It’s said that elections in India are generally decided by two states, the first being Uttar Pradesh with 80 seats in Parliament. The next is Bihar, with 40 seats. In the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party scored heavily in both states.
This year, however, with Uttar Pradesh shaky as the BJP faces a strong opposition alliance, it’s noteworthy that Bihar is not looking as good as it was a few months ago.
India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) faces a big challenge in Bihar as the relationship between parties of the state’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is falling apart after the conclusion of two phases of the country’s seven-phased general elections.
Although Bihar doesn’t have as many seats in Parliament as Uttar Pradesh, it forms a significant part of what is known as the “Hindi-speaking belt” of India. If the BJP wins this belt, it will romp home. If it does not, it will have to scramble to make up for huge losses.
Bihar voting is conducted in seven phases. The first two phases were held on April 11 and April 18, and the third is scheduled for April 23. Low or reluctant participation of BJP cadres in the campaign at several places is a major cause for worry. An early indication came when the BJP agreed to contest only 17 seats. In 2014 the party had won 22. The fact that the party gave up seats to accommodate allies is a key indication of the party’s reduced confidence in the state.
The NDA has repeatedly claimed it will win all the 40 Lok Sabha – lower house – seats in the state. The top BJP leadership had also predicted an easy ride in Bihar in an alliance with Kumar, who heads the regional party Janata Dal-United.
But the situation on the ground appears quite ominous, several sources in both parties acknowledged. While the top leaders from the BJP and the JD-U routinely share an election rally dais, the grassroots BJP cadres are refusing to work with the JD-U workers.
Trouble in alliance
Modi has used his recent visits to the state to campaign for either JD-U or Lok Janshakti Party candidates, and not for the BJP’s nominees. This indicates the trouble brewing in his alliance. The prime minister came to address election rallies in Bihar for the first time on April 2, seeking votes for JD-U candidate Vijay Manjhi in southern Bihar’s Gaya town and LJP candidate Chirag Paswan in Jamui district.
Modi visited the eastern Indian state again on April 11 to address an election rally in favor of JD-U’s Ajay Kumar Mandal from Bhagalpur. Bhagalpur had been a traditional seat of the BJP, and former federal minister Shahnawaz Hussain contested from there for the past three terms. But this time the seat went to the JD-U’s kitty under the alliance’s seat-sharing arrangement, which has annoyed the BJP cadres.
Handing over traditional BJP seats to JD-U likewise has not gone down well with some higher-level leaders. BJP’s sitting member from Valmikinagar, Satish Chandra Dubey, decided to contest as an independent after the seat was allotted to JD-U. Dubey said he had decided to contest at the request of his supporters, who were demoralized because of the seat arrangements.
Furthermore, lack of coordination between the respective groups of party workers on the ground was on full display during the NDA rally addressed by Modi in Patna in March this year. During the rally, the general BJP workers and leaders stayed away from the venue. Observers say only around 40% of the historic Gandhi Maidan could be filled up although the NDA pumped in all efforts – booking 17 trains, 8,000 luxury buses and more than 15,000 luxury cars to fetch villagers to the rally.
Kumar’s shifting loyalties
“The BJP cadres are not fully cooperating with the JD-U in this election as the party’s leader Nitish Kumar frequently changes allies and is not reliable,” said political analyst DM Diwakar. “The BJP workers still look at him with suspicion for this very reason.”
Kumar has changed his allies three times in the past six years. He broke his 17-year-old association with the NDA in June 2013 and formed a government with the support of the opposition. In May 2014, he handed over his seat to Dalit (oppressed caste) leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, after his party had a disastrous performance in the general elections, winning just two seats out of state’s 40. He had chosen to break his alliance with the BJP and go at it on his own.
Kumar then announced he would work at strengthening his party’s organizational base till the next elections. Barely nine months later, he threw Manjhi out of power and grabbed the seat. Manjhi eventually, in 2015, founded his own party called Hindustani Awam Morcha. It has entered the current opposition “grand alliance” with the Congress and others.
Ahead of the 2015 state elections, Kumar had joined hands with his arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav and won the polls in alliance with Yadav’s party, the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). After barely two years of being in government together, Kumar broke away from the alliance with RJD and formed a new government with the BJP. This shift eroded his political capital, raising doubts among the BJP workers about his political loyalty.
The BJP’s worst fear appeared to come true earlier this month with a startling revelation by Yadav in his newly-published memoir Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey. Yadav’s book claimed that Kumar had wished to form his new government with RJD support just six months after walking out of the Grand Alliance and sent his emissary and party vice-president Prashant Kishor several times with the proposal. But the RJD rejected the offer and Kumar was forced to stay with the BJP.
Further, Yadav’s wife, Rabri Devi, has claimed that Kumar offered to name the Yadavs’ younger son Tejashwi as a candidate for chief minister in the 2020 state Assembly polls. She said Kumar wanted to have himself named as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 general elections. These revelations have not gone down well among the BJP cadres.
Kumar’s “frequent shifting in his ideologies and move to change his political allies have damaged his credibility beyond repair and hence, the masses are not taking him very seriously this time,” explained political analyst S Narayan. “You can see how the prime minister had to seek votes for JD-U candidates in his first two election rallies in the state. This means the BJP votes are not shifting towards the JD-U nominees.”
Additionally, the different stance taken by the JD-U on the communally sensitive Ram Temple issue has also worried the BJP. Last week, in northern Bihar’s Hajipur town, BJP and JD-U leaders clashed over the issue. Hindutva nationalists, including the BJP, want a temple to be built at the demolished Babri Mosque site in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya, which they claim was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
While the BJP leaders wanted to make a Ram temple the core issue of campaigning, the JD-U leaders opposed it. Last week’s meeting was among coalition partners BJP, JD-U and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
The JD-U has also taken different stands from the BJP over such contentious issues such as Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and triple talaq (uttering the Arabic word for “divorce” three times does the deed for Muslims). The JD-U’s opposition to these is designed to maintain its Muslim support base.
The NDA leaders played safe on the issue when pressed for comments over prevailing tension between the JD-U and the BJP workers at the grass-root level. “Such stories are being spread by our rivals for political gains but they won’t succeed in their attempts. They are totally absurd as our prime minister and chief minister are campaigning together,” JD-U spokesperson Ranvir Nandan said.
BJP lawmaker and spokesperson Sanjeey Chaurasia said the parties were working in proper coordination. “Everything’s fine with the NDA, rather there is trouble in opposition Grand Alliance,” Chaurasia asserted.
Experts nevertheless believe that the conflicting stands of Modi’s allies and Kumar’s history of flipping sides have confused the general voters and could damage the NDA’s prospects significantly.