Irrespective of the outcome, the contours of the battle between the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) and the BJP have become clear. Both parties are working on new strategies. While Kumar wants to foreground governance, the BJP is attempting a Dalit-centric social engineering with the intent to forge a new political coalition.
Social scientist Shaibal Gupta once famously said the USP of Kumar under the NDA was that he could get the social extremes of upper castes and Dalits to stay together. This social coalition disintegrated when he left the NDA. The BJP now hopes to get Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi to switch sides and build a coalition of upper castes and Dalits.
The BJP was set to turn the tables on Kumar when the Delhi election results came as a shocker to the party. The AAP’s landslide win has given Kumar time to breathe, but he has been forced to change course. With Manjhi expelled from the JD(U), Kumar fears the Mahadalit vote bank he had created is set to disintegrate. He has now gone back to the good governance plank and wants the upcoming assembly election to be about leaders. A presidential-style poll, he seems to think, will benefit him more than any other party.
Though Kumar knows very well the Delhi election model cannot be replicated in caste-centric Bihar, he surely seems to have taken the cue from Arvind Kejriwal, who succeeded in making the Delhi battle personality-centric. Kumar, who has a good record as an administrator and remains the most acceptable face of development-oriented politics in the Hindi heartland, will be a challenge for the BJP, which is non-committal on projecting a leader for the state. Kumar has also worked on his social arithmetic as the negotiations with Lalu Prasad, who got over 20 per cent votes in the May general election and 19.31 per cent in the 2010 assembly polls, reveal. In the wake of a possible desertion of the Mahadalit constituency, Kumar seems to be working on a strategy that banks on political arithmetic and good governance.
The BJP’s strategy is simple. It wants Manjhi to become its Dalit posterboy and help poach the Mahadalit votes. Manjhi has been successful in playing up the Dalit factor with a series of controversial statements. The way two Dalit communities, Musahars and Doms, took to the streets in Patna in favour of Manjhi indicates their mood. It is a great irony that Kumar, who coined the term “Mahadalit” and started a host of welfare schemes for this section, may well be at the receiving end of a section of the same voters. The Musahars, who constitute about 6 per cent of the state’s population, were seen as hardcore Kumar supporters. Can Manjhi get them on his side? In any case, even a breach in the Musahar vote in a close fight would hurt the JD(U).
Although the BJP is undecided about supporting Manjhi in the House, his loyalists like Narendra Singh claim that he has the “blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. The BJP would want Manjhi to get emotional and play up the Dalit betrayal card during the campaign. BJP insiders say that just as Ram Kripal Yadav was in the fight against Lalu Prasad in the Lok Sabha election, Manjhi could prove to be an asset against Kumar in the assembly polls.
Former JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP Shivanand Tiwari says Kumar may have erred in taking Manjhi lightly. He says Kumar, who had talked about winning back the confidence of the people after the Lok Sabha drubbing, changed his mind because Manjhi had started to gain clout. Tiwari, who quit active politics after falling out with Kumar, says the BJP would be an “outright gainer” with an aggressive Manjhi by its side, irrespective of whether he remains the CM.
The Janata Parivar, which includes the JD (U) and the RJD, has 30 Rajya Sabha MPs and is set to stall Parliament if Kumar is not invited to take oath as the next CM.
Kumar’s plan is that if he gets time to govern again, he will build on his image as a good administrator who can deliver development and make a case against Modi and the BJP by taking up the demand for special category status to Bihar. If he doesn’t get to form the government, he will set out on a yatra and tell people how he was not allowed by the BJP to become CM and restore governance.
However, once the impact of the Delhi election subsides, Bihar may slip back to the politics of arithmetic and caste equations and push the development agenda to the periphery. A key factor in the coming days will be RJD chief Lalu Prasad, who will engage with Kumar and fight the BJP on his own terms. There are other imponderables as well. If the Janata Parivar finally merges, it could impact the political equations and Kumar’s attempt to force a personality-centric election.