Cracks seem to have appeared within the BJP-led NDA in Bihar over seat-sharing arrangements and leadership issues. With Jitan Ram Manjhi questioning Ram Vilas Paswan’s credentials as the tallest Dalit leader in the state and the BJP being adamant about contesting more than two-thirds of the seats, all does not seem well within the NDA camp. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s posture and prose during recent rallies clearly suggest that the BJP will leave no stone unturned to win the Bihar elections, in our view, this will be an uphill task for the BJP due to three reasons.
First, at least on paper, the NDA coalition lags behind the combined vote base of the grand alliance of the Congress, RJD, JD(U) and NCP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA secured 38.8 per cent of the vote, whereas the combined total of the grand alliance was 45.5 per cent. The BJP understands that 2014 was a high point for the party and it may be difficult to repeat this performance, as its vote share has declined by six to eight percentage points in most assembly elections since then. The BJP leadership is perhaps aware that it will not be easy to close this vote gap.
Second, like the Delhi assembly elections earlier this year, the BJP is not clear on whether it wants to go with Modi’s face or declare a chief ministerial candidate. The NDA’s state unit does not have a face to match Nitish Kumar and using Modi’s face involves too much risk, as a defeat would put a question mark over Modi’s personal popularity. If the NDA indeed plans to contest with a declared CM candidate, it would be better to announce the choice soon. A Delhi-like mistake of introducing a CM candidate at the last moment may further damage the NDA’s prospect in a state where it is pitted against two popular regional leaders, Nitish and Lalu Prasad.
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Third, the BJP doesn’t have a clear campaign strategy and has so far spent its energies on taking potshots at leaders of opposition parties. A positive campaign plank in Bihar becomes even more of an imperative considering that the BJP’s recent victories in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Jammu and Kashmir were aided by a divided opposition.
So what should the BJP’s gameplan be? The BJP needs to maximise the potential of its allies, with strategic seat adjustment choices and a smart campaign plan. The data presented in the table clearly shows that devoting an equal amount of energy to all 243 constituencies will not be prudent, as the final outcome will largely be determined by the constituencies where no alliance has a pre-eminent position. We divided 243 seats into four types based on the following factors: One, whether the BJP contested a particular seat on its own during the 2010 assembly election; and two, whether the NDA led its nearest rival in that assembly segment during the 2014 general elections. The BJP’s election managers need to realise that their organisational machinery is weaker in the seats that it did not contest on its own in 2010, and so it requires a more focused approach.
Our analysis based on the 2014 Lok Sabha vote share shows that the NDA alliance had an advantage over the grand alliance in 73 seats (Type 1 in the table), lagged behind in 72 seats (Types 2 and 3), and was neck-to-neck in 98 seats (Type 4). Further analysis of Type 4 seats suggests that while the NDA led the grand alliance with a margin of more than 10 percentage points in 17 of these 98 seats, the grand alliance had a similar lead over the NDA in 22 seats. These 39 seats can be considered as safe seats. The road to 1, Anne Marg, the Bihar chief minister’s official residence, will pass through the remaining 59 seats concentrated in two regions — Magadh (Patna, Nalanda, Nawada) and Tirhut (Champaran, Vaishali, Bhojpur). In approximately half of these, the proportion of Dalit voters is higher than the state’s average. The BJP’s allies, Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi, who have a strong base among Dalits and Mahadalits, would be handy in these seats. The party needs to realise that strategic placement of allies could make or break this election.
Similarly, these two leaders, along with the NDA’s fourth partner, Upendra Kushwaha, should be used to generate a campaign platform that includes a strong social justice message. It would be difficult for the BJP to win the Bihar elections solely on its core constituency. The party needs to build a coalition of extremes — combining upper-caste votes with most backward castes and Dalits. While it is important to highlight the uneasy alliance between the RJD and JD(U), and the misgovernance during Lalu’s regime, the BJP must refrain from repeating its Delhi mistake of running a purely negative campaign. The NDA needs to put a positive campaign platform before the voters and counter the opposition on both fronts — social justice and governance. It needs to take on both Nitish, who is focusing on the developmental message, and Lalu, who is trying to mobilise voters on the social justice plank. The task could be clearly divided among NDA partners, with the BJP and Modi focusing on development, and the young and aspirational voters, while the allies engage aggressively on the social justice platform and expose the friction between the RJD and JD(U).
Winning the Bihar election is crucial for the BJP, as it could open the doors to India’s eastern states. The BJP has a real chance to gain power in Assam and emerge as an important player in West Bengal, where elections are due early next year. A loss in Bihar would suggest a downhill slide and raise early anti-incumbency sentiments against the Modi government on three fronts. First, a consecutive loss after Delhi is likely to raise doubts about Modi’s popularity in garnering votes for the BJP in state elections. Second, it would not only leave a question mark over Amit Shah’s style of micro-managing elections but may also jeopardise his re-election as the BJP president later this year. Finally, a victory for the opposition in Bihar would lead to a decline in the position of the Modi-Shah duo within the party, and galvanise regional players across the country concerned about an expansionist BJP post-2014. In that sense, the strategies used by the BJP in Bihar will tell us how the party plans to accommodate its allies.
Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US. Gupta is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi.
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