A battle of AK-47s is keeping Bihar riveted. Bahubalis of Mokama, 100 kilometres east of Patna, are fighting it out again, with their wives at the forefront. It is assembly bypoll season in Mokama. The seat fell vacant due to the disqualification of its four-term MLA, Anant Singh, a dabang or strongman of considerable infamy known as Chhote Sarkar in Mokama. An AK-47, grenades and ammunition had been recovered from his residence, and he was eventually convicted in that case. The Rashtriya Janata Dal, aka RJD, has fielded his wife, Neelam Devi, in the bypoll.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has followed what Mokama people often say: ‘Lohe ko lohaa hi kaatataa hai’, which basically translates as ‘diamond cuts diamond’. The BJP has fielded Sonam Devi, the wife of another Bahubali, Lallan Singh. She got the BJP ticket even before joining the party. Her husband quit the Janata Dal (United), or JDU, a day before the BJP gave her the ticket. What swung it for her is the fact that Lallan Singh has been an arch-rival of Anant Singh and the two of them have dozens of criminal cases like murder and extortion registered against them. Union minister of state for home, Nityanand Rai, was said to be instrumental in swinging the BJP ticket for Lallan Singh’s wife.
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Bahubalis in bypolls
Another mafia don has also entered the scene—Surajbhan Singh, a former MP and murder convict. He and his wife, Veena Devi, another former Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) MP, have been campaigning for the BJP candidate. “People of Mokama have faith in respected Narendra Modiji and in Surajbhan Ji,” his brother Chandan Singh, an LJP MP from Nawada, told reporters last week.
Mokama assembly bypolls are not just about the battle of bahubalis. On 3 November, Mokama, along with six assembly constituencies—Gopalganj in Bihar, Andheri East in Maharashtra, Adampur in Haryana, Munugode in Telangana, Dhamnagar in Odisha, and Gola Gokarannath in Uttar Pradesh—will go to polls. While all eyes are on Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP’s chief strategist, Home Minister Amit Shah, must be closely watching these assembly bypolls, too. The results on 6 November will be a significant indicator of where the party stands vis-à-vis its regional rivals in many states that are key to its prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
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BJP stands on a sticky wicket
Out of these seven assembly seats, the BJP made a tactical retreat in Andheri East by withdrawing its candidate and virtually giving a walkover to the Shiv Sena. It would have been the first electoral test of strength with the BJP and the Eknath Shinde faction of the Sena on one side and the Uddhav Thackeray Sena faction with Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on the other. The results would have a bearing on the upcoming Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls in terms of displaying the respective strength of the two factions of the Sena as also the two combined: BJP-Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena and the Maha Vikas Aghadi. The BJP withdrew to fight another day—in the BMC polls. UP’s Gola Gokarannath assembly bypoll is more about the BJP’s ego in terms of reinforcing its supremacy. Even if the opposition Samajwadi Party pulls it off, it’ll be more of a morale booster to make up for its defeat in the assembly elections seven months ago. Neither party is, therefore, losing its sleep over this bypoll.
The other five bypolls, however, have larger implications for all stakeholders. Bihar’s Mokama and Gopalganj by-elections will be the first electoral contest between the BJP and the Nitish-Kumar-led grand alliance after the JDU broke ties with the BJP in August this year. The bypoll results would prove the electoral efficacy of the anti-BJP alliance in Bihar that sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha. With Nitish Kumar walking out of the NDA and the LJP split between two factions led by Chirag Paswan and his uncle Pashupati Kumar Paras, the BJP finds itself on a sticky wicket in Bihar. While Nitish Kumar was said to be instrumental in the LJP’s split, the Prime Minister has retained Paras in his Cabinet even after Kumar’s exit.
After a meeting with Amit Shah on Saturday, Chirag Paswan declared his decision to campaign for the BJP in Mokama. The late Ramvilas Paswan’s son was
Said to be adamant that he wouldn’t be part of any alliance with his uncle. Although Chirag hasn’t spelt out the terms of his agreement with Shah, his decision to campaign signals Paras’ likely exit from the Union Cabinet soon. Surajbhan Singh and his parliamentarian brother Chandan Singh, who are in the Pashupati Paras camp, are campaigning for the BJP candidate in Mokama. Now that Chirag has decided to join them in the campaign, an LJP re-unification may be on the cards. Paras, along with four other party MPs, had rebelled against Chirag. Those rebels may now find it better to return to Ramvilas Paswan’s son than stay with 70-year-old Paras, who has little support base.
In Bihar’s Gopalganj—the assembly seat that fell vacant due to the death of BJP MLA Subhash Singh—the party has fielded his widow, Kusum Devi. The RJD has fielded a Vaishya community leader, Mohan Gupta. What has queered the pitch for the RJD is the entry of Indira Yadav, wife of Lalu Yadav’s brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav, as a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate. If the RJD was trying to split the BJP’s traditional vote bank among Vaishyas, Sadhu Yadav, who was the runner-up in that seat in 2020, threatens to split the RJD’s Yadav vote bank.
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Why these by-elections matter
Results of the Mokama and Gopalganj bypolls will be the first indicator of where the BJP stands without Nitish Kumar in Bihar and whether the arithmetic of JDU-RJD-Congress-Left-Hindustani Awam Morcha combine adds up to favourable electoral chemistry. The results will also have a bearing on the cohesion of the ruling coalition in Bihar. Incidentally, Nitish Kumar is avoiding campaigning in bypolls, citing health reasons. Depending on the results, Kumar will likely recalibrate his strategy amid talks of a merger between the RJD and JDU ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Telangana’s Munugode bypoll is a virtual semi-final before next year’s assembly election. The seat fell vacant after Congress MLA Komatireddy Rajgopal Reddy resigned to defect to the BJP, which has now fielded him in the bypoll. The 3 November election comes amid a raging controversy over the arrest of three persons for their alleged bid to poach Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) MLAs. Since November 2020, when the BJP sprang a surprise in the Dubbak bypoll, the party has been on a high, putting up a strong show in Hyderabad municipal polls and then winning the Huzurabad bypoll to emerge as the principal challenger to TRS in the state.
Jolted by these results, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who would seldom come out of his official residence, swung into action and hit the streets in Telangana and Delhi to counter the BJP. He even changed the name of his party to try to project it as a national challenger to the BJP. Munugode results will show if these tactics have paid for the TRS or whether the BJP continues to gain momentum. It will set the stage for the next assembly election and trigger a fresh round of political churn in terms of defections and realignments. As for the Congress, a defeat in Munugode will likely trigger an exodus as it finds itself relegated to the state’s political margins.
Odisha’s Dhamnagar bypoll is witnessing an intense fight between the ruling Biju Janata Dal and the BJP, which appeared to have lost steam after its below-par performance in the 2019 Odisha assembly elections. In the panchayat polls earlier this year, the BJD decimated the opposition. The let-up in the BJP’s aggression in Odisha was attributed to CM Naveen Patnaik’s cordial relationship with the Centre and the party’s assessment that it may have a better chance to virtually subsume the BJD after 76-year-old Patnaik hangs up his boots. The Dhamnagar bypoll, necessitated by the death of BJP MLA Bishnu Charan Das, is witnessing a resurgent BJP, with Union ministers like Dharmendra Pradhan going on a pada-yatra and the party approaching the Election Commission with a cash-for-votes allegation against the BJD. Having won eight of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha in 2019, the BJP seems to have recalibrated its strategy to regain the ground it has lost over the last three years. The Dhamnagar bypoll will be a reality check.
In Adampur—the assembly seat ex-CM Bhajan Lal’s family has never lost since the creation of Haryana—another scion, Bhavya Bishnoi, is trying his luck as the BJP candidate. It was vacated by his father, Kuldeep Bishnoi, who recently quit the Congress to join the BJP. Congress has fielded Jai Prakash, a Jat leader close to former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, in an estimated 40 per cent Jat population constituency. While it’s seen as another battle between the Bhajan Lal and Hooda families, the BJP would be watching this contest keenly. It had chosen Manohar Lal Khattar, a Khatri, as Haryana CM in 2014 as part of its strategy to mobilise non-Jats in the state. Adampur is the latest test of this strategy, barely two years ahead of the next assembly election.
Seen in isolation, the 3 November bypolls in these five constituencies spread over four states may look inconsequential in terms of national politics. But put them on the BJP’s chessboard, and you know why grandmasters Modi and Shah may be watching each of them so closely.
The author is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)