Whether due to the scale of the coronavirus pandemic or the upcoming assembly election, one would have imagined Bihar to be the most worried state in India and its government, led by chief minister Nitish Kumar, the most restless.
After all, Bihar’s migrant population has been at the centre of the suffering and brutalities caused by a sudden lockdown, and there is still no end in sight to workers’ troubles as they arrive from Delhi and other metro cities after walking hundreds of kilometres barefoot. The Nitish Kumar government has arranged little facilities for them — not even for pregnant women and sick patients — and the arriving migrants have shown a high Covid-19 positive rate.
If nothing else, Nitish Kumar should have been out of his breath doing everything he possibly could for the people of his state for one reason alone: the upcoming Bihar assembly election.
And yet, the president of Janata Dal (United) and an ally of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been remarkably relaxed. Almost as if he is sure no crisis could affect his chances in the 2020 Bihar election.
Coalition couldn’t care less
The ruling BJP-JD(U)-LJP coalition in Bihar has not responded to the coronavirus crisis in a manner that was expected of it or the alacrity with which states such as Kerala responded to the situation. In fact, Bihar had initially opposed the idea of bringing back the stranded labourers and students on the ground that it would be “against the principles of social distancing and lockdown”. The first ‘Shramik Special’ train carrying 1,200 migrant labourers arrived not in Bihar but in Jharkhand.
In comparison to the BJP-JD(U)-LJP, Bihar’s principal opposition party, Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has been more proactive and making efforts to help the migrant labourers with whatever resources it has. The RJD has used social media to reach out to NGOs and political leaders so that relief materials can reach the labourers.
So what explains the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the ruling coalition faced with one of the biggest health emergencies of our times just months before an election?
The apathy of the Bihar government and the ruling parties towards the migrants is mainly hinged on four possible reasons.
Timely dole out, formidable alliance
First, the art of winning elections in Narendra Modi’s India has changed. With a large number of Jan Dhan accounts and a larger database of beneficiaries, Bihar’s ruling parties could be relaxed because they know an easy way out — they can transfer some money directly into the accounts of the poor and the farmers just before the election.
The direct benefit transfer (DBT) cell of the Bihar government’s department of agriculture has as many as 1.37 crore registered members. A small deposit ahead of the election could nullify the sense of Covid-19 related sufferings of the Biharis. The Modi government had done exactly this before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when it transferred two tranches of Rs 2,000 each in the accounts of more than one crore farmers under the PM-KISAN scheme. Even though it’s difficult to quantify the exact impact of this scheme on the election results, it’s anyone’s argument what role it might have played in the grand victory of the NDA.
Second, the ruling dispensation in Bihar might be thinking that its alliance is formidable and sufficient enough to win any electoral battle — let alone against an RJD that didn’t win a single seat in the Lok Sabha election a year ago. For NDA leaders, there is no reason to believe things might have changed much since they swept the parliamentary election in May 2019.
Bihar’s grand social alliance of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and a section of Dalits (Paswans) that the BJP-JD(U)-LJP have cobbled together make for an invincible combination, at least in terms of electoral arithmetic. NDA leaders in Bihar, just like anywhere else, have little reason to read too much into the Covid-related tragedies to think these would affect their electoral chances. In any case, they can always bank on Modi’s image during elections, who popularity has been rising, according to some surveys.
The electoral base is intact
Third, NDA leaders may also think that the Covid-related displacement of Bihar’s voters will not impact them electorally because the labourers’ anger will be directed more towards the authorities and employers of the states where they were working. If nothing else seems to work, there’s always the Tablighi Jamaat.
A concerted propaganda during the ongoing Covid crisis has been about putting the entire blame for the spread of the coronavirus on the Tablighi Jamaat members, and by extension Muslims, who had held a congregation in mid-march in Delhi. This fits into the BJP’s scheme of things. In election speeches and rallies, Bihar’s migrant population and other voters can be convinced through repeated mention of Tablighi Jamaat that there is someone else responsible for their troubles and sorrow, and not the parties/government they must vote now. We have to see how the NDA charts its election campaign in Bihar.
Fourth, in elections, people do not vote just for a candidate or party but also against some leader, group, party or policies. In Bihar’s politics, it has been a popular narrative that the rise of Nitish Kumar was due to his promise of sushasan (good governance) and development. But the underlying fact remains that a large section of the people had voted against the ‘Lalu Raj’.
Nitish Kumar’s emergence in Bihar was a counterrevolution in terms of realignment of the social forces. He heralded the end of the era of what political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot described as the ‘silent revolution’ or the rise of lower castes in north India.
Nitish Kumar’s unstated promise has been that he will keep the Yadavs and the Muslims out of power in Bihar. Because he continues to fulfil the promise of containing the rise of subalterns, the forces against ‘Lalu Raj’ will still vote for him, come what may. Covid and lockdown-related sufferings might not change the priorities of anti-Lalu voters. Tejashwi Yadav going whole hog to support the migrant labourers may earn him some goodwill, but it may not translate into electoral dividends in October-November 2020.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.