A man for all seasons

2 months ago 14

On August 28, Jitan Ram Manjhi, chief of the Hindustani Awam Morcha or HAM (Secular), visited Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at his residence. It was a signal that the self-appointed champion of the Maha­dalits (the most marginalised among the Scheduled Castes) had returned to his erstwhile mentor’s camp in the run-up to the Bihar assembly election.

The move was only to be expected after Manjhi formally quit the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Grand Alliance on August 20. The former chief minister (May 2014-February 2015) has had stints in both the NDA and Grand Alliance camps, with his party polling around 2.3 per cent of the vote in the 2015 assembly election and the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Bihar is set for a high-stakes election next month. In 2015, Nitish was in alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and the Congress when they put a stop to the runaway winn­ing streak of the Modi-Shah-led BJP here. Nitish broke away in July 2017 with his Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), purportedly because fresh corruption cases were filed against Lalu and his son Tejashwi Yadav, and joined the NDA. In 2019, the BJP-JD(U), along with ally Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), won 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. Nitish is now eyeing a fourth term as chief minister.

Aaya Ram Gaya Ram?

As many as 11 RJD MLAs and five MLCs, including those from the Muslim and Yadav communities, the vote banks seen as RJD’s stronghold, have switched allegiance to the JD(U) in the past two months. The RJD, on the other hand, has managed to wean away senior leader Shyam Rajak; he joined a day after his dismissal as the industries minister and expulsion from the JD(U). However, in the battle of perceptions, at least where politicians are concerned, Nitish’s JD(U) seems to have the upper hand.

The 69-year-old leader has remained the fulcrum of Bihar politics since his party stopped Lalu Prasad’s 15-year reign in the February 2005 assembly poll. From then on, barring the 2014 Lok Sabha election result, Nitish has always been part of the winning side in Bihar. And if he still remains the frontrunner even after 5,000 days as chief minister, it’s because of the goodwill he has generated apart from the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. As a senior BJP leader explains it, “The NDA benefits from his presence in Bihar; the opposition’s candidate Tejaswi Yadav is no match for him.”

The NDA camp is also hyping comparisons of 15 years of Nitish’s rule versus 15 years of Lalu’s “misrule” as an election theme. “Nitishji has delivered a clean and responsive government. From delivering electricity to every home in the state to connecting villages with roads, from women’s reservation in panchayats and government services to meeting the Covid challenge (Bihar’s recovery rate is 10 per cent higher than the national average), the chief minister has delivered,” claims JD(U) spokesman Rajeev Ranjan Prasad.

Prof. Raghunandan Sharma, formerly of Patna University, has a slightly different take. “Opp­onents have attacked the Bihar government for the inadequate response to the pandemic and the migrant crisis, and there is erosion in the government’s goodwilldue due to the feckless lower bureaucracy, but even so, Nitish remains the most viable option for Bihar,” he says. The CM himself has been exhorting partymen to “convey the government’s achievements to the electorate; how we have spent Rs 8,538 crore to help vulnerable residents during the lockdown...”.

The Ground Scenario

Bihar’s political landscape is dominated by three major players, Nitish’s JD(U), Sushil Kumar Modi’s BJP and Lalu Prasad’s RJD. If there is one conclusive fact that has come out of the last six elections, it is that when two of these three sides join hands, the third bites the dust.

But there is more to it this time. With the pandemic still lurking, voters may not come out in the numbers that the parties would like. This provides an element of uncertainty, but the ruling combine seems confident. A senior BJP leader says the ground-level feedback shows that the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY), distribution of free rations to the poor till the end of November, has generated trem­endous goodwill. The migrants’ displeasure at the government’s efforts has also dissipated with the MNREGA schemes and the distribution of ration cards to over two million new users. The new card-holders will be eligible for PM-GKAY benefits. “The government has also increased Covid testing to over 100,000 a day, which should minimise any electoral backlash because of the pandemic,” surmises the BJP leader.

The NDA alliance also seems much steadier. Both Amit Shah, the BJP’s chief election strategist, and party president J.P. Nadda have openly backed Nitish as their captain in Bihar. Though LJP president Chirag Paswan has been grumbling against the JD(U), a top BJP leader dismisses it as posturing for more seats. “Finally, Chirag will come onboard,” he says.

Like the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the November ass­embly poll will also be a direct contest between the two alliances. While the NDA camp may have the additional backing of Manjhi’s HAM(S), there are chances that the grand alliance may have the CPI and CPI(M) backing them. In the 2015 assembly poll, the Left parties had bagged almost 2 per cent of the vote in the state. So, theoretically, they may compensate the alliance for the loss of Manjhi. But the last time around, the Left had fielded candidates in around 150 seats; Tejaswi will be hard-pressed to spare even 50 for them this time.

The RJD-led Grand Alliance will also have the Congress, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata party (RLSP) and Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) apart from possible support from the CPI(M-L) in some seats.

As things stand, the NDA formation looks much stronger, at least on paper. In last year’s Lok Sabha election, the alliance bagged 54.3 per cent of the vote to the grand alliance’s 31.2 per cent. A tumultuous year has passed since then, and voter priorities will differ in a state election. Even so, Tejaswi, Lalu’s chosen heir, has plenty of ground to cover to present himself as a viable candidate. “If we go by the 2019 results, the NDA has leads in 225 of the 243 assembly seats. Even in terms of votes, the difference is about 9.2 million in favour of the NDA. Even if we lose 100 of these seats, which is extremely unlikely, the NDA will still form the next government in Bihar,” says a senior BJP leader.

If Nitish is not expecting much of a challenge, it is not just because the JD(U)-BJP combination is a potent force in Bihar. It’s also because the RJD, like the BJP, is a polarising presence here. The party is yoked to its not-so-shining history, which reminds many of an era of lawlessness. Despite his best efforts, current party chief Tejaswi has not been able to carve a new image for himself or the party.

The caste dynamics

Though Bihar still remains a “caste country” where votes usually go in favour of community candidates, the RJD, despite having a strong support base among two of the most populated social groups, Muslims (16 per cent) and Yadavs (14 per cent), has failed electorally because it has little or no support among the remaining caste groups.

A senior JD(U) leader analyses the “caste matrix”. Apart from Yadavs and Muslims, the bedrock of the grand alliance support base, there are other groups of dominant castes in Bihar, Ravidas (5.7 per cent), Paswan (5.5 per cent), Rajput (5.5 per cent), Koeree (5.2 per cent), Brahmin 5.2 (per cent), Bhumihar (4.5 per cent) and Kurmi (4.2 per cent), to name a few—which are “extremely unlikely to go with the RJD”. The EBCs (extremely backward classes), with 113 castes notified, constitute about 30 per cent of the electorate. Around 25 of the notified EBCs are from the Muslim community, and they are entitled to the same benefits and schemes as their Hindu counterparts. These groups have been voting for Nitish because apart from his development narrative, he has also adopted a smart mix of development with targeted social welfare schemes for marginalised groups. “It has helped chip away at Lalu Prasad’s Muslim-Yadav-Dalit vote base as well as the BJP’s urban-middle-class and upper-caste constituency,” says the JD(U) leader.

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