Electoral politics in Bihar provides a much-needed dose of oxygen for a critical patient on ventilator. For the last 12 months, Bihar has lurched from one disaster to another: from migration to floods, from economic distress to natural calamity; few other states have suffered a string of catastrophes in COVID times quite like the land of Pataliputra. Not surprisingly, a recent opinion poll showed unemployment to be a major issue this time: the state’s youth unemployment figures are amongst the highest in the country.
That is why the assembly elections should come as a relief after months of a troubled lockdown period. In a state whose people love their politics, a tightly-fought election is to Patna a bit like what a rising Sensex is to Mumbai: it creates a real buzz in the air. And yet, some of the intensity and electricity of a typical Bihar election is missing this time. You can blame it on COVID protocols but more likely it is because Bihar 2020 marks the end of an era of highly surcharged politics that began in 1990.
Rewind to 1990. That was the year that saw a tectonic change in Bihar politics. It was the year when Lalu Prasad Yadav became chief minister for the first time. Lalu Prasad was not just another magnetic mass leader, he became a symbol of a backward caste empowerment who transformed all previous political equations in the state. When Lalu Prasad arrested L K Advani in October 1990 while the BJP leader’s rathyatra was wending its way through the state, it gave his politics another dimension: Mandal was pitted against ‘Kamandal’. The Muslims saw Lalu Prasad as their saviour and the MY (Muslim-Yadav) alliance was cemented. Thirty years later, Lalu Prasad is in jail, his children are struggling to match their father’s charisma, while the BJP has skillfully co-opted the Mandal forces without compromising on the core Hindutva brand in a manner that places the party in pole position to become Bihar’s party number one for the first time.
Bihar, in a sense, was the last Hindi heartland bastion left to conquer for the saffron surge. In every other state in the region, the BJP has had its chief minister and emerged as a principal player. In Bihar, the party played second fiddle to the rising Mandalite assertion for the longest time. Even as recently as the February 2005 elections, the BJP vote was just 10.97 per cent, barely squeaking into double digits. By 2015, the party’s vote share had more than doubled to 24.42 per cent and in the 2019 general elections, the NDA alliance won a remarkable 39 out of 40 seats and led in 223 of the 243 assembly segments. Mostly through this period, the BJP’s chosen ‘face’ has not been one of their own but instead has been Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, a more sober, less pugilistic product of the original Mandal revolution.
All that could change in 2020. While the BJP leadership has re-emphasised that Nitish Kumar is their chief ministerial candidate, the shift in the balance of power is obvious. In 2010, for example, when the BJP-JD (U) alliance swept the polls, Nitish Kumar’s image as a ‘sushashan babu’ who was promising to rid the state of Lalu Prasad’s ‘jungle raj’ was a key calling card. Now, a decade later, Nitish Kumar’s claim to be a no-nonsense administrator has taken a hit as has his credibility as a ‘secular’ leader. Far too many political U-turns and a growing disconnect with the masses have left Nitish Kumar a vulnerable and slightly forlorn figure. Where once he could challenge Narendra Modi’s credentials to lead the country, today it is larger-than-life portraits of Modi that dot the Bihar skyline: this is an election, which is being fought under the overarching persona of Brand Modi. The rules of the BJP-JD (U) engagement are clear: Nitish is a regional chieftain, Modi is the Big Boss.
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ (CSDS) post-poll survey in 2019 suggested that more than a fourth of those who voted for the BJP did so only because of Modi’s presence. As many as 64 per cent of Bihar’s voters wanted Modi as their prime minister. In Bihar, Modi is seen to combine a uniquely ‘Moditva’ identity: vikaspurush, Hindutva icon and also significantly, an OBC lineage. Where state leaders in Bihar remain trapped in fairly rigid caste identities, Modi has been able to build a cross caste, cross caste appeal that enables the BJP to punch above its weight.
And yet, the chemistry of Modi has its limits when confronted with the arithmetic of caste in a state election. In 2015, when Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and the Congress forged a maha-gatbandhan, they easily swept to power. Which is why the BJP even now needs a much-diminished Nitish by its side and the Prime Minister has no option but to hold joint rallies with his one-time prime adversary. This is also why the BJP has reached out even to smaller parties like the Vikassheel Insaan Party of Mukesh Sahani, a self-styled leader of the influential Mallah community. Like in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s social engineering revolves around aligning with the non-Yadav backward castes and building a political coalition that goes beyond its traditional upper caste moorings.
In a sense, the BJP is banking on a ‘Moditva-plus’ arrangement to offset a creeping anti-incumbency that has built up against the Nitish regime after fifteen years in power, a perceptible dissatisfaction if not outright anger. The BJP wants to keep Nitish Kumar within the broader NDA umbrella and at the same time wants to distance the party from his government. In the process, the BJP is engaged in a dangerous tactical game of political brinkmanship: allow a central government ally like Chirag Paswan to chip away at Nitish Kumar’s image of being an efficient administrator by publicly attacking him, while at the same time ensure that a weakened chief minister has no option but to remain dependent on BJP support. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that in the next five years, the BJP is well placed to eventually take over the Bihar government and break another barrier: have its own chief minister in India’s third most populous state.
Post-script: Super overs have been the flavour of this season’s Indian Premier League. In the Bihar Political League too, there is an outside chance that we could have a post-poll numbers game play out as it did so dramatically in Maharashtra last year. The question is: would a pushed-to-the-wall Nitish break away from the BJP like an Uddhav Thackeray did and can an ageing Lalu Prasad play a Sharad Pawar-like role as senior statesman? Unlikely for now, but in Bihar’s political ‘shatranj’, who checkmates whom is never quite certain!