After division adding up

All bets are off as Nitish gambles on caste,BJP banks big on Modi,and Lalu,Cong hope to pick up the pieces of a cracked alliance

Written by Santosh Singh | Published: June 23, 2013 3:30:29 am

On the day of the JD(U)-BJP split on June 16,two images stood out. One of Pasmanda (OBC) Muslims rallying behind Chief Minister Nitish Kumar; and another of BJP workers openly hailing Narendra Modi at the party office.

After 17 long and not-too-acrimonious years,both sides,it now appeared,had been straining at the leash. If Muslim supporters called Nitish Kumar’s decision to split as as historic as then Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav stopping L K Advani’s Ram rath yatra in 1992,it was time for BJP workers to let their pro-Modi feelings gush forth. “Nitish Kumar sharm karo” slogans rent the air as senior BJP leaders attributed the split to Nitish’s “ego clash with another CM born in the same era with similar achievements”.

However,is there more to this enthusiasm than mere euphoria,which will fizzle out as reality hits? Will voters buy Nitish’s “secular” turn,after spending years under the leadership of the once-biggest Hindutva mascot L K Advani? Or will they see it as a move to carve out his own political space at a time when any regional party of significance can be kingmaker? Or will Nitish’s game plan of EBC plus Mahadalit plus a large chunk of Muslim votes after the split work out? The BJP has its own set of questions. Does it tom-tom the Modi factor that Nitish disdainfully dismisses? Or does it underline that it played an equal role in Bihar’s development? Or should it focus on Nitish’s new-found love for the Congress?

The RJD,which finds itself dethroned as the principal opposition,has mixed feelings. Lalu realises Nitish’s game plan rests on usurping Muslim votes from him. However,the party is calculating that a three-cornered contest will benefit it. After all,on paper,the JD(U) and BJP had a perfect partnership in the state—the right caste mix base as well as Nitish’s acceptability among Muslims. Meanwhile,the Congress,which had reconciled to being a fence-sitter,is now a player.

After seven-and-a-half years of unipolarity,Bihar,in one stroke,has become a multi-polar contest. And the games have just begun.


Nitish as the sum of all caste maths

The party’s strength is Nitish Kumar. Having won 20 Lok Sabha seats out of 25 contested in the 2009 polls,garnering a little over 24 per cent of the votes against the RJD’s 19 per cent,the JD(U) has long wanted to come out of the BJP shadow. Nitish’s carefully nurtured constituency of 30 per cent Extremely Backward Castes and 12 per cent Mahadalits (a conglomeration of 21 castes,mostly SCs) gave it the confidence to do so. As a JD(U) insider says,“Nitish had made his vote base. Modi was just the trigger for the JD(U) to quit the NDA.”

The JD(U)’s confidence also stems from the way the state government has nursed the Muslim constituency with schemes like fencing of cemeteries; provision of grants to private madrasas; literacy programmes for Muslim children; and vocational programmes for them. The JD(U) believes now is the right time to put this combination of EBC,Mahadalit and Muslim votes to the electoral test. Muslim leaders and clergy also appear willing to see Nitish in a new secular light post the split with the BJP.

On the other hand,besides Nitish’s persona of a performer,his social engineering and his obvious Muslim politics,the JD(U) has nothing much to flaunt. “It is workers who motivate voters to come to booths. But the party’s booth management is hardly sound,” a senior JD(U) leader concedes,adding that these skills will be tested in 2014,now that the BJP’s well-entrenched booth management can no longer cover the gaps. The leader also attributes the recent Maharajganj bypoll loss to poor booth management.

The other constraint is that Nitish can’t pass himself off as an OBC leader,unlike Lalu,who got 18.84 per cent votes in the 2010 Assembly elections even when his party was decimated,getting only 22 seats in a House of 243. “The data never tells the full story. Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) got 22.61 per cent votes but it gave him 115 seats,” notes political analyst Ajay Kumar,editor of newsportal

Upper castes,meanwhile,have no love lost for Nitish. The CM is yet to visit the Bhumihar-dominated region of Ara since the killing of disbanded Ranbir Sena chief Barmeshwar Mukhiya last June,a fact not lost on them. Mukhiya’s son Kumar Indubhushan says,“We are galvanising farmers (read fellow community members) against the Nitish government.” The CM is yet to even seek an interim report of the upper caste commission he had set up to study economic backwardness among upper castes.

Conceding advantage to Lalu on this count,a JD(U) leader fears: “The JD(U)-BJP was a winning combination because of upper castes rallying behind Nitish. In the changed political scenario,Lalu can have sympathy of some upper castes,not Nitish. It is a great political irony that three of the four MPs of Lalu Prasad,who rose in politics targeting upper castes,are Rajputs.”

The lack of a traditional vote bank,the untested strength of a new one,on top of the fact that its government is fighting anti-incumbency of two terms,could all prove costly for the JD(U). JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari says they are not worried. “In politics,one does not always think of gains and losses,” he says. “We have taken a stand now and we will let the people decide.”


It all hinges on Modi clicking

The party is conscious of not falling into the trap being laid out by Nitish—of “secularism” versus a “fascist and communal agenda”. Even though workers appear gung-ho over the possible projection of Modi as PM candidate,party strategists will go with a mix of the NaMo factor,development plank and attacks on Nitish over his proximity to the Congress,“the party he hated till June 15”. Casting the first stone,former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi said,“We are now waiting for Nitish Kumar to shout Rahul Gandhi zindabad slogans.”

The BJP,which got 16 per cent votes in the 2010 Assembly polls and about 14 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections,has till now been content to play the role of a junior partner in Bihar,conceding a bigger number of seats to the JD(U). The door is now open for it to test its strength in all of Bihar,unencumbered by governance issues like Nitish. The BJP’s strengths are its traditional upper caste and OBC Baniya vote base,and any polarisation of votes on account of the Modi factor will benefit it greatly. “It is the JD(U) that started playing the Muslim card… If they talk about 17 per cent Muslims,it leaves us to talk about others,” says a BJP leader.

At the same time,they feel Muslims are smart enough not to disassociate the party from all the good the state government did of which it was a part. They fully backed welfare schemes for Muslims as well,and Nitish cannot take away that credit,party leaders say. “As for Modi,we want to know if people of Gujarat have become communal by voting for him?” says a senior BJP leader.

The BJP is in the process of assembling all the speeches of Nitish where he praised Gujarat and Modi to “expose his opportunistic politics”. BJP Leader of Opposition Nand Kishore Yadav said as much to Nitish during the trust vote: “Join the race of PM with Modi and try to compete with him,rather than envying him.” Another thing that could work to the BJP’s advantage is that it can now distance itself from the anti-incumbency factor—which it is already doing,accusing the JD(U) of betraying the NDA mandate.

Sound poll management,with the deeply entrenched RSS cadre pitching in,remains the Sangh outfit’s strength. In fact,the BJP is ready with its list of workers for thousands of booth committees already. While the JD(U) has only Nitish to address big public meetings,the BJP has a series of good speakers. Modi himself is coming in for the party’s October Hunkar Rally in Patna,in what could set the tone for the battle. So far,Modi has refrained from attacking Nitish.

However,should the Modi factor not work,the BJP will find broad-basing its vote bank very difficult. The party is still far from making inroads into the EBC and Mahadalit votes,and its best best is roping in some influential caste leaders who can take on Nitish. One such leader could be former JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP and prominent OBC Koeri or Kushwaha leader Upendra Kushwaha,who recently floated own political party. Kushwaha says,“I’d rather quit politics than re-join the JD(U).” Words the BJP wants to hear. Kushwahas comprise over 7 per cent votes,hence pocketed mostly by the JD(U).


Lalu,one-horse pony show

Lalu Prasad loves to point out that only 3.5 per cent votes separate the RJD and JD(U),and the media should not write him off. Three days before the Maharajganj bypoll,he told this correspondent that “there is no contest… media arithmetic worked out from AC chambers is all rubbish”.

His reassurance comes from his traditional vote base. He is counting on his Muslim-Yadav formula working magic for him again. This formula had developed fissures in the face of a united NDA. Right now,the JD(U) gets less than 4 per cent of the 17 per cent Muslim votes,while Lalu still has the lion’s share of 8-9 per cent. The Congress gets the rest. Lalu is hoping the split with the BJP will not tilt that in favour of the JD(U).

“Whichever party aligns with the Congress will naturally get a bigger number of Muslim votes. What works in Lalu’s favour is that Nitish is undecided. If Nitish is with the Congress,he will only have the NaMo factor to contend with. But the party he criticised for nine years of bad rule at the Centre cannot be Nitish’s friend,” reasons an RJD leader.

The RJD will also bank on gaining from the anti-incumbency vote,the bitterness now between the BJP and JD(U),and a division in the EBC and Mahadalit votes. “EBCs and Mahadalits are spread all across and their voting pattern cannot be uniform. It will be area and candidate specific,” says Surendra Kishore,a former journalist and political analyst. With Lalu drawing big crowds,promising 2.5 lakh contract teachers regularisation of jobs if he is voted to power in 2015,there is already a hint of the RJD coming from nowhere in Bihar politics post 2014. The Maharajganj result has given him all the reasons to feel happy and to try and replicate the unthinkable combination of Yadavs and Rajputs in other Lok Sabha segments.

If the BJP’s biggest hope is the NaMo factor,the RJD’s is that it flops. “If there is a Narendra Modi wave,the BJP would emerge as the number one party. If it is a normal contest,who knows the RJD will become the number one party?” says an analyst.

Lalu also desperately needs to come up with some new ideas. His political idiom has not changed and he has not promoted leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad Singh,Jagtanand Singh and Abdul Bari Siddiquei. Rather,he has started sending his youngest son Tejaswi Prasad Yadav to the field. Though Tejaswi’s speeches are mature beyond his age,senior leaders do not greatly approve the idea of sending “a colt to a horse race”.


Beggars now choosers

The Congress,whose vote share came down from 10 per cent in the last Lok Sabha elections to 8.37 per cent in the last Assembly polls,sees an outside chance for itself after the NDA break-up. But largely,the party is hoping for Bihar to go the Uttar Pradesh way and to take help from both the RJD and JD(U) in a post-poll scenario.

Bihar PCC president Ashok Kumar Choudhary has specified that supporting the Nitish government during the trust vote was “based on principles of secularism”,and the party would contest all the 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. But the fact remains that the party cannot give direct signals to any of the two parties at the moment. Even in the last Lok Sabha elections,the party had contested alone,winning only Sasaram and Kisanganj,despite the RJD being part of the UPA.

Even though the grand old party often talks of a Bihar revival plan and has counted on leaders like Digvijaya Singh,Jagdish Tytler and now C P Joshi to set its house in order,the rot is set too deep. A one-off visit by Rahul Gandhi is certainly not the solution. And neither is a token gesture like appointing a Dalit face in Ashok Kumar Choudhary as the state party chief. There are chances that the Congress will contest all the seats and engage in “friendly fights”.

“We are taking heart from the fact that we have two possible allies in Bihar now and can play a very big role in the post-poll scenario when secular fronts will have to rally behind us to keep the BJP out,” says Bihar Congress chief spokesperson Premchand Mishra.

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