In many ways, Bihar was the ground zero of the opposition mahagathbandhan. It is here that the grand alliance first took shape and successfully challenged the BJP in the 2015 assembly election under the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
But now, ironically, the mahagathbandhan in Bihar is struggling to chart a winning course as the Lok Sabha campaign enters the final lap.
The political significance of Bihar is not lost on anyone. It is one of the three states, others being West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, where polling will take place in all the seven phases.
The battle lines are drawn between the NDA and the grand alliance. The NDA in Bihar includes the BJP, Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). The grand alliance is a combination of the Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), the Vikasheel Insaan Party (VIP), the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RSLP), and CPI-ML.
How caste politics shaped up
Caste plays a determining role in Bihar politics, and how it has panned out over the decades shows massive social transformation. From an inherently feudal and upper caste society, Bihar was among the first states in India to witness a revolution from below.
But this transformation and redistribution of power across all social classes did not happen smoothly. The upper caste-upper class in Bihar strongly protested against it.
When Karpoori Thakur, a popular backward leader, became the first non-Congress chief minister of Bihar in 1970, the defenders of feudalism came out with a slogan, ‘Karpoori Karpoora, Chhod Kursi, Pakad Ustura’, which loosely translates into ‘Hey Karpoori, leave your chair as you don’t belong here, and go back to being a barber’. For the first time in the state, critical decision-making power was in the hands of the historically dispossessed.
By the time Lalu Prasad Yadav became the chief minister in 1990, Bihar had witnessed a generational shift. The slogan that became popular during his regime was: ‘Bhura Baal Kaat Daalo’. Here, Bhu stands for Bhumihars, the traditional landholding community, Ra is for the Rajputs, Ba stands for the Brahmins and L stands for Lala and Kayastha. The slogan demands getting rid of the established class of oppressors.
Getting the caste math right
In this Lok Sabha elections too, the alliance that gets the caste arithmetic right is likely to have an edge over its rival. The BJP-led NDA’s well-thought-out caste calculus is one of the three reasons that is set to ensure a victory for the alliance.
The BJP’s state president, Nityanand Rai, belongs to the Yadav community and could be the pull factor drawing this influential voting bloc to the NDA. In the absence of a clearly defined Gen Next leadership in the RJD after Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Yadavs are not averse to the idea of exploring alternatives.
The simmering conflict between the intermediate castes and Dalits will also be a major cause of concern for the mahagathbandhan leaders.
As I have pointed out in one of the earlier pieces for ThePrint, the growing division between the predominant Yadav community and the Dalits is leading to violence, as seen in Raghopur in May last year. Dalits are inclined to support the NDA as one of their tallest leaders, Ram Vilas Paswan, stands firmly with the alliance.
The mahagathbandhan is also likely to face a crushing blow at the hands of the Pasmanda Muslims in Bihar. The Pasmanda movement, which recognises the backward caste Muslims, was started by Ali Anwar, a JD(U) leader who is now part of Sharad Yadav’s Loktantrik Janata Dal. More than 60 per cent of the Muslims in Bihar belong to this category. And yet, not a single Pasmanda has made it to the mahagathbandhancandidate list. This is bound to have a state-wide impact on the grand alliance in terms of Muslim votes.
Grand narrative vs petty politics
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has a super communicator in Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has established his credentials as a strong national leader. Coupled with the BJP’s formidable election machinery, NDA has an upper hand over the opposition here.
The BJP’s push for nationalism and its development agenda is backed by a vision to achieve the superpower status for India, especially after the Balakot airstrike.
The highly patriarchal society in Bihar perceives Balakot as a successful macho intervention. Songs celebrating the Balakot military mission have become extremely popular in rural parts of the state.
The mahagathbandhan leadership, on the other hand, reflects an absolute lack of vision and imagination. There is no clarity in terms of candidates, constituency and concepts.
The grand alliance has not named candidates for important seats like Madhubani and Sheohar, which are going to polls in the fifth and sixth phase respectively, even as the NDA nominees actively campaign there.
The intensifying feud in the RJD between brothers Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav over Jahanabad and Sheohar constituencies has become embarrassingly public. The disagreement over ex-JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai, many believe, also stemmed from the insecurity of Tejashwi Yadav.
Similarly, the RJD’s decision to leave the Ara seat for the CPI-ML is part of its protectionist politics. Raju Yadav, who is set to contest from Ara, is a political lightweight and doesn’t stand much of a chance against BJP’s R.K. Singh.
Alcohol ban & women support
The liquor ban has helped Bihar chief minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar carve out a caste-neutral social constituency for his party among the women in Bihar.
The policy implications of the ban can be debated, but it has surely found support among women, especially in rural belts, who constitute nearly half of Bihar’s population.
Apart from these three broad factors, 10 per cent reservation for the ‘upper caste poor’ is set to hugely impact the outcome in the NDA’s favour.
Having said that, Bihar is known for its politically aware citizens and it’s difficult to predict who will get their vote. The realigning of parties on either side of the political aisle presents an exciting democratic opportunity to the people of Bihar. As of today, it is advantage BJP-led NDA in Bihar.
The author is a fellow at India Foundation and Assistant Professor at Patna University.