The Election Commission of India has taken a bold gamble in scheduling the assembly elections due in Bihar over three phases beginning October 28 amid the continuing COVID-19 outbreak. The EC has drawn an elaborate plan to minimise human contact during campaigning, polling and counting and to ensure that even the infected persons and those in quarantine get to exercise their right to vote. But an election held amid social distancing norms will look out of place in one of the country’s most politically vibrant states.
Politics in Bihar is poised at an awkward juncture. Leaders who dominated the political landscape for decades are looking jaded or receding into the shadows, and no new leaders have taken their place. Since the advent of Mandal nearly three decades ago, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have dominated state politics with Ram Vilas Paswan playing a critical role. In the upcoming election, while the RJD patriarch is in jail, in Paswan’s party the baton seems to be all but handed over from father to son. After three continuous terms in office, Nitish Kumar will be up against the visible plateauing of his governance record. “Sushasan Babu”, as Nitish Kumar was once called for his emphasis on good governance, alongside the stated commitment to “social justice”, seems to have run out of ideas and is banking on self-righteous moralising on tried-and-failed ideas like prohibition and the seeming absence of a credible alternative to win a fourth term. The RJD has turned into a family fief even as Tejashwi Yadav is yet to establish his credentials — under his leadership, the RJD could not win a single seat in the 2019 general election. The BJP seems to be the party on the rise but it is dependent on its central leadership, mainly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to fetch votes. The Congress and the Left parties are pale shadows of their former selves and have done little to regain their lost base or attracts new voters.
While the social justice politics that dominated the electoral agenda since the 1990s seems to have exhausted its radical potential, no new idea, paradigm or cast of characters has emerged. The coming together of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, representing two distinct strands of social justice politics under the Mahagathbandhan umbrella, had captured the voter’s imagination in 2015. But this time alliances could break and form on the basis of a lack of options. If it wants to exploit the anti-incumbent sentiment, the Opposition will have to transcend the absence of a credible CM candidate with a smart coalition and a transformative agenda, which seems to be missing so far.
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