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Bihar Elections: A New Stage for the Indian Politics?

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The Bihar Assembly elections could be defined as the contest between Nitish Kumar, who is said to have changed Bihar’s fortunes after being voted into power, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is now widely known for his pro-development agenda throughout the country.

The recently concluded elections will definitely set an entirely new stage for the Indian politics. The Mahagathandhan (or the Grand Alliance), comprising of Nitish Kumar led JD(U), Lalu Prasad Yadav led RJD and the Congress emerged victorious with overwhelming majority, defeating the ambitious BJP-led NDA Alliance. The Grand Alliance together won 178 seats, out of which 80 went to RJD, 71 to JD(U) and 27 to the Congress. The NDA alliance on the other hand could get a total of only 58 seats, out of which 53 went to the BJP, with others shared by the rest of the parties of the alliance.

No doubt the elections are a hard blow to the NDA alliance which was left with meager seats till the evening, while the forecast on the day began with showing the BJP and its allies ahead on majority of the seats, the day on which the results were announced. This is the second setback to the ruling NDA alliance after the Delhi Assembly elections concluded in January earlier this year. The Bihar Assembly results are being stated by some as the victory of tolerance against the rising atmosphere of intolerance and a setback to the BJP’s Hindutva Agenda, while a victory for the secular politics in a country with cultural and religious diversity.

The elections primarily centered around two aspects, the development agenda of the NDA government ruling at the centre, and the caste politics which is said to be deeply embedded in the very notion of “Bihar”. In this article, I seek to analyze the political scenario of Bihar, keeping in the mind the aforementioned two tenets whereby the former was posed as something new and essential for the Bihar, while the latter is inevitably present in its every structure.

The Political Picture

The political scene in Bihar had been through much tumult before the platform for the assembly elections in Bihar was set. It began with a breakup of the alliance between the BJP and JD(U), with JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar deciding to go for things his own way. Thereafter, Nitish decided to resign from the position of the Chief Minister and appointed in his place Jitan Ram Manjhi, which turned out to be a gross miscalculation, with huge setbacks to Kumar. Thereafter, what emerged as the Mahagathbandhan (or the Grand Alliance) looked like a remote possibility, as it was not convincing enough to see two archrivals Kumar and RJD Chief Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav joining hands, alongside the Congress. Yet, it was. Primarily, the three major parties sought to join hands in order to prevent the so called “Modi-wave” from sweeping the polls in Bihar and present themselves as a blockade to NDA’s road to victory and break its invincibility. BJP on the other hand decided to go for the polls with Ram Vilas Paswan led Lok Janshakti Party, Upendra Kushwah led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Manjhi led Hindustan Awam Morcha. At this juncture, it is crucial to note that the NDA alliance did not portray anyone as its prospective Chief Ministerial candidate (something which the UPA alliance chose to do in 2014 Lok Sabha elections), while the Grand Alliance clearly portrayed Kumar as its Chief Ministerial candidate. The NDA alliance chose to use Modi’s face in run up to the polls and its pro-development agenda.

Development Agenda versus Caste Politics

The Bihar elections were being summarized as a contest between the NDA’s development agenda and the caste politics, which up to a great extent proved to be true at the end. Before forming any point of view or assessing the situation, it is very important, firstly, to understand the caste equation in Bihar around which all the politics runs. The OBCs, EBCs, Dalits (including Mahadalits) and Muslims together form around 84% of the total population. The caste equation can be very well demonstrated by the fact that the Grand Alliance of the JD(U), RJD and Indian National Congress chose to give 16% representations to the upper castes (who represent 13% of the total population), 55% to the OBCs, 15% to the Dalits, and rest to the Muslim candidates. In contrast, the NDA parties allotted 65 seats to the upper castes, as compared to 39 seats allotted by the Grand Alliance. As per the seat sharing formula, in total, the BJP itself gave away around 42% of its share (160 seats) to the upper caste candidates, which form 13% of the Bihar’s population, while leaving distribution of seats to lower castes to other parties of the alliance such as Kushwahs and Yadavs. The BJP primarily tried to run its “pro-development” agenda for the Bihar Assembly elections as well, which is often quoted as the reason for its win in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. In my opinion however it is not correct to state that BJP ran for the polls entirely on the development agenda as there were good amount of seats allocated to other sections and were nicely propagated as well. For example, in order to allure the vote bank from the Kushwah community (which constitute 14% of the total population), the reins were given in the hands of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party Chairperson and his close aides, with hoardings celebrating the glory of Emperor Ashoka and highlighting the names of candidates fielded from the Kushwah community, to which the Emperor is said to have strong links. Therefore, there was good amount of propagation on the caste lines, though it may be stated that it failed to match the levels of the Grand Alliance. Before elections, in July, Kumar had announced 50% quota for backward communities in government contracts, besides providing caste certificates to the children from upper caste Hindus and Muslims whose annual income was below Rs. 1.5 Lakh. These political developments before the elections and huge caste appeal from Kumar and the RJD Supremo themselves can be said to have contributed to give the Grand Alliance an upper hand.    

Run up to the polls

The NDA alliance chose to use the image of Prime Minister Modi, as it did in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and Delhi Assembly elections earlier this year. Mr. Modi began his campaign by forthrightly stating that there was something wrong in Kumar’s DNA, something which Kumar later used to backfire on Modi himself by calling him “Baahari” (an outsider). Kumar linked Modi’s comment to Nitish being an insider, Bihar’s very own, that Bihar ran in his DNA and therefore this was an insult rendered to whole Bihar. Nitish since then tried to portray the contest as the one between a “Bihari” and “Bahaari”.

The Grand Alliance too had certain contradictions which were picked up by the BJP-led alliance, though not sufficient enough to get them majority. Kumar had been consistently taking jibe at Mr. Prasad by terming his tenure as the Chief Minister “jungle raaj” (describing Mr. Prasad’s tenure as Chief Minister as equivalent to chaos and bad governance), and the BJP-led alliance tried to use this in its campaigning by pointing out the futility of the Grand Alliance and the disastrous impacts the rule would create if the two would come together.

It is also being contended that the Hindutva Agenda played on BJP itself. The issue of cow slaughter was hyped up too much while allegedly little emphasis was laid on the development related agendas and it seemed as if such issues were brought up to divert the attention from the significant aspects of livelihood, et cetera. The party President even went to the extent of saying that there would be celebrations in Pakistan if NDA alliance loses the elections. At the end, as the results demonstrate, clearly, the agenda of the BJP failed to appeal to the masses in Bihar. On the other hand, the party faced consistent criticisms from the Grand Alliance leadership for not delivering on the promises of employment, development, et cetera even after being around for approximately one and a half year at the Centre, making a strong case for themselves and futility in bringing the NDA alliance to the power.

Further, the strategy of the BJP-led alliance to get votes on the basis of caste was shattered after the RSS Chief issued a statement demanding a relook at the current reservation policy. This was sufficient for the Mahagathbandhan leadership to thereafter project the BJP-led alliance as “anti-reservation” alliance; with ultimately leading to NDA incur huge costs via outcome. The frustration in the BJP leadership was quite visible through the statements issued by the party’s leadership in the aftermath of the results. Amit Shah’s leadership came in particular focus with the veterans such as L.K. Advani launching a direct attack on his leadership skills.

The Road Ahead

The Grand Alliance is being viewed with much cynicism, which I believe is a legitimate concern. It was hard to imagine Kumar and Mr. Prasad getting together, in the first place. When two foes chose to join hands, there was much expected ruckus, from inside the alliance, as well as outside it. RJD emerged as the party with maximum seats (80), followed by JD(U). Mr. Prasad’s disqualification under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 after his guilt was proved in the Fodder Scam led to settlement for the position of Chief Minister, and when Mr. Kumar will take oath on November 20th, majority of the members of his cabinet will be from the RJD. However, what remains as the major concern is that whether the Grand Alliance will be able to provide stability to Bihar, given the past rivalry between the two and the vested interest which might arise during the course of the functioning of the alliance. There are primarily too many burdens to be realized by this alliance. The first being on both the parties to provide stability and the second onus is on Mr. Kumar to provide for a bigger vision of Bihar, improve governance, deliver on the aspirations of Bihar’s people, which in turn shall pose as a competitor to the BJP’s development agenda and take Bihar to new levels. The 2014 Assembly elections seemed to have provided an emergence to the “development” politics when the BJP-led alliance won 13 out of 24 seats. However, the Bihar assembly elections can be said to have revived the Mandal politics again in the State.  

The results will also lead the BJP to reconsider its tactics and introspection into its policies, and to which policy does it want to stick with. BJP needs to look at the lines on which it chose to run for the Bihar Assembly elections, as this I believe would play a crucial role in deciding the future course of the party. It was surprising to see that despite an alliance with Paswan and Manjhi it could not get a majority of the Dalit votes. This is however the decision of the people of Bihar, who have by and large proved almost all the speculations wrong. Yet, it is to be kept in mind that what would have been the situation and future prospects for Bihar and its people, had the NDA alliance been voted into the power.

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