Discourses that have had a sway over Indian politics and looked fairly settled are cracking up and Bihar stands as a test case as to which direction they are set to take. In this sense, elections in Bihar hold important clues, and therefore these elections justifiably have significance for national politics in general and the future of BJP and Modi’s leadership in particular. Elections in Bihar are being held in the context of a transition into a post-Mandal and post-liberalised Indian polity.
To begin with, in the changing terrain of Indian politics, the anti-Congress wave that marked the general elections of 2014 and the Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh is not the determining factor for the voting pattern in Bihar anymore. Further, the ‘Modi wave’ and the myth of ‘Gujarat model’ are already on the wane, in light of Modi‘s one year rule, which has left a palpable gap between what was promised and projected and what has been delivered so far.
The contest in Bihar reflects the tension between the anti-incumbency factor against the Nitish government, as against the de-mystification of the ‘Modi phenomenon‘ and the pressures of electing and having the same party in the state as the centre to gain quick benefits and additional funds. Though the `1.25 crore development package announced by Modi has had seemingly little impact on the voters, the ‘politics of hope’ and the demands of a new aspirational class emerging in Bihar holds the capacity to generate a narrative in favour of big growth, development and governance.
However, this narrative will have to contend for space with a strong discourse on ‘social justice‘ and empowerment that have been at the centre-stage of politics in Bihar for more than three decades now. On one hand is the new idea of Bihar‘s economy being integrated with the national and global capital flows that BJP has now come to represent under Modi‘s leadership, while on the other is the pressing need to provide immediate social welfare policies relating to better education, health and a robust PDS, along with the more visible ‘populist’ policies that the electorate expect. Nitish Kumar‘s policies such as rejecting SEZ, obstructing FDI in retail sector, and populist policies such as providing bicycles and sanitary napkins to girl students continue to remain popular, along with a visible difference he made to providing security and making bureaucracy more accountable.
It would be interesting to watch whether the electorate would continue to lay emphasis on fast growth, new infrastructure, and corporate capital flows that BJP is promising in order to bring Bihar out of decades of slow growth and underdevelopment or would instead prefer to go along with the regional parties that are banking on a social welfare discourse, with a tinge of governance. The other major political process at the heart of Bihar‘s elections is the evident contradiction between newer forms of social fragmentation and the necessity of cobbling up a numerical majority to garner majority of seats in the Assembly.
In most of the other states in India, new forms of social fragmentation among the OBCs, Dalits and Muslims are still an emerging prospect, however in Bihar not only is this fragmentation evident but also has been playing a key role in electoral mobilisation. New categories of EBC, MBC among the OBCs and Mahadalits among Dalits and Pasmanda Muslims among the Muslim community have necessitated new kinds of strategies to hold these fragments together. In this sense, elections in Bihar will hold important clues for future elections in India as to how these fragments will play out, and what they mean for the future of national parties such as Congress and BJP.
On the one hand, the RJD and JD(U) are pitching for the votes of Muslims and Yadavs (MY), along with the EBCs and the Mahadalits, on the other Lalu Prasad has staked a claim to polarising the electorate in announcing that this round of elections is a battle between the ‘forwards’ and the ‘backwards’. BJP is primarily hoping for the support of the upper castes, and among the Dalits of that of the Paswans and the Musahars represented by Jitan Ram Manjhi, and expecting to split the Muslim vote with Asaduddin Owaisi joining the fray. In addition, confidence of BJP is reflected in gaining ground among the Yadavs by providing 30 seats to candidates from the Yadav caste, with Modi elevating them by referring to them as ‘Yaduvanshis‘ and taking the silent support of a disgruntled Pappu Yadav.
Along with these caste calculations, the BJP would attempt to polarise the electorate along religious lines in not offering seats to Muslim candidates, and with Shahnawaz Hussain missing from the campaign and with incidents such as those in Dadri. Further, along the caste lines a larger polarization is being attempted to counter Lalus ‘forward‘ versus ‘backward’ posturing with an announcement by the RSS chief that reservations along caste lines needs to be relooked into and instead framed on economic grounds. While this can be seen as an attempt to consolidate the upper caste votes, it’s also being projected to consolidate the votes among the EBCs.
This has given an opportunity to the Grand Alliance to project the NDA as an eventual threat to the very notion of reservation-based on the quota system. However, what lends confidence to the RSS-BJP campaign is that this general statement against reservation does get nullified by the growing conflict on the ground essentially between the Yadavs and the Dalits, replacing the earlier articulation of the conflict with the upper castes.
This they believe leaves Dalits with the sole choice of moving into the fold of the BJP since JD(U) and RJD combine is viewed essentially as representatives of the dominant backward classes. It is intriguing to observe how political parties are staking claims to the support of a specific social/caste group, yet can make announcements contrary to its interests. This is a part of new strategies political parties are designing to counter and live up to the cross-currents created by the deep social fragmentation that is now thickly part of the electoral skyline of Bihar.
This makes mapping a pattern all the more difficult and allows for open-ended elections where almost all caste groups have a choice to vote across parties. It is a distinct possibility that a single caste group can vote for different parties in substantial measure. This flexibilisation would, in turn, make the role of the media and the election campaign an essential, and not a mere synthetic part of the electoral battle. It is believed that Prime Minister Modi would be addressing not less than 20 rallies across Bihar, making it a unique contest between a Prime Minister and a Chief Minister. Here, leadership and individual personalities might have some value in swaying the voters.
Dr Ajay Gudavarthy, with Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, has recently published his book Cultural Politics of Modern India.
He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation.