The electoral puzzle in Bihar could be unravelled by posing these primary questions: Who are the people standing with Nitish Kumar? Who oppose him? And what are the reasons for the same?
Given the demographic profile of the state, the numerically strong Yadavs have been the vehement critics of the Bihar chief minister on account of their loss of power. Their opposition to Nitish has further increased recently when he changed allies in 2017, from the RJD to the BJP.
On the other hand, a cursory glance reveals that the EBCs, non-Yadav OBCs, non-Paswan Mahadalits, women and some sections of upper castes have been the main votaries of Nitish. The Bihar CM has been getting upper caste support for being a friendly subaltern leader who didn’t indulge in their othering, unlike Lalu Yadav who did so.
The EBCs and Mahadalits supported him for getting recognised as special categories in the political and policy realm. And women across categories have backed him due to his female-centric policies at the panchayat as well as school level. During our fieldwork, we found that despite criticism, a majority of Nitish’s traditional support base, especially the EBCs and Mahadalits, still prefer him—even in the aftermath of his developmental and good governance credentials eroding significantly.
The reason for the same lies in the differing electoral preference between aspirational and cautious sections. Aspirational castes are those who are not satisfied with the status quo and hence want to change it. They have the resources to take the plunge for that and withstand the shock that comes in the process. The cautious ones are those who prefer what they have, over what they can get if they go for and achieve change. They are less of risk-takers and also lack resources for the same.
In this sense, the aspirational castes are more self-confident and have greater self-pride, be it class or caste pride. The BJP voters composed of upper castes and the RJD voters, particularly the Yadavs, will come under this category. Cautious sections like the EBCs and Mahadalits are less assertive; they prefer the politics of everyday survival and therefore require constant state patronage.
On the aspirational index, they are more status-quoist as long as the incumbent regime is perceived to be a lesser evil, let alone friendly. Their criticism of the incumbent is always mediated by the degree of expectation that remained fulfilled. Mistaking their criticism as a vote against the incumbent would be a case of analytical fallacy. Their criticism has an instrumental angle of seeking more attention to their interests.
Further, both the aspirational and cautious sections have a reference point to the past, albeit in different senses. The aspirational reference point is more or less restoration of past glory. So, while upper castes want to regain their dominance, a feature of pre-OBC mobilisation days, the Yadavs want to go back to the Lalu days. On the contrary, the cautious are fearful of that era, as they are better off now than in the past. So their inclination for change is overshadowed by their unwillingness to part with the current benefits.
As they lack caste pride or confidence as compared to the upper castes or the dominant OBCs, they bestow the same to the government and its head, which is why all hope leads to Nitish, who remains the default leader even when his old aura has faded. In their perception, the Bihar CM signifies the assurance and guarantee that as long as he remains in power, the dominant caste groups would remain secondary in the prevailing power configuration of the state. Therefore, the cautious sections are likely to remain loyal to Nitish.
Further, there has been widespread anger against the Nitish government on account of the clumsy policy response to the Covid lockdown initially. However, the anger of the “lockdown victims” is compensated by state support extended to them when they came back. Most don’t want it to go away. Those who are still angry could not zero in on one alternative. So the anger against the government gets divided, a scenario that suits Nitish and his JD(U).
There are challenges that Nitish is facing compared to previous elections, particularly 2015. First, we found that a section of Muslims who have been voting for him despite his past association with the BJP have now deserted the JD(U) in a big way in the aftermath of the party’s support to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. There, the JD(U) is the absolute loser and the RJD along with AIMIM the beneficiaries. Secondly, a section of upper castes are angry over not getting enough representation and may end up voting for independent, RLSP or LJP candidates hailing from their castes, leading to loss of seats in certain constituencies.
However, in the final moment, the voters’ psychology is known to abandon weaker candidates or parties as people as a rule don’t want to waste their votes. Further, the realisation that deserting the JD(U) may open up the possibility of a return of the RJD to power is likely to bring a majority of such voters angry with Nitish back into his party’s fold.
Finally, while the JD(U) is facing anti-incumbency, the gathbandhan has its own share of problems. Prime among them is the 70 seats that the Congress is contesting where the distribution of tickets is perceived to be bad. It is there that the NDA in general and the JD(U) in particular would compensate for losses they incur on account of anti-incumbency and the LJP rebellion factor. Hence, in the final analysis, as of now, Nitish remains the pivot around whom the political dynamics of Bihar revolves.
Teaches Political Science at Royal Global University, Guwahati
(The authors are associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad based research organisation)
(firstname.lastname@example.org, Tweets @PulsePeoples)