Formidable But Tricky

A cow-belt alliance to cover all bases
Formidable But Tricky
Poll Partners
PM meets CM Nitish Kumar ­(centre) and deputy CM Sushil Modi
Photograph by PTI
Formidable But Tricky
outlookindia.com
2018-02-10T11:26:26+0530

Bihar Assembly Poll 2015

58+71 ⁄ 243

  • Nitish, Laloo and Congress fought together and won, but BJP got the highest voteshare (24.4 per cent); JD(U) bagged 71 seats with 16.8 per cent of the votes

***

Last week’s triple embarrassment in the Rajasthan bypolls may have prompted the BJP brass to do some stocktaking, but for Nitish Kumar it holds no dark portent going forward to 2019. Far from it, the Bihar chief minister gives off an air of quiet confidence on the question of the NDA retaining power at the Centre. “There should be no misgivings about the victory of this alliance,” Nitish told reporters after the Lok Samvad programme in Patna on Monday. “It’s not proper to link the Congress’s success in Raja­sthan with the Lok Sabha elections.”

Yet, is there a hint of misgiving? None whatsoever as far as Bihar itself is concerned, where the JD(U) shares the optimism of its chief. “Our alliance is a tried-and-tested one,” Sanjay Jha, party general secretary, tells Outlook. “The JD(U)-BJP combination is simply unbeatable in Bihar.” Which is just as well, because Nitish had gambled big on the NDA winning 2019—even sacrificing the pivotal role envisaged for him in an alternative.

To protect his stake, Nitish now has to help the NDA bag as many of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats as it can get, to offset potential erosion elsewhere in the north. As a strong-alliance state, the dynamics in Bihar is a tad different for the BJP from the rest of the cow belt. Jha reels off past statistics to buttress his point. “Even in 2009, the NDA had swept Bihar, winning 32 seats. We followed that up by winning 206 out of 243 ass­embly seats the next year,” he says. That too when Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP was not part of NDA. “I don’t see any challenge in 2019 or even the 2020 assembly polls in Bihar,” says Jha.

In fact, the BJP’s own growth in the state is somewhat overlooked because of the primacy of the post-Mandal leaders. The NDA fought the 2014 election without the JD(U) on its side—Nitish having exited in 2013 over Narendra Modi being projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Yet, the BJP won 22 Lok Sabha seats on its own, and a total of 31 with smaller allies like the LJP. Indeed, ever since the 15-year-long RJD rule came to an end in 2005, the NDA has won all elections in Bihar with the exception of 2015. In that assembly poll, the unprecedented mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of Nitish, Laloo and the Congress got a brute majority. But even in that loss, the BJP had amassed the best voteshare of 24.4 per cent. Nitish had come third with 16.8 per cent. Speculatively adding those two offers a ballpark figure that puts the duo way beyond anyone else’s league for 2019.

Could the script change? Enough things are in flux. RJD strongman Laloo Prasad Yadav may not be out of jail before the election, and perhaps that blunts his axe considerably. But there will be restive allies—like Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, each with his own strand of influence. Also Paswan, the ultimate political weathervane, whose movements will be of interest. Experts believe it is too early to hazard any guess about final outcomes.

“The Rajasthan byelections have indicated the BJP is not invincible,” says social scientist Saibal Gupta. “Such an indication came from Gujarat too though they finally won there. But in Rajasthan, it got established. Next election, people will think the BJP too can be marginalised,” adds the member-secretary of the Patna-based think-tank Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI).

The RJD camp believes Laloo in jail will actually boost its chances, while the NDA ­dismisses him as a spent force.

The defeat of the BJP candidates in Alwar and Ajmer comes as a shot in the arm for the RJD, and party veteran Shivanand Tiwari pretty much echoes Gupta’s analysis. “The Rajasthan results definitely have a bearing on Bihar,” says the RJD vice-president. “And not only Rajasthan. Even in Gujarat, the assembly results came as a shock for the BJP…it could not win even 100 seats.”

Tiwari says it will be next to impossible for the BJP to repeat its 2014 performance in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, UP or even Bihar next year. “I wonder if it will even get a simple majority on its own in 2019,” he says. “And the way things are moving in Bihar, the results could be completely different here as well from the last time.”

How so? The veteran socialist cites the 30 per cent Muslim-­Yadav vote in Bihar—that combined M-Y bloc will be solidly behind Laloo, he says. “The 2015 polls had been fought primarily on the backward-vs-forward plank. All OBCs, EBCs, Pasmanda Muslims et al had come on one platform, which res­ulted in the big victory of the mahagathbandhan,” he says. “It was basically a realignment of the forces Laloo used to lead in the 1990s. I don’t think these groups are likely to follow Nitish after his exit from the grand alliance now,” feels Tiwari.

The RJD camp believes Laloo’s incarceration in the fodder scam will actually boost its chances. “Every day he spends in prison is strengthening his votebank. People are watching how he’s being given different jail terms in the same fodder scam,” Tiwari says. “Their sympathies lie with him. He’s still looked upon as someone who liberated them from oppression and taught them how to hold their heads high. They all feel bad about the treatment meted out to him.”

The BJP trashes all speculation about seat-sharing woes. “There’s no problem with our allies,” says a spokesperson.

The NDA, on its part, dismisses Laloo as a spent force, and believes his sons Tejashwi and Tej Pratap have failed to pass muster as mature political leaders. “His family got a fresh lease of political life by default in 2015, otherwise it would have been finished by 2019. As of now, there is no credible face against Nitish from the Opposition,” asserts Jha, who feels Laloo’s incarceration will have no impact on the polls and his kind of politics is passé.

Is it really? Well, the chessboard is coming alive with the opening gambits. Deposed JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav, who broke ranks with Nitish over ties with the BJP, and JVM chief Babulal Marandi called on Laloo the other day in Ranchi jail to apparently mull over the possibility of a united fight. Laloo is also learnt to have sent feelers to Jan Adhikar Morcha MP Pappu Yadav, who has some sway in the Kosi belt. Elsewhere, Tiwari paid a visit to Raj­put leader Anand Mohan, currently serving a life-term at Saharsa jail for the 1994 lynching of Gopalganj DM G. Krishnaiah. The RJD may also eye NDA allies Kushwaha and Manjhi. Recently, Tiwari et al joined a protest launched by Kushwaha over the state of education in Bihar! (No NDA leader was in sight, of course).

Observers say the NDA will run into a big seat-sharing headache because of the vaulting ambitions of its smaller allies—Paswan’s LJP, Kushwaha’s RLSP and Manjhi’s HAM(S). Prior to 2014, the JD(U) and BJP would split the seats in a roughly 60:40 ratio—say, 24 and 16. But last time the BJP contested 30 seats, leaving seven and three seats for LJP and RLSP respectively. Since then, not only has Nitish returned to the NDA, Manjhi too has become a key constituent—the latter, in fact, has already demanded 50 seats for his party in the next assembly elections, points out Tiwari.

The BJP does not seem to be unduly perturbed yet. Sanjay Mayukh, the party’s national media co-incharge, trashes all speculation about seat-sharing woes. “There’s no question of any problem with our allies,” he says. “Everybody has faith in Modiji’s leadership. With Modiji and Amit Shahji leading from the front nationally and Nitish spearheading a government committed to good governance in Bihar, it’s a double engine of growth. We’ll increase our numbers.”

But can the NDA really expect a cakewalk in Bihar? Pol­itical commentator N.K. Choudhary doesn’t think so. He says the farmers’ discontent faced by the Modi government will hurt its prospects everywhere. “The agrarian focus of Arun Jaitley’s Budget shows the BJP has already seen the writing on the wall and is trying to somehow salvage the situation,” he adds. In Bihar, economic issues remain secondary to caste, but even that he doesn’t think pans out so fruitfully for the NDA. “Bihar’s politics is largely driven by identity politics; emotional caste issues outweigh all other factors. I, therefore, think the NDA is going to face a stiff challenge in the next poll battle.” Between the sceptics and a sanguine Nitish…that’s like a long bridge over the Ganga in the winter fog.


By Giridhar Jha in New Delhi

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