June 28, 2010 4:24:54 am
The political battle currently raging in Bihar is most likely a sample of what will unfold during the assembly elections scheduled later this year. It will demonstrate whether Nitish Kumars rhetoric of social justice and good governance will translate into victory for the JD (U). It will also determine the fate of the other political players in the fray – the BJPs chances if it decides to go solo,and the Congress capacity to pull off a revival like in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. It would also be interesting to see if Lalu Prasad Yadav who has kept a low profile for a while now succeeds in reversing the tide,and if Paswan manages to keep his ship afloat.
At the heart of this recent controversy is Bihars much-fought over seventeen per cent Muslim electorate. It is being argued that at no price does Nitish want to be associated with Narendra Modis brand of BJP politics which might cost him a crucial chunk of the Muslim votes. Cancelling the dinner meant for BJP leaders and returning the five crore Kosi flood relief package to the Gujarat government needs to be read as a part of this calculated alienation narrative woven by Nitish.
There is also the anticipation that a resurgent Congress will garner a good portion of Muslim votes as it did in the last Lok Sabha elections. If Nitish Kumar manages even a small slice of the vote from this community,he will make Lalu bleed where it hurts. His government is extending significant patronage to the community through several minority welfare schemes. By helping two prominent Muslim politicians (Ali Anwar of the All-India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj and Dr Ejaz Ali of the All India United Muslim Morcha) to become Rajya Sabha MPs,Nitish has carefully designed a strategy to move from his current coalition of extremes to a catch-all rainbow coalition. If he succeeds in rallying a segment of upper caste voters opposed to Lalu,there is an opportunity to carve out a new Mandal bloc of non-Yadav OBCs plus a chunk of Muslim and Mahadalit votes. Thus Nitish is not only benefiting from the bad memories of Lalus rule but also reaping the dividends of a possible Mandal harvest.
There is rising speculation that Nitish Kumar may dump the BJP,Naveen Patnaik style,or that the BJP itself may need to move out of the coalition in order to save face. One thing is certain if the BJP decides to move out,it will be political hara kiri,because it risks getting reduced to a marginal player in Bihar. However,Nitish may not pull the Patnaik stunt because Bihar,unlike Orissa,has an array of strong Opposition leaders.
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In the backdrop of fast-changing social equations Lalu has failed to retain the niche he had carved out for himself over the last two decades. The continuous downslide in voter turnout (from 66.2 per cent in 1990 to 44.5 per cent in 2009) has been one of the most ignored angles in understanding the processes and trajectories of electoral competition in Bihar. Time series data from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) of the last eight elections since 1995 suggest that the number of voters from the poorer sections is declining. One would be surprised to note how this downslide of voter turnout mirrors declining RJD vote share in the state.
This should be the biggest worry for Lalu,who has successfully mobilised the voters from the poorer sections of the society. The pro-poor tone and tenor of his electoral mobilisation seems to have lost its teeth in his anti-communal rhetoric. He needs to understand that though in the popular imagination,the RJDs vote-bank is the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) equation; the truth is that the RJD has always been critically depended on other communities,particularly the Dalits,lower and Other Backward Classes and some upper castes for its vote. Though loss of a big chunk of Muslim votes to the Congress has damaged his electoral prospects; the biggest setback comes from the continuous declining popularity among lower OBC votes. The lower OBC vote has shifted decisively in favor of JD (U) in the last two elections.
Thus the big battle in Bihar is just not for the Muslim votes as it may seem. The results would be more of a reflection of the fragmentation that will take place in the upper caste votes. It is highly likely that the Congress would make its presence felt among the upper caste voters. And in case the BJP and JD (U) contest separately,the upper caste votes may get divided. Nonetheless,in the end this seemingly major rift between the BJP and JD (U) may well turn out to be just a tussle preceding seat sharing negotiations. Meanwhile,Lalu Prasad Yadav,it must be remembered,is a ruthless campaigner and may well be busy reinventing his organisational machine and setting things right in his own constituency.
The writer is with Lokniti,Centre for Study of Developing Societies,Delhi
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