Decoding the multiple possibilities Bihar offers in polls 2020
The results of the upcoming Bihar polls depend on whether Nitish Kumar’s larger caste coalitions hold or cave in to the RJD, whether the Congress and the left are able to come anywhere close to their ally RJD on their seats, and the extent to which the LJP can damage the JD (U). Individually, the BJP and RJD seem to be the engines of the NDA and Mahagathbandhan, respectively.
Various factors – ranging from signs of political realignments to the migrant crisis to, indeed, ground reporting and election campaigning having changed due to the pandemic – have made calling the Bihar election difficult for most analysts.
Bihar, like Uttar Pradesh, was always a more difficult election to call compared to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Haryana, as I discovered many times on the field.
So, the better option this time around is not to try and call the election but to join the bits and pieces as regards the analytical difficulties posed by Bihar polls 2020.
The key players
The key players in Bihar are the BJP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) if we disaggregate the National Democratic Alliance and the Mahagathbandhan, or the grand alliance, which isn’t as grand as it was back in 2015.
The BJP has two strengths: the unflinching support of the upper castes and, as a ground report of Ajoy Ashirwad in The Wire suggests, the undiminished popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi among the forward and backward caste Hindu communities. The latter is not central to a state election – it impacts the Lok Sabha polls more – but it offers the BJP a shield against the anti-incumbency that ally JD (U), and more specifically Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, has to grapple with.
Yet another strength of the BJP is not central to this election but part of a wider pattern. Unlike Tamil Nadu – where Dravidian ideology became hegemonic – upper-caste hegemony has stayed the norm in north India despite the rise – and now the saturation and perhaps decline – of Mandal politics centred around the Other Backward Classes. This hegemony protects the BJP from widespread criticism, despite a faltering economy and complaints of law and order deterioration in states like Uttar Pradesh.
Significantly, while Lalu Prasad’s RJD remains some kind of a popular synonym for misrule – with a now-inactive Prasad having been ridiculed in the national media over decades – Adityanath gleefully walks away with the tag of ‘the best CM’ in media surveys despite high-profile cases of rape and murder and, worse, the protection that the government was seen to offer to the accused.
This is upper caste hegemony in north and central India, in a nutshell. The party they support can lose power – but not its claim – to being a better party. Facts on the ground do not matter. Nor do crime or charges of corruption or the state of the economy.
So, in Bihar, once the JD (U) in alliance with the BJP and with Muslim support broke the meta-narrative of Yadav-led backward politics that had seen Lalu Prasad stay in power for 15 years, the RJD period – which had seen a spurt in crime -- became a bad name. The same has not happened to the BJP anywhere and under any other circumstance in north India. Not even after Hathras, despite the unease of liberals, whose opinions are influential in some niche media outlets, but do not affect the hegemonic social narrative.
The result is that while Tejashwi Yadav is attracting huge crowds, he has to be seen as a new acceptable face rather than claim the legacy of his father, who once dominated Bihar politics but could never become a hegemonic figure. Akhilesh Yadav had to do the same a few years back in UP, choosing to subtly distance himself from his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and actively sideline his uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav.
By contrast, the likes of Giriraj Singh in Bihar have never faced a similar problem. Singh, for all his polarizing statements, earned no local notoriety and trounced Kanhaiya Kumar -- who, too, was attracting crowds – with a thumping margin in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The Nitish years
There is little doubt that most people said that the roads did improve in Bihar during Nitish Kumar’s first term between 2005 and 2010. However, the binary -- Sushasan Babu Nitish Kumar-vs-Lalu Prasad’s jungle Raj -- that saw Kumar as the CM of perhaps India’s most backward state earning wholesome praise for years was constructed around the fact that he was a “friendly OBC leader” and not the “brash OBC leader” Prasad typified for the upper castes, who make up about 15 per cent of Bihar’s population.
While material backwardness has been a problem in Bihar in the days of Prasad as well as Kumar, economist Santosh Kumar, who teaches at Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University, has shown that the share of Bihar’s GSDP in India’s GDP actually declined from 2.93 per cent, between 1994-95 and 2004-05, to 2.68 per cent, between 1995-96 and 2016-17, at constant prices. In other words, there hasn’t been the kind of turnaround in Bihar under Kumar that many expected.
Despite coming from the numerically insignificant Kurmi caste, Nitish Kumar survived for 15 years, also taking U-turns in between. His term planted the seeds for the unravelling of the backward discourse, as the dominance of the numerically strong Yadavs in the name of social justice had already begun to make many smaller OBC castes wonder whether this discourse went beyond temporary, symbolic, pride and Yadav dominance.
Kumar, in the avatar of the development man in Bihar, carved out a vote base among the extremely backward castes. He also sought to carve out a Mahadalit constituency from Scheduled Castes other than the Dusadhs, Ram Vilas Paswan’s caste. Later, he was forced to add Dusadhs, too, to the list, as they became sullen.
Nitish Kumar’s challenges
Kumar faces some key challenges this time. Estimates put the number of displaced migrants returning to Bihar during the pandemic at up to 30 lakh. If they feel bitter with Kumar or the BJP and decide to vote against the NDA, a shift in votes cast by 30 lakh families can drastically change the equation.
Will this change, if it does come about, also impact Kumar’s stronghold among EBCs and Mahadalits? This is what will finally decide the fate of the Bihar elections, as these aren’t vocal sections and their votes lead to silent swings in Bihar.
Tejashwi perhaps tried to subtly reach out to them when he said that it was the RJD that made the poor find their voices in a state where Babu Sahibs – a local term for Rajputs in Bihar – were powerful. Later, he clarified that he meant the Babu culture, but the message may have been interpreted by the upper castes – the non-Dusadh Dalits and the EBCs – in their own ways.
Another challenge Kumar faces is the LJP fielding candidates against the JD (U) and not the BJP. Many of these candidates are from the upper castes. If the upper castes split – and of course Dusadhs vote for the candidates – the JD (U)’s tally may fall below the BJP.
This, however, makes the situation more complex. For it is only the election results that will now tell us what happens. If the RJD trounces the JD (U) on many of these seats, its tally will go up. However, the Congress and the left are contesting 99 seats out of 243 in the grand alliance, and many of these will be walkovers for the NDA, particularly the BJP.
Kumar must be a worried man, but the BJP and RJD are likely to do well, individually speaking.
Who gets the last-minute advantage will decide who forms a government. And if the BJP does exceptionally well on its seats and the LJP just well enough for the BJP to not require the JD (U), Kumar will indeed be a very worried man.
Header image: Voters queue up to cast their ballots for Bihar state assembly elections at a polling station in Masaurhi on October 28, 2020. (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)