Ahead of the Bihar assembly elections, the ruling NDA alliance partners are engaged in the usual tussle over seat-sharing. The aggressive posturing by the BJP, JD(U) and LJP has spawned the customary rumours: the BJP is preparing to jettison the JD(U), the LJP may quit the alliance, the BJP is using the LJP to keep the JD(U) off-balance and so on.
Experienced analysts will not read too much into these pre-electoral shenanigans. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's admittedly poor handling of the on-going coronavirus crisis and the recent floods may have made him an object of criticism, but doesn't necessarily affect the NDA's electoral prospects. After all, the centre cannot claim to have performed any better on the coronavirus front.
So, despite his declining popularity ratings, Nitish Kumar remains the BJP's best bet for winning Bihar and vice versa. The peculiar caste configuration of Bihar gives the BJP-JD(U)-LJP combine a headstart over the UPA. As long as Nitish commands the loyalty of the EBCs that account for 22 percent of the electorate, as well as a significant slice of non-Yadav OBCs he is a valuable ally. The BJP enjoys considerable support among the upper castes (around 15 percent) and the LJP among dalits (around 16 percent). The NDA thus represents a rainbow social coalition, not merely a political alliance.
The EBC-Kurmi-upper caste-dalit combine proved more than a match for the M-Y configuration of the dominant UPA partner, the RJD, in the 2019 general elections. This explains why the RJD has lately made concerted efforts to accommodate EBCs in its ranks in a bid to expand its social base.
The NDA may look vulnerable, thanks to the pandemic and the BJP's reverses in the Delhi elections earlier this year, but the RJD has had its own share of troubles. It suffered a serious setback when five of the party's 8 MLCs quit the party to join the JD(U) last month. Even worse, the articulate RJD veteran and Laloo Yadav loyalist, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, resigned because he felt marginalised by the new party leadership.
Admittedly, it has not been smooth sailing for the NDA alliance of late. A section of the BJP was deeply miffed when the Bihar assembly passed a resolution against the NRC (national register of citizens) and in favour of implementing the NPR (national population register) in the 2010 format. Bihar's demand for a caste-based census also provoked criticism. Wiser heads in the BJP, who pointed out that Nitish's moves made eminent sense from an electoral point of view, prevailed. The BJP made it clear that he would continue to be the NDA's chief ministerial face.
The JD(U) and LJP have been at daggers drawn, ostensibly over the 12 nominated MLC seats, but more likely over the junior partner's insistence on 40 of the 243 seats in the Bihar assembly. This is the same number it had contested in 2015, but won only two in the face of the mahagathbandhan wave. The JD(U) is rumoured to have offered only 30-35 seats, in view of the LJP's past performance. Fishing in troubled waters, various RJD and Congress leaders have invited the LJP to switch alliances.
While LJP leader Chirag Paswan has lost no opportunity to needle Nitish Kumar and seems to enjoy a rapport with RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav, he has clarified that he is no hurry to quit the NDA. The 'kabhi na-kabhi haan' ploy is often employed to excellent effect in pre-electoral negotiations. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, Chirag had hinted that the NDA was passing through “trying times” after the precipitous departure of the TDP, giving rise to speculation that his party would quit the alliance.
While working with younger politicians like Tejaswi Yadav and Rahul Gandhi (who has evinced a sudden interest in Bihar) may seem like a more natural fit for Chirag, he is clearly keeping the TDP debacle in mind (after leaving the NDA, the TDP has suffered successive electoral wipeouts). Today the LJP, which quit the UPA in 2014, has six seats in the Lok Sabha, as against none for the RJD. The UPA is thus not an attractive option.
Electoral alliances are based on self-interest. Each partner weighs its short-term and long-term benefits. In the case of an electorally successful alliance, a partner will exit only if it poses an existential threat in the long-term, ie, will it end up losing its vote-base to the alliance partner? For the JD(U) and LJP, that question may well arise in the future, but for the moment, the NDA best serves their interests.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.