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Nobody had heard of Mukesh Sahani in Bihar politics before the 2014 general elections. His solitary claim to fame was a crass Bhojpuri movie, Ek Laila Teen Chhaila (One Girl, Three Suitors) he had produced. Born in Darbhanga, he made a fortune supplying props in Bollywood for years before the political bug bit him. Five years later, he had the RJD—the state’s biggest party never known to be generous with ticket distribution among its allies—eating out of his palm ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) is contesting from three Lok Sabha seats as part of the RJD-led grand alliance, not a bad bargain for a fledgling outfit making its electoral debut.
The importance of this 40-year-old “Son of Mallah” in this election could be gauged from the fact that RJD president Laloo Prasad Yadav had declined to spare more than three seats for a big party like the Congress, its erstwhile ally, in the 2009 parliamentary polls. But this time, the RJD distributed 10 of the total 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar without any fuss to its smaller allies. Apart from the VIP’s three seats, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular are contesting from five and three seats, respectively.
Laloo or his son Tejashwi Yadav may have done it to keep these regional satraps from the extremely backward castes (Sahani), OBCs (Kushwaha) and the mahadalits (Manjhi) in good humour to prevent the division of anti-BJP votes, but will the RJD be able to keep its Mahagathbandhan flock together if May 23 counting throws up a hung House? Since there is no legal bar on the pre-poll allies to switch sides depending on the situation—unlike elected representatives bound by the anti-defection law—will a fractured verdict be an open sesame for the smaller parties with no ideological strings attached, especially in big states like Bihar, UP and Maharashtra? After all, they are the ones most vulnerable to the rival camps vying for power regardless of their pre-poll allegiances.
RJD vice-president Shivanand Tiwari does not think so vis-à-vis his party’s allies. “The Mahagathbandhan represents a strong social combination in Bihar,” he says. “Sahani, Manjhi and Kushwaha were all with the NDA and joined us after being denied their due. I don’t think they would forget their anger and disappointment with the NDA so soon.” The veteran socialist leader says Sahani had to beg for the rightful due to his fishermen’s community in NDA, but to no avail. “He now says Lalooji gave him so much that he was able to field his people in a Lok Sabha election,” he adds.
Political pundits, however, believe the loyalty of fringe-outfit leaders cannot be taken for granted. Sahani, for one, started his political career sharing the dais with BJP president Amit Shah in the 2014 polls, and briefly joined hands with Nitish Kumar in 2015 before floating his party to join the Mahagathbandhan this time. Others such as Kushwaha and Manjhi have hopped from one alliance to another. An indecisive outcome of the 17th Lok Sabha elections would make the support of even two-three MPs crucial.
Tiwari admits that the smaller allies would be easy targets for poaching if the NDA falls short of majority, but their numbers might still not be enough to form the government, unless they win the support of bigger parties led by the likes of Naveen Patnaik, Chandrashekar Rao, Jaganmohan Reddy et al.
But does the BJP also face a similar risk from two of its existing allies, Nitish Kumar’s JD-U and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, after the results? Paswan, whose party is contesting six seats in Bihar, has been firmly behind Narendra Modi lately, but given his track record, Laloo still refers to him as an inveterate “mausam vaigyanik” (weatherman), who can switch sides as per his convenience. As for Nitish, his party has been seeking votes in Modi’s name, but political observers are keeping tab on some recent developments within the JD-U. Close on the heels of its minority leader Gulam Rasool Balyawi’s “personal” demand to the BJP to project Nitish as the NDA leader, the JD-U revived its pitch for ‘special category’ status for Bihar. It fuelled speculation as to whether the JD-U was also bracing for a hung Parliament. Tiwari, however, avers that such tactics won’t work in Nitish’s favour. “If at all the RSS and the BJP have to look for Modi’s replacement due to allies’ pressure after the results, they will prefer someone like Nitin Gadkari. Why on earth will they pick someone like Nitish who has lost all credibility?” he asks.
JD-U leader Neeraj Kumar, however, scotches such speculation. “We are seeking the mandate in the name of Modi as PM,” he says. “We are nowhere in the race for prime ministership.”
According to Neeraj, the NDA allies would remain united, but the Mahagathbandhan will flounder soon because of the RJD’s big brotherly attitude. “Lalooji and Tejashwi have issued open letters asking people to vote for the RJD, not for the Mahagathabandhan,” he points out. “Their allies are also not sharing the stage.” The JD-U leader claims the RJD failed to get its votes transferred to its allies in the ongoing polls. “Why should its allies stay if they don’t get the RJD’s votes transferred to them?” he asks.
In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the BJP—which won 71 seats, and its ally Apna Dal (Sonelal) two, out of the total 80 in 2014—continued its winning streak in the 2017 assembly polls. The crucial question in this election is whether the small parties will alter the power balance or swing the elections post-May 23. The NDA has been wooing dominant castes such as Kurmis, Sainis, Jats, Nishads and Valmikis that have strong influence in multiple constituencies. As UP is home to a wide caste net of Brahmins, Yadavs, Jats, Kushwahas, Kurmi, Jatav and non-Jatav Dalits, besides OBCs, Muslims and Christians, the state also accounts for over 600 minor parties, mostly based on castes. The BJP, however, faced its first challenge last December after the alliance between Samajwadi Party and the BSP went on to taste success in the bypolls.
In a three-pronged battle this time among the state’s main players—the BJP, the Congress and the SP-BSP-RLD combine—small parties are also flexing their muscles. The 2014 and 2017 polls had brought some into prominence after they sprang unprecedented surprises, forcing the main players to bargain a pre-poll alliance with them. One of the main BJP allies—the Kurmi-based Apna Dal (Sonelal), whose leader Anupriya Patel is a Union minister in the NDA government—is contesting for two Lok Sabha seats and had bagged nine seats in the 2017 assembly polls with a vote share of 0.99 per cent.
“Small parties decide the mandate when there are many caste combinations,” says Arvind Sharma of Apna Dal, who claims his party played a decisive role in the BJP’s 2014 win and will continue as a BJP ally even if the NDA fails to notch up a majority on May 23. “Our support base of Kurmis comprises 12 per cent of UP’s electorate—larger than Yadavs and directly affecting 15 Lok Sabha seat in the Purvanchal region.”
Political strategists say small parties have the potential to make or break a government or an alliance this time. “After May 23, they will definitely play hard ball,” says JNU sociologist Surinder S. Jodhka. “The small parties offer a political market, they have a supply of votes and there are people who buy it. They are pragmatic and usually don’t adopt any ideological position. Identity politics is all about representation for them.”
The switching over of the Nishad party—a former ally of the SP-BSP—to the BJP camp just before the polls demonstrates how small parties try to be game-changers in the competitive political game. Founded by Sanjay Nishad in 2016, the party got 0.67 per cent votes in the 2017 assembly polls and won one seat. His son Praveen Nishad, who wrested Gorakhpur seat from the BJP for the SP in the bypolls, is contesting from Sant Kabir Nagar as a BJP candidate this time. With its sizeable chunk of fisherfolk votes scattered across many seats, the BJP is hoping to make inroads in the state. “SP won Gorakhpur because of the Nishad party, but didn’t give us any recognition or seats this time. Both the SP and the BSP don’t allow any other party to grow,” says Sanjay Nishad. “We will decide the next course of action after the results, but even if the NDA fails to cross the mark, we will still stay with the state government.”
Though the BJP could muster support from a few caste parties to counter the SP-BSP, it has also upset strong allies like the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) led by Om Prakash Rajbhar, which commands considerable influence among the Rajbhar community. The SBSP broke ties with the BJP after it refused to concede seats. With four seats in the 2017 assembly polls, Rajbhar says his party can upset the BJP in many seats. “We have 50,000-1 lakh supporters in many constituencies,” says Rajbhar, adding that his party will decide the future course after the results.
While OBCs account for 44 per cent of UP’s electorate, Dalits 23 per cent and Muslims 18 per cent, Jodhka says the spurt in the number of caste parties points to identity assertion and the decline of secular politics. “It’s also the disillusionment with the main parties. Caste is a cover for aspirational identity politics—identity mobilised in the democratic space,” he says, adding that it’s unfair to call them vote-cutters.
Shivpal Yadav’s PSP (Lohia) is contesting 64 seats.
With the SP-BSP enjoying the RJD’s support, the Congress has teamed up with Apna Dal led by Krishna Patel, Mahan Dal and the Jan Adhikar Party, hoping to garner support from the OBC communities of Kurmis, Kushwaha, Mauryas and Shakyas. Another party hard to ignore, is the Pragitisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia), founded by SP rebel and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother Shivpal Yadav. With a support base among cadres, PSP(L) may upset the SP in some seats, say analysts. It has already partnered with the Peace Party and the Apna Dal (K). “This election is important for small parties and we will support any political formation other than the BJP,” says Peace Party founder Dr Mohammad Ayub, adding that the SP-BSP failed to accommodate the interest of small parties. Founded in 2008, the party held promise for Pasmanda Muslims and other backward communities, and bagged four seats in the 2012 assembly polls, but failed to keep up the momentum.
In Maharashtra, a high point for the Congress and the NCP was the coming together of 56 political and social organisations, signifying the importance of tacit or open support of smaller political parties. While the two parties have worked more for bringing regional parties such as the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) and Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana into their fold, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance seems to be going solo except for defected members from other parties such as Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil.
“When we contested the last couple of times, we realised that the splitting of votes between us and the Congress or NCP had actually benefited the right-wing forces,” says PWP general secretary Jayant Patil. “We wanted to end the authoritarian rule of the past few years and decided to support the alliance without any conditions. Our party workers campaigned for their candidates. In places like Parbhani and Solapur, our voter base of over a lakh will definitely benefit the Congress-NCP alliance, which may get 28 out of the 48 seats in the state.”
While smaller parties with similar ideologies have stuck together and the Republican Party of India (Athawale) has continued its alliance with the Sena-BJP, it is Raj Thackeray’s MNS that has added a twist, moving from endorsing Modi in 2014 to campaigning against him in 2019. There is the newly formed Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi floated by Prakash Ambedkar, which has formed a separate front with parties such as the AIMIM. Experts say they might unintentionally end up helping the Sena-BJP by splitting votes.
By Giridhar Jha and Preetha Nair with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai