An epic battle is underway in the proverbial badlands of Bihar, where many political lives swing between irrelevance and renewal. Even as cracks appear in the artificial alliance of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, the BJP wants more than a victory. It is fighting for a mandate worthy of India’s most popular politician and its unsurpassed campaigner. Narendra Modi’s next phase of modernisation will begin from the backwardness of Bihar
On a warm Tuesday in the middle of September, a few anxious representatives of India Inc, worried about the hurdles slowing the nation’s economic reforms process, called on Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress, at his 12 Tughlak Lane residence in the Capital. Among the things worrying them was the inability of political parties to agree on an implementation deadline for the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Gandhi, according to one member of the group that met the leader, plainly indicated that it was not the proposed tax itself that bothered him and his party, but the regime in power at the Centre. The main opposition party, not too long ago the prime mover of GST, had proven a significant barrier in the passage of the bill designed to give reforms their much-needed momentum in aid of growth.
So determined had the Congress been to thwart the Narendra Modi-led Government in Parliament on the tax that, in early September, a vexed Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to announce the jettisoning of a proposed special session of Parliament to get quick endorsement for the bill. While it had been okayed by the Lok Sabha, the bill had not found adequate support in the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling NDA needs majority support to press forth its agenda. Any large state that the BJP wins will bolster its numbers here.
That calculation could not have escaped Prime Minister Modi when he announced a whopping package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore for Bihar at his Arrah rally, the second in that state in the run-up to its Assembly polls, scheduled this October and November. Chalking up a convincing victory in what was once Pataliputra, modern- day Patna, is crucial for his government. For the first time since the May 2014 General Election, India Inc and investors at large are watching the electoral fray with fingers crossed. In their reading, an NDA victory with a significant margin in the state would be a big positive for the ruling coalition’s reform agenda in Delhi.
According to Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, the upcoming polls are “the mother of all elections”. In that, he has hit the nail hard on its head. An average performance or a downslide in the NDA’s voteshare from the last state election is likely to be read as a negative signal for the Modi Government’s reforms agenda at the Centre. Indeed, the BJP is aware that it’s imperative it puts up not just an average but a spectacular win to consolidate power politically and its reputation as a custodian of the economy’s best interests.
Since May 2014, this is perhaps the first time that any election in India has so many keen watchers in foreign missions, including those of the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, China, Australia and Singapore. Most of these nations either have high financial stakes in India or view India as a viable investment destination for the future (Modi had aggressively pitched India as one on visits to many of these countries), especially against the backdrop of China’s economic slowdown and Brazil’s downturn, not to mention other global worries.
“The Bihar elections will be the real clincher for the Modi Government on how fast paced economic reforms and foreign investment in India will be over the next four years up to mid-2019. If the NDA sweeps the state, it will be clear that the defeat in the Delhi elections was a one- off. On the economic front, the sway that Modi holds on voters could translate into a more powerful economic reforms push and higher GDP growth for India, transforming it into a very attractive investment destination, generating hundreds of jobs and other opportunities,” maintains an analyst.
Market analysts are also trying to calculate if the BJP and its allies would be in a position to beef up their numbers in the Upper House of Parliament. The NDA lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha, where its reform bills have met stiff opposition from the Congress and parties friendly to it. In the 245-seat Upper House, the NDA has only 60 seats. After UP’s 21 and Maharashtra’s 12, Bihar would account for the third largest number of Rajya Sabha seats coming up for re-election over the next three years. As the BJP knows only too well, greater sway in Bihar would mean greater muscle for reforms.
At a recent closed-door interaction with the media in Delhi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s point person for election campaign, Prashant Kishor, acknowledged that unresolved friction issues persisted between long- time foes turned friends Lalu Prasad of the RJD and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U). Friction also persisted in relations between Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and Lalu Prasad, sparked off by the former’s initial reluctance to join an alliance that Lalu Prasad, still facing legal problems over the fodder scam, was part of. But since the Congress is a fringe player in Bihar—Bihar’s two strongmen, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, even refused to share a dais with Gandhi at Champaran recently—its influence does not count for much in resolving the closet acrimony between the JD-U and RJD leaders.
That friction, however, is something that the BJP is counting on to work in its favour at the hustings. Harping at election rallies on the “jungle raj” jibe flung at Lalu Prasad by Nitish Kumar in the past is a calculated move by BJP poll strategists. Video clips of Nitish-Lalu mutual potshots have been played for voters at several BJP rallies. “We had to shut shop before sunset. Bombs used to be hurled in board daylight,” Harinder Singh, a cab driver, recalls of earlier years at the start of his career in Patna. “Lalu’s men were menacing people,” he says, “They who wore white shirts, white trousers and white shoes. They could walk into any shop, grab anything and just walk out. No one dared oppose them.” Adds an automobile showroom manager who refuses to be named: “SUVs were raided for weddings in the Lalu Prasad family. There was little we could do to stop them.”
The undercurrent of animosity between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar is no small matter. In the seat sharing formula between the two, Nitish Kumar, desperate for the RJD’s help to defeat the onslaught by the BJP and Narendra Modi, had to give up 27 seats that his party won in the last Assembly polls. The JD-U had contested 141 seats in 2010. Worse, while Nitish Kumar’s development agenda-backing vote base is not proving as fungible as he’d like, Lalu Prasad has the firm support of Yadavs, who account for almost15 per cent of the state’s electorate, and a significant section of Muslims, who make up 16 per cent. How much of an uphill battle the grand alliance led by Nitish Kumar faces is clear from Patna to Gaya, through Jehanabad, Irki, Makhdumpur and other places around. The poll mood here appears to replicate the enthusiasm for the BJP that prevailed in last year’s Lok Sabha election. Despite an entire decade as Chief Minister and high approval ratings on the development count, Nitish Kumar’s votebank—especially MBCs or Most Backward Classes—seems nervous about the prospect of another phase of Yadav dominance and autocracy, as experienced when Lalu Prasad last ruled Patna.
Finding himself in a piquant situation, Nitish Kumar has had to recalibrate his poll rhetoric. The focus of efforts for his poll managers and strategists has been to try and reconcile the JD-U’s development plank with the lack of it during the latter years of Lalu Prasad’s 15-year reign in Bihar. Says Gonu Singh of Irki, “This is political suicide for Nitish Kumar. He would have been better off had he gone with parties other than the RJD.” That is also clear in the sentiments voiced by younger voters in the state. Says Munna Kumar Yadav, 21, “I am preparing for competitive exams in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar. For me, rapid economic development and employment opportunities in Bihar are top priority, not other considerations. I see a sea change in the mindset of youth, boys and girls my age.” Even he agrees, though, that older voters cannot so easily be drawn away from the caste factor. “The electoral behaviour of our elders in villages is still dictated by caste considerations, which means that economic development is selective.”
Unlike in Delhi, the Congress’ poor standing in Bihar would mean that its votes against it would not accrue naturally to the BJP. This year would be the first time in a decade that the BJP is contesting polls as a challenger to the incumbent in Patna. It would also be the first time that Nitish Kumar would be fighting a battle without the BJP for support. In May 2014, it worked badly for him and his party. The JD-U lost 18 of its last-won constituencies, winning only two Lok Sabha seats—a disaster for it. In contrast, fuelled by Narendra Modi’s oratory, the BJP raked in a whopping 22 seats, gaining 10 additional constituencies. Between them, Bihar and next-door UP contributed a significant 100 odd seats to the NDA tally in 2014, pushing up the alliance’s Lok Sabha seat count to 336. In 2010, the JD-U, RJD and Congress had contested as rivals in the state elections.
Nitish Kumar’s JD-U, despite his slogan of ‘economic development’, could not perform impressively in the legislative council elections either—Bihar has a bicameral legislature—despite an alliance already in place with Lalu Prasad’s RJD. “The shadow of ‘jungle raj’ has reached way beyond the achievements of economic development,” acknowledges a party MLC.
Dubbing Nitish Kumar a “tragic figure”, psephologist and social scientist turned politician Yogendra Yadav was quoted as saying in a recent interview: “No matter who forms the government, BJP will emerge as the pre-eminent political force in Bihar. This is a major shift from what Bihar used to be. Remember, BJP used to be the No 3 or No 4 party in Bihar. We cannot be sure of the outcome— that’s a guessing game. But the manner in which the game is being played is BJP versus the rest, all major political formations. What this does is, it makes the BJP the No 1 political force in Bihar.”
According to Yadav, the emerging dominance of the BJP and its allies, propped up significantly by the state’s upper castes and supported by Dalits and EBCs, would replicate the caste coalition of the Congress in earlier years and could be detrimental to the cause of social justice. “The caste coalition of the BJP is 80 per cent upper caste, supported by Dalits and lower OBCs. So the Dalits and lower OBCs provide the numbers and the dominant castes of yesteryear decide the direction; they’re in the driver’s seat. This is the kind of social coalition that the Congress had in the 1950s, but in Bihar it’s clearly a reversal. Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have made the BJP in Bihar what the Congress once was in the entire country.”
Yogendra Yadav’s forecast of a BJP juggernaut is beginning to sound more and more prescient with Nitish Kumar’s ‘development’ message failing to gain traction in Bihar. The Har Ghar Dastak exercise sent more shivers down the spines of JD-U leaders in Patna than reassured them. The questionnaire posed four simple questions to respondents and was expected to reinforce the sentiment that the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar alliance against Narendra Modi, despite its inherent contradictions, was good news for Bihar’s economic development and for the alliance at the hustings. But it didn’t. While 60-80 per cent of the respondents agreed that Bihar had seen remarkable development under Nitish Kumar’s leadership, they were still undecided about whether they wanted him as Chief Minister again. Of the respondents who were undecided on another term for him, many were young and female voters across caste lines although they were also among those most impressed by the state’s development over the past decade. These are voter groups that Nitish Kumar was counting on as being caste neutral and in his favour. But then, the contradictions of the Lalu-Nitish alliance could confound any such expectations.
Yogendra Yadav contends that what began as a major change of Bihar’s feudal mindset “got stuck because social justice did not translate into (equitable and homogenous) developmental gains”. Lalu Prasad’s first government brought significant social changes, but his second and third regimes were “a curse on Bihar”. In his view, caste politics, as it later emerged under Lalu Prasad and persisted for a decade plus, eventually came to yield a new form of exclusivity, a club of castes that benefitted from their caste moorings and affiliation with the ruling Yadav regime. Pointing to the seeming ineffectiveness of Bihar’s development message put out by the Nitish Kumar regime that followed, the social scientist and psephologist maintains: “Unless the politics of social justice can be combined with something for ordinary people on a day to day basis, we have the danger of the gains of social justice being rolled back, without corresponding gains in the governance being offered.”
Other political observers also note that Nitish Kumar’s development agenda could be subsumed electorally by the failures that attended Lalu Prasad’s last stint in power: poor governance and Yadav domination of the socio-political arena. Lalu Prasad’s recent pronouncements on Mandal II have not helped Nitish Kumar’s political goals, they contend. They hold that the BJP’s poll strategy, an astute mix of caste arithmetic and the carrot of development as represented by the Rs 1.25-lakh- crore package for Bihar, can forge a poll-winning social coalition, not unlike the one that existed before Lalu Prasad’s emergence as a force in the state.
Lalu Prasad, who for years held the religious minorities of Bihar hostage by playing on their insecurities and keeping up a hollow chant of ‘secularism’, still banks on the monolithic backing of Muslims. But social scientists point out that this electoral tack has virtually been exposed in Bihar, a state known for voters who are very politically sensitive. Whether the ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) factor will work once again to obtain the full backing of minorities for the Grand Alliance is still iffy. It is unclear, too, whether Lalu Prasad’s loyal Yadav votebank will continue to stick with him or would swing partially towards the BJP alliance, as the latter fervently hopes. The BJP, notably, has allotted as many as 22 seats to Yadav candidates for the Assembly polls.
Crucially, the BJP is also counting on the backing of MBCs, who account for a quarter of the state’s electorate. In a situation such as Bihar’s, where political divisions are sharply based on caste, their votes are capable of giving one side a big boost at the hustings. In recognition of this, Kumar gave two MBC groups, Sahni and Nonia, SC/ST category status at a cabinet meeting just before the poll dates were announced by the Election Commission. State BJP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi reacted sharply, and shot back: “The state can only suggest. The Centre has to approve formally.”
Pro-BJP leanings are in evidence among non-Yadav OBCs too as the polls draw closer. Outside Gaya, says Shiv Kumar, a Sao, “One thing is clear. Non-Yadav OBCs and EBCs will not vote for leaders that Yadavs do.” Lohars, Kumhars, Chadravanshis, Hajams and Mallahs, he asserts, will not let Lalu Prasad gain power in the state again. “We experienced the aggression of Yadavs earlier and none of us has forgotten it,” he says. Aware of this strengthening sentiment, especially among MBCs and non-Yadav OBCs, and the widening cracks in the development plank of the JD-U, the BJP’s poll strategists are counting on this as a significant window of opportunity to make deep inroads into the electoral landscape of Bihar. A breakthrough in the country’s eastern region would be good for the party’s morale overall, and it would also help the Centre’s reforms agenda.
The Rs 1.25-lakh-crore economic package announced by Narendra Modi for the poverty-ridden state appears to have overshadowed Nitish Kumar’s ‘Special Status’ chorus for Bihar. This, BJP strategists hope, will not only take the election away from the JD-U and RJD, it will signal their terminal decline as forces to reckon with.
If the BJP’s battle strategy works, as many analysts and observers expect, it will not only open the portals of a politically crucial eastern state for the BJP, it could also decimate the hurdles posed to the Modi Government’s economic triumphs.
The new king of Indraprastha would then begin his next phase of modernisation from the shambles of Pataliputra.