A plethora of polls, bypolls coming up

Political heat is simmering in Bihar as the state gears up to vote tomorrow in the first of the three-phased assembly election. While one can hear the hullabaloo of an election in Bihar, which is being watched with great interest as the state of deep and fixed identities is poised on the edge of change, the upcoming elections to 11 Rajya Sabha (RS) seats and bypolls for 56 assembly seats in 11 states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Manipur too are being viewed with keen interest.

The RS elections will take place on November 9 and polling for 54 assembly byelections will be held on November 3, while voting for two assembly seats in Manipur will be held on November 7. Along with Bihar, the significance of these elections for the BJP can’t be understated: the RS elections will determine how strong the BJP will emerge in the Upper House of Parliament, where it still lacks majority and the assembly by-polls will have a bearing on the stability of BJP government in some of the states.

The drumbeats of the Bihar election can be heard loudly because this election seems different from those of the last three decades. The reasons are obvious: the election is being fought with an eye on the future, which appears hazy and unclear for now but may provide a direction for the future politics of Bihar. The election is also crucial for the BJP, which sees a chance to emerge as the dominant player in Bihar for the first time since 1980.

This is because the old order that ruled Bihar since the 1990s is fading and the new leadership and the new politics that will take shape in future might create space for a new political player because of the fatigue with the old order represented by Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar. If the BJP succeeds in its ambition, it will be a remarkable feat for the Hindutva party in a state where it has achieved success so far by allying with a regional party or parties, and where caste has so far put the brakes on its majoritarian agenda.

The BJP is going into the Bihar election with the hope of seizing the opportunity to gain a firm footing in the state on its own, even if Nitish Kumar wins a fourth term as chief minister. It is a prospect that is a cause of worry for Nitish Kumar beyond the poll results: a weakened JD(U) and diminished ‘Sushasan babu’, as Nitish is popularly known as in Bihar, also means the comeback of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to the pole position in the state’s electoral politics, under the leadership of Tejashwi Yadav.

While it remains to be seen whether Nitish will pass the electoral test, it is also a testing time for the offspring of Lalu and Paswan – Tejashwi and Chirag. If media reports are to be believed, Tejashwi appears to have slightly shaken the NDA, which till now appeared to be heading towards a clear victory. What was predicted to be a one-sided election a fortnight ago, has suddenly come alive and the credit partly goes to Tejashwi.

If Nitish Kumar, facing anger and anti-incumbency, loses his sheen and seats to RJD, the not-so-distant future politics of Bihar will revolve around only two poles – the BJP and RJD. It is this possibility that Nitish Kumar fears and the BJP is excited about. Tejashwi’s sharp campaign, with its focus on jobs, beside coherence within the Mahagathbandhan and Nitish Kumar’s waning popularity, has revived the election into a tough fight between the two alliances.

The latest opinion polls give the NDA an edge over the Mahagathbandhan of the RJD, Congress and the Left parties. With more than 60 per cent of voters wanting the Nitish Kumar government to go, the incumbent three-term chief minister is hoping to pillion-ride to victory on Modi’s popularity. This means if the NDA wins and Nitish saves his chief ministerial chair, the credit will go to the BJP; if the NDA loses, the blame will go to Nitish.

If the Bihar election is crucial for the BJP, which is hoping to emerge strong in the state’s caste politics, the saffron party also stands to gain in the RS elections on November 9. Currently, the BJP’s strength in the RS, which has a total of 245 members, is 86. Of the 11 RS seats to which polls will be held, 10 are in Uttar Pradesh and one in Uttarakhand. In both states, the BJP is in power. Though the BJP is expected to win at least eight seats in UP and one in Uttarakhand, it will still be short of the half-way mark on its own. However, it has the support of other NDA constituents, like the JD(U), LJP, RPI, AGP and others. Nonetheless, the ruling party would still face stiff opposition every time it tries to garner support for contentious legislations in the Upper House, like it did recently in the case of the farm and labour reform bills.

Moving on to the bypolls for 54 assembly seats next week, the most keenly watched election would be in Madhya Pradesh, where polls would be held for 28 seats and much is at stake for the BJP, which came to power in March with the help of breakaway faction of the Congress, led by Jyotiraditya Scindia. The byelections were necessitated because the 22 Congress MLAs who walked away with Scindia had to resign their membership of the assembly after they joined the BJP.

In the 230-member assembly, the BJP has 107 members and needs nine more seats to cross the half-way mark on its own. It also has the support of two BSP MLAs, one SP and one Independent MLA. The Congress, on the other hand, has 88 MLAs and it would need to win all the 28 seats to cross the half-way mark, which looks unlikely. Of the 28 seats going to poll on November 3, 16 seats are in the Gwalior-Chambal region, which is considered a Scindia fortress.

In Gujarat too, where bypolls are being held for eight seats, the story is somewhat similar. In 2017, the Congress had won 77 seats against 99 of the BJP in the 182-member assembly. This year, eight Congress MLAs resigned, for which elections are now being held. The BJP has re-nominated five former Congress MLAs from the same seats they had resigned and has fielded its own former candidates in the remaining three seats.

In Karnataka, the BJP, which came to power last year after several Congress and JD(S) MLAs defected, to pave the way for the installation of B S Yediyurappa government, bypolls are being held for two of the four vacant seats. Though the BJP now has a clear majority with 117 seats, the party is hoping to win both the seats to increase its tally in the 224-member assembly.

Besides, bypolls will also be held for seven seats in UP, two each in Jharkhand, Nagaland and Odisha and one each in Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Haryana on November 3 and two seats in Manipur on November 7.

The author is an independent senior journalist

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Free Press Journal