess.
It will be interesting to watch moves made by the dramatis personae. First, both Nitish and Modi will overtly focus on development while covertly taking care of the caste arithmetic. Nitish seems to be balancing the two while Modi would like, as in 2014, to heavily emphasise development. It would be interesting to watch how much and in what ways the BJP combines Hindutva with development. Second, image-making would be Modi’s strategy which Nitish would try to take on through his Bihari pride card. Will that make the election more Bihar-centric setting aside large all-India issues? Third, Lalu’s strong emphasis on caste may backfire as social justice no longer remains the central factor in the state’s politics. That emphasis could only reduce the salience of social justice issues.
The election might be do-or-die for Lalu-Nitish as it could determine their futures; the stakes are much higher in the long run for Modi and the BJP. This election is an important test for the party’s election machinery which many thought was unbeatable until the Delhi debacle earlier this year. More importantly, Modi’s style of leader-centric politics can survive only if the Ashwamedha continues to move across the country.
Suhas Palshikar teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune; Sanjay Kumar is prof. and Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi