National

Voters’ Cold Wave In Bihar In These Elections

Heat wave, voter apathy and cyclic migration are blamed for the poor voter turnout in Bihar. Political parties are clueless about what impact will it have on election results

Photo: Getty Images
Issues Matter: People say free ration provided by the Centre is helping them sail through Photo: Getty Images
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As one drives away from Patna towards Alawalpur village, about 20 kms from the state capital, dusty roads and the unbearable April heat sap your energy, but there is an election buzz. As you enter the village, you start noticing something—the divide between the upper caste Rajput localities and the Dalit bastis. The concrete road and solar lamps dotting the Rajput pockets disappear as one drives further down. And that’s when you realise why the locals are so vocal about the issues plaguing them and are looking forward to vote.

Alawalpur, that falls under the Patna Sahib constituency, made headlines in 2014 when Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Ravi Shankar Prasad adopted the village under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. In 2019, he defeated Shatrughan Sinha, who was fighting for the Congress, and became the MP from Patna Sahib.

“We are not seeing the enthusiasm among voters that we had seen in 2019. This means, the core voters of the NDA are despondent, and this will certainly go against the NDA”.

A quick chat with the locals reveals that they are not happy with the way development has shaped up in this ‘Adarsh’ village. “From 2014 until now, only a few street lights have been put up and an Anganwadi centre has opened,” informs ward member Dilip Chaudhary. The overall consensus among locals is that not much progress has happened in the last 10 years. In such a situation, they say, they are forced to lean towards other parties. “Recently, about 100 bighas of wheat crops were damaged in a fire. Twenty-three farmers lost everything. No one visited us. Only the Congress candidate offered to help,” says another local.

Patna Sahib goes to vote in the last phase—on June 1—but the voters seem to have made up their minds. The Rajputs, who have traditionally supported the BJP, say they may not vote for the party. “This time, the BJP will not get solah anna (100 per cent) votes from the Rajputs. It will get 60 per cent Rajput votes and the other candidates will get 40 per cent,” says a local.

People show their ration cards during a protest against the state and the central government
People show their ration cards during a protest against the state and the central government Photo: Getty Images
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The anti-incumbency witnessed here against the sitting MP was also seen in other villages in Nalanda, Rohtas, Vaishali, Bhojpur and Patna.

In the first two phases—April 19 and 26—two factors were common across all villages—poor voter turnout and an air of despondency. Some political analysts believe that the poor turnout could be the result a voter fatigue for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But what does this mean for the other political parties, especially for Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United), largely because the party’s performance in these elections will affect its position in the NDA.

Why the Poor Voter Turnout?

The surprisingly low voting turnout has caused speculations. The state—voting to elect 40 members to the Lok Sabha—voted for nine seats in the first two phases.

In the first phase, Bihar recorded just 47.5 per cent voter turnout which was the lowest in 21 states that went to polls. The second phase saw 50.1 per cent voting—5.11 per cent lower than the 2019 General Elections. In this phase, Bihar recorded the second lowest turnout after Uttar Pradesh.

Army and Air Force aspirants protesting against the Agniveer scheme
Army and Air Force aspirants protesting against the Agniveer scheme Photo: Getty Images
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Eight of the nine seats—Aurangabad, Gaya, Nawada, Jamui, Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnia, Bhagalpur and Banka—which went to polls in two phases were won by the NDA in the 2019 General Elections. While the JDU won five seats, the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) managed to win two seats. One seat went to the BJP. Kishanganj was the only seat in the state which was won by the Congress.

Two reasons are emerging for the low voter turnout. Many districts in the state are reeling under severe heat wave. The temperature touched 40 degree Celsius and the meteorological department had to issue an advisory. The second reason could be the large-scale migration to Punjab, Haryana and other states where harvesting season is on. Many from the state work as labourers in these farms.

While there could be other reasons as well, but political analyst Mahendra Suman believes this time, the voters are simply disinterested. “We are not seeing the enthusiasm among voters that we had seen in 2019. This means, the core voters of the NDA are despondent, and this will certainly go against the NDA,” he feels.

The Deciding Factor

The populist schemes launched by the Modi government still appeal to the voters. The one that is a hit in the state is the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana under which free ration is provided to the poor and vulnerable sections of society. This scheme, considered to be a “life saver”, has been extended till 2029. Similarly, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, under which income support of Rs 6,000 is provided to all landholding farmer families in three equal instalments, is another scheme that people say has proven to be beneficial.

Patna Sahib goes to vote in the last phase but the voters seem to have made up their minds. The Rajputs, who have supported the BJP, say they may not vote for the party.

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Gariban Das, a resident of Raghopur, the assembly seat won by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav, says that he will be considering voting for the BJP as the central government is providing free ration to him.

“Pahle katora mein milta tha, ab bora mein milta hai, to bora wala ko vote denge hi na! Pahle katora me bhi paisa lagta tha, ab to free mil raha hai (Earlier, we used to get ration in a bowl, now we are getting in a sack, that too free of cost, so obviously we will vote for him),” says Das, 40, who is a chamar by caste. He is happy that ration is being provided to people cutting across classes. “I don’t have any land. There are five members in my family. If we get 25 kg of free food grains every month, it helps a lot,” he adds.

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Umesh Tanti, a resident of Nalanda district, too, feels that the free ration and the Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme have improved his life, so he will vote for the NDA candidate. He runs a sugarcane juice stall and earns around Rs 400 a day. “The free ration and the Rs 6,000 from the Modi government help us sail through,” he adds.

Mukesh Ram, a resident of Shahpur village in Vaishali district, who belongs to the chamar caste, accepts that the free ration scheme is a big help, but says: “Sarkaar kela khud khakar chhilka hum logon ko de rahi hain (the government is making huge profits but all it is giving us is free ration).”

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He adds: “We will vote for the RJD as Chirag Paswan, the NDA candidate, has never raised our concerns. It was Lalu Prasad Yadav who empowered us.”

Issues that Matter

The consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya just ahead of the elections was the pet project of the BJP, but in rural Bihar this does not seem to be an issue at all. “There are many temples here. We worship our sugarcane crushing machine every morning before we start work, so Ram temple is not an issue for us,” says Tanti. This was the sentiment across villages.

While Ram temple was a non-issue, one scheme that touched the raw nerve was the Agniveer issue. After the scheme was announced by the government on June 14, 2022, aspiring youths protested for days in Arrah in Bhojpur—informally known as the ‘Army belt of Bihar’.

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Ex-army havildar Chandan Pandey, who trains youths for the Army in Arrah town, says: “This scheme has demoralised the youths and now they are not interested in joining the army. Earlier, there used to be more than 1,000 youths preparing for the army but now the number has come down to 100.”

Some said they are still angry about Agniveer but added that instead of voting for any other party, they would rather press on NOTA.

Unemployment is another issue. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey spanning July 2021 to June 2022, the unemployment rate in Bihar is at 6 per cent, surpassing the national average of 4.1 per cent. For those aged 15–29, this figure escalates to 20.1 per cent, higher than the national average of 12.4 per cent.

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Lakhs of youths preparing for government recruitment exams suffered after several exams were cancelled after paper leaks. Just ahead of the elections, in March, the third phase of the teacher recruitment examination had to be cancelled due to a paper leak. Every year, thousands of students move to Patna to prepare for these exams. They live in tiny rooms in the narrow streets of Musallahpur Haat. Some of the youths here said they voted for the BJP in the last two General Elections, but now they are angry about the overall recruitment exam and unemployment situation. They, however, praised Tejashwi Yadav for creating jobs during his tenure as the deputy chief minister of Bihar.

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Nitish Kumar and the JDU are missing from the election narratives. This election is crucial for the JDU and there is pressure on the party to repeat its past performance.

In January, when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the Mahagathbandhan and formed the government with the BJP, Tejashwi took out a Jan Vishwas Yatra and said that in comparison to the 17 years of the Nitish government, many youths were given government jobs in his 17 months of the government. Most of the youths in Patna talked about 17 saal banaam 17 mahina (17 years vs 17 months).

However, in small towns and villages, despite all the efforts that the Yadav scion has put in, the perception of the RJD has not changed. The Dalits and those from other backward communities feel that if the RJD wins, people from the Yadav community will have an upper hand.

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“The Yadavs will be unfair to us if the RJD wins. Just to give you an example, right now, we are selling a glass of sugarcane juice for Rs 20, but if the RJD wins, then the Yadavs will come and give only Rs 10 for a glass of juice,” says Tanti.

A similar view was expressed by the Musahars—a Dalit community—in Rohtas. “The Yadavs sometimes harass us. If we do not go to the brick kilns to work for them, they beat us up. When we go fishing, they snatch our fish,” says a Musahar. “Six months ago, a health centre was built in our locality, and only Yadavs were appointed. If Dalits got jobs here, they would think about voting for the RJD,” he adds.

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The Future of the JDU

While people talked about the BJP and the RJD, Nitish Kumar and the JDU were missing from the election narratives. This election is crucial for the JDU and there is pressure on the party to repeat its past performance.

But there is a huge disappointment among the JDU candidates with regards to Nitish Kumar. His weak speeches, occasional slip of the tongue in election rallies frequent flip- flops between political parties are upsetting the candidates.

“He is still talking about the “jungle raj” during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tenure and the state of affairs in Bihar before 2005. In one of the rallies, he also made personal attacks on Lalu Prasad Yadav for having so many children,” says a party worker.

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The JDU leaders are also facing an ideological dilemma as the BJP is constantly raising the issue of infiltration in Seemanchal. Addressing a rally in Purnia on April 16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Vote bank politics has led to infiltration in the Seemanchal region, posing a serious security threat and causing harm to the poor, including Dalits, living in the region. Many times, they were attacked and their houses were set on fire.” The JDU never condemned the statement and the party candidates believe it will impact the Muslim voters who have been voting for the JDU.

There are also reports of infighting within the NDA. A leader associated with Chirag Paswan’s party said: “On the ground, the LJP (Ram Vilas) candidates are not getting any support from the JDU workers and leaders despite them being the alliance partner.”

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There is internal conflict between the JDU and the BJP as well. The BJP leaders and workers are angry because despite having fewer MLAs, Nitish Kumar is the chief minister, and the BJP is left to play the second fiddle.

A JDU leader, on the condition of anonymity, said that it is clearly visible on the ground that the BJP leaders and workers are not helping the JDU candidates, and, on the other hand, there is resentment among people due to Nitish’s frequent change of alliance. “Due to the lack of support from the BJP, there is a strong challenge from the RJD to the traditional JDU seats.” This time the JDU and the BJP are contesting elections on 16 seats each.

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Talking about the present situation of the JDU and the future of Nitish Kumar, DM Diwakar, a Patna-based political analyst says: “Nitish has been an impediment to the BJP in its bid to have single-handed control over Bihar. So, for a long time, the BJP has been trying to diminish the JDU.” He adds: “Chirag Paswan fighting against the JDU in the 2020 Assembly elections was a bid to weaken the JDU’s position in the NDA. So, it is not surprising the BJP is not cooperating with the JDU candidates. Nitish should realise this.”

Umesh Kumar Ray is a Bihar-based independent journalist. This appeared in print as Voters’ Cold Wave.

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