Bihar poll to change national discourse
by Sandhya Jain on 07 Nov 2015 9 Comments

The enduring image of the Bihar elections that will linger in memory long after the ballots are cast and counted, is that of Chirag Paswan wistful desire to not be limited by ‘jati’ identity and confined to being a ‘dalit’ leader. In an election in which rival groups have bisected and dissected caste affiliations to the minutest fraction, this revolutionary assertion is sure to be lost in the din and dust of battle. Yet it is probably the most momentous statement to come out of Bihar since Jayaprakash Narayan called for ‘total revolution’ to overthrow the pervasive corruption of Congress governments in the States, and ultimately also the Emergency regime at the Centre.


Even more surprising is the Jamui MP’s assertion that, “the time of Bihar politics being about caste has gone”. This is certainly not apparent as yet. But if Chirag Paswan, who single handedly pushed the Lok Janshakti Party into the BJP alliance led by Narendra Modi in 2014, is right, then a silent revolution is taking place in the country’s last caste bastion and the days of blind affiliation to caste are over. Instead, the narrative that touches life intimately – roti, kapda, aur makaan (food, clothing, shelter) and bijli, padhai, aur dawai (electricity, education, medicine) – is influencing the way people think and vote. The bullet train, according to this narrative, will be the paradigm in which ‘new’ India thinks.


The election results on November 8 will reveal if Bihar’s aspirational face triumphed over the tired old caste shibboleths. According to most accounts, the election is a nerve wracking cliff hanger, though the local media expects a change of regime on account of the unusually high turnout of voters (56.8%), particularly women voters.


Still, some points may be made. Observers say both alliances held on to their core base and the Extremely Backward Classes were split. But while NDA added leaders and castes to its kitty on the basis of their regional strength; many doubt if the maha gathbandhan (grand alliance) of Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) will be able to successfully transfer their votes to each other’s candidates.


Yet the success of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s master strategy for 2019 – projecting Nitish Kumar as leader of the anti-BJP alliance - hinges on success in Bihar, where the alliance is being perceived as unnatural and unviable at the grassroots. This was Nitish Kumar’s ambition until the BJP’s unexpected success in 2014 shattered his dreams. Thus, Bihar is critical for the BJP so that it can rule comfortably till 2019 and for the opposition so that it can challenge Narendra Modi in 2019.


Some variables deserve attention. At the beginning of the campaign, Lalu Yadav’s RJD was expected to perform better than Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), though this perception changed midway, and is bound to affect the overall tally. The RJD leader is keen to establish his sons in his traditional bastion in view of his declining popularity. His wife and former Chief Minister Rabri Devi lost from two seats in the assembly election of 2010. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, his daughter Misa Bharti and wife Rabri Devi were defeated from Patliputra and Saran, respectively. Hence, Lalu Yadav is not unbeatable; even his hold on the Yadav vote is questionable after the repeated routs faced by his family members.


In the rush to forge opposition unity against the BJP, the maha gathbandhan treated the Nationalist Congress Party and the Samajwadi Party shabbily and forced them to quit the alliance. But NCP leader Tariq Anwar, MP from Katihar, commands a strong following in Seemanchal region and will impact many seats, particularly in Katihar district (seven seats). The Samajwadi Party may cut into Yadav votes in areas bordering Uttar Pradesh.


Another powerful challenger is Madurai MP and RJD rebel, Pappu Yadav, who has a firm grip on the Kosi belt and the Yadavs and other castes there. His wife, Ranjeeta Ranjan, is the Congress MP from Supaul. The couple wins regardless of party affiliation, and this time Pappu Yadav is fielding candidates from his own Jan Adhikar Party (Loktantrik). Both Seemanchal and Kosi voted in the last phase (57 seats).


The All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) made its presence felt in six seats in the final phase of polling. If the maha gathbandhan had made an open alliance with Dr Asaduddin Owaisi, things might have been different, but this is not something the Congress and Sonia Gandhi could have dared at this stage. They would, however, come to some understanding in 2019, when the most dangerous polarisation could take place. At this stage, however, the NCP, JAP(L) and AIMIM cut into the votes of the grand alliance in the fifth phase of polling; many exit polls could not adequately factor this in their final findings. The previous four phases of polling were mainly a direct contest between the NDA and the maha gathbandhan.


Given the heavy stakes, caste certainly retains its political relevance and the demography of different regions will impact results in each region. Observers say the maha gathbandhan enjoys the backing of around 35% voters among the Yadavs, Kurmis, and Muslims. This has given the NDA the confidence that those wary of the return of ‘jungle raj’ or joint domination of Yadavs and Kurmis at village level, will polarise in its favour. Accordingly, BJP has fine-tuned the caste arithmetic - 15% upper castes; 8% Kushwahas; 5% Paswans, about 11% Mahadalits and a vast section of the 30% Extremely Backward Castes (around 114 castes).


If the gigantic crowds at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rallies are any indication, the NDA seems to be on sound footing. The party polled 38.5% votes in 2014 and needs around 5% more to win Bihar. The high turnout of women votes has boosted its confidence. The surprise of the election, however, is expected to be an unsuspected strong showing by the Congress, which could win three to four times the dismal four seats it won last time.

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