Bihar poll: Tough going for Brand Nitish

In about a fortnight’s time, Bihar will go to polls. The election will primarily see a contest between two political alliances: the Janata Dal (United)-led NDA and the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led UPA. The third front led by the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RSLP) is a minor player. But the twist to the 2020 election is that while the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and JD(U) are part of the NDA at the Centre, the LJP has pulled out of the NDA in Bihar and will field candidates against Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), but not against the BJP. It was a decision taken by Chirag Paswan, which was backed by his father Ram Vilas Paswan who passed away last Thursday.

The BJP is contesting the election under Nitish Kumar’s leadership, but at the same time, it is fine with the LJP’s decision to field candidates against its alliance partner JD(U). Chirag Paswan has been gunning for Nitish Kumar ever since he assumed the mantle of LJP president in 2019. He has been consistently critical of the chief minister and has chipped away at his image. There are unconfirmed reports that the LJP enjoys BJP’s tacit support in its decision to go solo and make a dent in JD(U)’s performance.
This makes the Bihar election an interesting and unusual contest: a fight between two alliances and also a contest between two of the three NDA partners.

Thus, from what initially looked like, as opinion polls suggested, a formidable ruling alliance comprising the JD(U), the BJP and the LJP, pitted against a weakened RJD-Congress opposition, the prospects of two of the three NDA partners fighting each other on all seats makes for a more even contest that could weaken Nitish Kumar, with the post-poll picture becoming decisive for government formation.

Though the BJP has asserted that Nitish Kumar is the NDA’s chief ministerial face and reiterated its confidence in his leadership, tensions and distrust between the two allies are reportedly bubbling beneath the deceptive camaraderie. Although the BJP has made it clear to its leaders that dissent would not be tolerated, several BJP ticket-seekers are reportedly joining the LJP and are likely to be fielded against JD(U) candidates.

Even though Nitish Kumar seems happy with the BJP’s support and assertion of confidence in his leadership, there are reports of distrust and tension between JD(U) and BJP workers at the ground level. JD(U) leaders suspect that the BJP has a back-channel understanding with the LJP to weaken Nitish Kumar and his party. Paswan’s death, 20 days before the first phase of Bihar election, which is likely to change the poll dynamics, has added one more layer of uncertainty to the election and for Nitish Kumar. The LJP is likely to benefit from the emotive votes, not just among Dalits but also from other castes.

Though considered a novice, analysts believe that Chirag might be able to galvanise support and position himself strongly in the election and after. He has kept his options open by going it alone: if his party performs well in the election, he will have a bargaining power with the NDA or he might even go with the UPA. It will be interesting to see how the BJP will treat Chirag in his father’s absence, given that he has walked out of the NDA and is critical of Nitish Kumar.

Bihar may be a backward state that is short on several economic and social indicators: per capita income, development, health, education, industries and infrastructure. But one thing it is not short on is caste politics and personalities who champion it in the disguise of economic growth, development and social justice. Nitish Kumar is the prime example; Lalu Prasad Yadav is another and Paswan is the third.

The protests against the Mandal Commission recommendations for reservation in government jobs to certain castes in 1990 and the Ram Mandir movement around the same time had a pronounced effect on the politics of Hindi heartland, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It not only polarised political and public opinion but had a disruptive impact on electoral politics. The nature of electoral politics and political representation in Bihar witnessed major changes in the post-Mandal period, with the rise of regional parties and regional leaders who had a reasonable support base.

While the post-Mandal period in Bihar began as a contest between the Congress and the Janata Dal, which had newly emerged on the national stage as an alternative to Congress in the 1990s, it also marked the beginning of the decline of the Congress with successive elections in the state. As subsequent elections became an electoral battle between the two fragments of the Janata Dal – the RJD and the JD(U) – the Congress and the BJP played second fiddle as alliance partners to the two dominant regional parties.

The LJP has always tried to punch above its weight and has also been ‘kingmaker’ once. That was in 2005, when Paswan had parted ways with his ally Lalu Yadav of the RJD, pulled out of the UPA and refused to extend his support to any of the bigger parties with sizable number of seats in the hung assembly. It brought an end to the 15-year RJD rule, paving the way for Nitish Kumar to become the chief minister of Bihar for the first time. Since then, Nitish has had an uninterrupted 15-year run as chief minister and has been in and out of the UPA and NDA to remain in power.

But the 2020 election is different from the earlier three Bihar polls. Nitish has never won an election on his own; all his victories have been in alliance with the BJP or the RJD. He has a small voter base; the Kurmis, who comprise about six per cent of Bihar’s population. But he has enjoyed greater power over Bihar politics because of his brand, which is bigger than his core support base. As the chief ministerial face, he has delivered numbers for his alliance partners in the past elections. This is one reason why the BJP is more than willing to play second fiddle to him. It is why Lalu Yadav and Congress allied with him in 2015.

But things have changed now. Not only is he facing strong anti-incumbency, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and migrant workers crisis are also big negatives for him. Since voters are fatigued by Nitish Kumar, the major plus for him is his alliance with the BJP, which is likely to benefit from the goodwill for Modi. Nitish is hoping that the goodwill for the Prime Minister will help JD(U).

Despite the BJP’s reiteration that Nitish Kumar will be the chief minister even if the JD(U) were to win fewer seats than the BJP, it may not actually play out in reality if Chirag succeeds in denting the JD(U)’s numbers and the BJP ends up with a decisively larger seat tally than the JD(U). However, analysts believe that it is quite possible that the rift in NDA could also benefit the Opposition, as the contest between the LJP and the JD(U) could work to the advantage of the RJD-Congress alliance. With Brand Nitish Kumar facing a tough challenge, the Bihar election looks tantalisingly poised to throw up a surprise.

The writer is an independent, senior journalist in Mumbai.

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