It is going to be interesting to watch how the Bharatiya Janata Party navigates its ship through the strait the Janata Dal (United) storm has spun it into in Bihar. Although the party’s national core committee has said it will win 35 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2024, it is hard to tell what monkey games the Bihar waters might play with the BJP ship, with Modi alone at the wheel and without Nitish by his side.
For, the last time Modi was alone at the wheel was in 2014. He won 22 seats for the party. It would be hard to imagine that going alone again, after two consecutive terms that should cause some popular fatigue with him, he would be able to get 35 seats for them.
Let us not forget that even the 22 seats of 2014 could not be credited to him alone. He had Ram Vilas Paswan, the leader of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), and Upendra Kushwaha, the leader of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), by his side. They richly added Dalit and Kushwaha elements to the alloy of his 22 trophies.
Today Kushwaha is not with him but with Nitish. His party has merged with the JD(U). The LJP has split after Ram Vilas Paswan’s death. One group is led by his brother Pashupati Paras, another by his son Chirag Paswan. If the BJP allies with one group in 2024, the other group will work against it. Thus the Dalit vote bank built by Ram Vilas would be splintered. Modi cannot hope to get the same number of Dalit votes he got in 2014. How can he win 35 seats without the Kushwaha vote and a much diminished Dalit vote?
On the other side, there would be a formidable alliance. Its pooled vote could be considerably higher than the BJP’s in several constituencies.
There were as many as 17 constituencies in which the combined vote of the parties currently allied in the mahagathbandhan—the JD(U), the RJD, the Congress, the CPI, the CPI(M), the CPI(ML-Liberation) and the Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAMS)—exceeded the BJP’s by more than a lakh in 2014. In five other constituencies the gap was between 60,000 and 1 lakh. In six other constituencies it was between 30,000 and 60,000.
Going by the 2014 results the BJP looks most vulnerable in East Bihar. In as many as 11 of the 12 constituencies in East Bihar (Supaul, Araria, Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnea, Madhepura, Begusarai, Khagaria, Bhagalpur, Banka and Jamui) the party or its ally was behind the mahagathbandhan by over a lakh votes. If we also include Munger, where it was behind by about 74,000 votes, the BJP or its ally would not figure at all in parliamentary representation from East Bihar.
In North Bihar, the mahagathbandhan was ahead of it by over 1 lakh votes in four constituencies (Samastipur, Ujiarpur, Maharajganj and Jhanjharpur), by 60,000 to 1 lakh votes in two (Darbhanga and Saran) and by 30,000-60,000 votes in four (Paschim Champaran, Vaishali, Siwan and Madhubani). They make up 10 of the 17 constituencies of North Bihar or two-thirds of it.
It is only in the one-thirds of parliamentary North Bihar comprising 7 seats where the BJP or its ally got, with Modi alone at the helm, more votes than a combination of the mahagathbandhan vote. In 3 of the 7 seats (Gopalganj, Hajipur and Muzaffarpur) it beat the combined opposition vote by over 1 lakh votes. In 3 other seats (Purvi Champaran, Sheohar and Sitamarhi) it beat them by over 50,000 votes. In one seat (Valmiki Nagar) it led by over 23,000 votes.
In South Bihar, the BJP lagged behind the combined opposition vote in 8 of the 11 constituencies, or in nearly three-fourths of the region. In Pataliputra and Nalanda it trailed by over 1 lakh, in Jehanabad and Aurangabad by 60,000 to 1 lakh, in Sasaram and Arrah by 30,000-60,000, in Nawada by 28,000 and in Gaya by 23,000.
Among the three constituencies in South Bihar where the BJP or its ally was ahead, its best performance was in Patna Sahib with a margin of 1.74 lakh. In Karakat, the lead was 29,000. In Buxar at 2,300 it was a hair’s breadth of a margin.
With a lead in no seat in East Bihar and with a lead only in 7 seats in North Bihar and 3 seats in South Bihar against the combined opposition — a total of 10 seats — in 2014, should the BJP be as optimistic as it sounds of trouncing them in 35 seats in 2024?
And we have not counted three factors. One, the voters will evaluate Modi’s performance at the end of two terms, and the evaluation, with serious issues affecting their lives such as inflation, joblessness and poor incomes, is not going to be all positive, causing erosion in support for him. Poverty is high in the state, and there are already reports of common people talking of distress from rising prices of essential commodities such as flour, pulses and cooking oil. The youth protests against the railway recruitment scandal and the Agnipath scheme were most widespread and violent in Bihar, among all states.
Two, the party, thanks to its cannibalising nature, is left with no ally in the state. The JD(U), which as an ally helped BJP candidates get much higher votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections than they had got in 2014, has left it. The Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) has left it because the cannibal swallowed three of its MLAs.
Three, the national opposition is exploring ways of putting up a united front against the BJP. If a united opposition finds a strong, visionary and credible leader, the Biharis who voted for Modi twice because they saw no alternative might get divided in their choice about the next prime minister. Although there are many odds against it, there is a serious probability of Nitish Kumar emerging as Modi’s alternative. If it does happen, Nitish Kumar would definitely be a very important leader of the united opposition front. That would surely add to the attraction of the average Bihar voter toward the opposition front and shift away from the BJP.
The writer is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar’ and ‘The Battle for Bihar’