Bihar Elections: The Battle Of Pre-Poll Clichés Is On


Neither ‘Swabhiman’ nor ‘Parivartan’ captures Bihar’s realities.

Depending on which survey you want to believe in, the Bhartiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance or the Nitish Kumar-led Janata combine is going to win the upcoming Assembly elections in Bihar.

A puzzling question at the moment is why the BJP hasn’t declared seat-sharing arrangements with the NDA partners — Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, Nitish’s former lieutenant Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha, and Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party -– even after the Election Commission has declared the dates. (Paswan and Manjhi are Dalit leaders, and Kushwaha belongs to upper Other Backward Class category.)

This might be BJP’s deliberate strategy. Earlier this week there was a minor row when Manjhiquestioned the credentials of Paswan as a genuine Dalit leader (apparently they quickly patched up). A delay in seat distribution would give the junior partners less time to form alternate coalitions and hence lesser bargaining power. For example, Kushwaha, who began by asking for 67 (out of a total of 243) seats, later came down to 39 (approximately one for each of Bihar’s 38 districts). But BJP has reportedly offered him only 20 seats. The saffron party recently inducted Renu Kumari Kushwaha, who was earlier a minister in Nitish’s Cabinet. Rumours are that the saffron party might drop RSDP if it doesn’t agree to their demands. This is a bit like what BJP did to Shiv Sena last year in Assembly elections in Maharashtra, except that Shiv Sena has a much larger presence there than any of BJP’s three partners in Bihar.

One of the less talked-about things about BJP in Bihar is the internal rivalry within the party. Sushil Kumar Modi is the most popular BJP leader in the state, and was generally known to be an efficient number two in the BJP-JD(U) combine of 2005-13. But Sushil Modi is a Marwari – a small OBC community in Bihar, mostly based in urban areas – who is often questioned about his “grass-roots” credentials. Even Prem Kumar, a senior BJP MLA, called himself the most suitable chief ministerial candidate from BJP. There are many other upper-caste BJP leaders who also stake claim for the top post.

The fact, though, is that none of the BJP leaders in Bihar are half as popular as Nitish Kumar — the primary reason why BJP has been shying away from naming a candidate, instead keeping the omnipotent Narendra Modi at the forefront.

But despite all of NDA’s woes, the Janata coalition is in a more tragic situation. While Samajwadi Party’s exit might be embarrassing — laying bare the hypocrisy of bringing back the socialist age – SP barely has a presence in Bihar. Its exit wouldn’t affect Janata’s electoral fortunes. (Yes, one could still argue that giving 40 out of 243 seats to Congress was in excess of what the grand old party deserved in its current state in Bihar.)

The bigger problem, it seems, is that communities, which earlier voted Nitish and Lalu, are less than convinced about the coalition.

While Lalu, who ruled between 1990 and 2005, must be credited with having successfully politicised all the non-upper castes for the first time, it was only the Yadavs (and, to a lesser extent, Muslims) who mostly benefitted. The Dalits and what are now known as extremely backward castes (EBCs) — who constitute about 40 per cent of Bihar’s population –and are socially and economically the most backward, didn’t. Lalu’s government depended on the elites among OBCs, the middle-to-large farmers who were the beneficiaries of the zamindari abolition and the green revolution. This meant that even basic land reforms, which could have improved agrarian productivity, never happened. In the end, it was antipathy against Yadavs that led to Lalu’s fall in 2005.

The NDA government of 2005-13 led by Nitish undid some of Lalu’s methods. Nitish’s supporters were a mix of non-Yadav backward castes and a section of Dalits and Muslims. Nitish revived the bureaucracy, built roads and bridges, jailed criminals, but couldn’t overcome many other limitations. He set up the Bandopadhyay Commission on land reforms, but later, facing flak from upper-caste leaders from his party (and coalition partner BJP) buried the recommendations of the report. While he successfully implemented some of the development schemes, he couldn’t attract investment for industrialisation because basic issues such as electricity and land acquisition remained unresolved.

The most curious thing about the 2015 elections in Bihar is that all political parties are actively wooing all communities. Package politics is any day better than depending solely on caste dynamics. But Bihar is primarily an agrarian economy, a significant portion of whose population depends on remittances. Unless for some godsend, it’ll continue to remain so. The only real push in the economy can come through improvement in agriculture (that includes a basic level of land reforms) and setting up of labour-intensive small-and medium-scale industries.

Unfortunately, neither of the two clichés, Swabhiman and Parivartan (propagated by the Janata and NDA coalitions respectively), captures realities that affect most of Bihar’s population. In the PR war that both coalitions are indulging in, Bihar has only to lose.

This article has been republished from

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