As the countdown begins for India’s general elections starting in April, political discussion often returns to one question: can the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) replicate its 2014 performance in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand?

In the last parliamentary elections, the NDA, facing fragmented opposition, ruled supreme in the three states, winning 73 of the 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh (UP), 28 out of 40 in Bihar, while winning 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand. Yet despite such success at the last general election, and despite the hype and bluster of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) current campaign, why does the  incumbent BJP appear so tentative this time around?

Dilemmas and contradictions

The BJP’s dilemmas and contradictions are best exemplified in Bihar, where party leaders are high on rhetoric but conservative and defensive in campaign strategies. In 2014, the BJP contested 30 and won 22 of the state’s 40 parliamentary seats, while the NDA romped home with a tally of 31 seats. At this year’s elections, as a result of the seat sharing formula worked out with alliance partners, the BJP is contesting just 17 seats, meaning that the BJP  begins with a deficit of five seats even before the electoral battle kicks off.

The party has also decided to stay away from contests in the Muslim-dominated “Seemanchal” or bordering districts, having allocated parliamentary constituencies in the region to its alliance partner, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). In terms of the selection of candidates, the BJP has also appeared conservative, deciding to re-nominate most of its sitting MPs instead of fielding fresh faces.

All of which prompts observers to wonder what is behind the BJP’s defensive approach at a time when cadres and young voters have reportedly been energized in the aftermath of last month’s strikes by the Indian Air Force in Balakot in Pakistan?

Bihar is different

“For the BJP, the federal states of Bihar, which sends the fourth largest contingent to the Lok Sabha after UP (80 seats), Maharashtra (48) and West Bengal (42), has been a case of the goal being too close, yet too far,” a BJP leader points out. As a junior partner in the Janata Dal (United) government led by Nitish Kumar, the BJP, together with its affiliate organizations including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), has substantially expanded its footprint. However it has not, unlike in UP, been able to become the dominant political force. In UP, the BJP has been in power several times in the last couple of decades, either as a majority government, or as the leading party of a coalition government.

According to Professor D M Diwakar of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, the BJP’s decision to scale down its political ambitions in Bihar reflects the party’s thinking that a second term for the NDA would be good enough. “The plan to expand the party’s electoral base in this Hindi-speaking state can wait,” he says.

Socialist discourse

Unlike 2014, the NDA is this time pitted against a formidable seven-party Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led “Mahagathbandhan” or Grand Alliance that includes the Congress party and claims to represent approximately 80% of social and caste groups. RJD chief Lalu Prasad – serving a jail sentence as a result of the fodder scam cases –will remain physically out of action, however this remains an election that is being fought under the shadow of his personality.

Indeed Prasad – who, as well as doing jail time, is battling heart-related and other ailments – has witnessed growing political sympathies among his constituents, possibly because these elections are seen as his swansong. Sentiments of “betrayal” by chief minister Nitish Kumar – who dumped the RJD to form the government with BJP support in June 2017 – also runs high among RJD supporters. The adverse impact of the central government’s decisions on demonetization and the implementation of the GST have also hurt, while Kumar’s track record on law and order, his main selling point until now, has taken a beating.

A slew of scandals including the state government’s embarrassment over reports on the sexual exploitation of young girls at a shelter in Muzaffarpur have come back to haunt Kumar’s incumbent government. However, in a state that ranks low on all economic parameters, the subaltern or socialist discourse has remained active and relevant because of the continued influence of leaders such as Jayaprakash Narain or Ram Manohar Lohia. “Bihar is the land of Gautama Buddha and the influence of Saint Kabir – [the] 19th Century religious leader who preached egalitarian thought – has persisted. Therefore, it is relatively easier for political leaders practicing subaltern politics to trigger a David Versus Goliath discourse”, veteran Bihar politics watcher Prem Kumar Mani said.

Crowded space

With the state’s two regional power-holders – RJD’s Lalu Prasad and JD (U)’s Nitish Kumar – having both had 15-year terms as the Chief Minister, the phase of identity politics seems to have reached saturation point. For both the BJP and the Congress party Bihar in the 2019 elections seemed like a giant opportunity to reap new rewards. But with both parties content to play second fiddle to regional competitor parties, this has not happened.

It is a case of the tail wagging the dog, as small regional parties such as the Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM) or the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) have successfully extracted a bigger chunk of constituencies as part of seat sharing arrangements. Meanwhile, both the BJP and the Congress party have cut back their ambitions. “Finding it difficult to select good candidates, several of the smaller parties have fielded rookies or first timers. As the bigger parties – BJP, Congress or the RJD – are contesting [fewer] seats, ticket aspirants from these parties can be expected to enter the electoral contest in big numbers as rebel or independent candidates. Indeed, Bihar’s electoral space is likely to get very crowded this time”, said a senior Patna-based political observer.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s hopes of returning to power bank heavily on party victories in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But this time around, he is without the “Modi wave” of 2014.