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Bihar Elections: New Agenda-Setters


The Bihar election of this year is being touted as being the most important election to be held after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Contested between at least three coalitions of major national and North Indian regional parties, involving intricate caste, religion and development factors and coming on the heels of the Monsoon session wash-out caused by the Congress party which derailed the policy agenda of the BJP, these elections are rightly reckoned as being a crucial test for the BJP.

The odds that the BJP will win these elections with its ‘development’ agenda for the youth – a significant point, since Bihar is one of the states with the youngest and highly aspirational population in the country – is often pitted against the ‘caste’ factors which can be exploited by the opposing ‘secular’ grand alliance.

However, with the recent developments, it appears that the odds are arrayed against the ‘secular front’ in the upcoming Bihar elections. Forced together by combining long-standing rivals like the Congress, Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) and Lalu Yadav’s RJD, the ‘secular’ alliance faces both internal tensions and outer challenges. Pitted against the BJP-led NDA, which has displayed fewer internal squabbles and far better chances in mobilizing people along caste and development lines, the grand alliance’s contest against the BJP coalition promises to be a close contest.

It is important that the BJP wins the battle for Bihar in order to secure its electoral prospects for the upcoming assembly elections next year as well as to give a fitting reply to the obstructionist Congress on its policy agenda in the Parliament.

Some of the key factors that will shape the upcoming elections are:

  • Shiv Sena’s decision to contest elections: The recent announcement by Shiv Sena to contest between 50 to 100 seats cannot be viewed as an immediate challenge to the secular alliance, but more as a challenge to the BJP. It will certainly lead to a division of Hindu votes. But, in the longer run, if Shiv Sena manages to establish a foothold in the politics of the state, it will be a positive development in displacing the ‘secular parties’. If the major contestants belong to nationalist parties it will herald a new political era in Bihar.
  • Challenge from Asaduddin Owaisi: The Muslim vote that the ‘secular’ alliance hopes to mobilize through Lalu Yadav’s presence is in serious danger of being polarized due to the rise of AIMIM’S Asaduddin Owaisi. Whether or not Owaisi manages to garner a substantial chunk of Muslim votes, it is clear that Owaisi’s campaign plans to make long-term inroads into the state. This would be a significant step forward in exposing the sham that secularism has become in this country.
  • Fragmentation of the ‘secular’ alliance: The recent decision by Samajwadi Party (SP) to walk out of the grand alliance and announce a ‘third front’¹will deal a huge blow to the Nitish-Lalu-Sonia combine. Their plank of being a consolidated secular front will be challenged as will their diatribe against the RSS. (¹Mathew 2015.)
  • The caste equation: While, in the first instance, it appears as if the contest is between the development agenda of the BJP coalition and the ‘caste’ mobilization of the secular alliance, this is no longer true. The secular front may have overplayed the caste card with the talks of revival of Mandal-II reservations for low-class upper-caste Hindus. This mainly counts as ‘loose talk’ and will have little impact on the election outcome.

Within upper castes – which constitute about 15% of the electorate – the BJP has strong mobilization. Election studies² show that upper castes in Bihar – mainly consisting of Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas – mainly vote for BJP. They have low support base for JD (U) and RJD and only voted for the Congress when it has contested alone rather than with the RJD. (²Mehta and Gupta 2015.)

Within other castes too, the BJP coalition is presenting a strong challenge to the secular coalition. While the Muslim-Yadav-Kurmi vote is likely to swing in favour of the grand alliance, the BJP-led coalition will especially give tough competition with its mobilization among the Dalits, Mahadalits and the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). The total vote-share of the Dalits and the OBCs (including the EBCs) is between 60-65%, and having put together a coalition of Manjhi’s HAM-S, Kushwaha’s RLSP and Paswan’s LJP, it is predicted that BJP might even navigate the elections with a simple majority.³(³TNN 2015.)

  • The development factor: Unlike at the national level and, perhaps, in many other states, development is not just an abstract catchword in Bihar elections. With one of the youngest working age population in the country, the development agenda is second only to the caste equations. This may swing either in favour of Nitish Kumar or the BJP, since both have a strong track-record. However, a factor that is certain to work against the grand alliance is the hot Modi-Nitish debate on 15 years of misrule or ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar under the leadership of RJD’s Lalu Yadav. Jungle raj is not just a politically-coined term to attack the grand alliance, but was actually coined by the Patna High Court in 1997 to refer to Bihar governance, highlighting the fact that the issue affects people enough to make a dent in the vote-share.

People’s aversion to Lalu comes out clearly through the fact that he mainly mobilizes Muslim and Yadav votes, and there is deep hostility between Dalits and Yadavs. Moreover, past trends show that parties which align with the RJD may stand to lose more than they gain. For instance, Congress’s main support base in Bihar comes from upper castes, but whenever Congress has tied up with RJD, it has lost these votes. And, this time, because of Owaisi, even Muslim votes are likely to be fragmented.

Besides these factors, new developments are occurring on a daily basis which will impact the Bihar election outcome. The picture will become clearer in the coming days, but it is necessary that the corrupt nexus of criminal regional parties which promotes casteism in the name of democracy is broken and it seems to us that it will be.

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