Charged by Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia joining his party, Bihar BJP spokesperson Nikhil Anand said in March this year that many Congress leaders in the state were going to do so too. However, six months later, the BJP is still waiting for MLAs, ex-MLAs or prominent people from opposition parties to come and join it in the election-bound state. The party was the first to launch its digital campaign and is investing huge sums of money in elections like earlier—which includes the recently inaugurated ‘hi-tech’ media centre in the posh Hotel Chanakya in Patna.
Yet, no opposition politician of any stature seems to be interested in joining it to enhance his or her poll prospects. Does that mean political leaders in Bihar are not indulging in pre-election defections this time? No. On the contrary, Aaya Ram Gaya Ram or party-hopping by seasoned politicians in Bihar is in full swing. Albeit, the state BJP cuts a lonely figure in its own favourite game. The stolen template: In the last six years, it has emerged as one of the indispensable parts of the BJP’s electoral strategy to cause defections among rival parties and get them to join the saffron ranks, thereby winning in the war of perceptions—as to who is calling the shots.
It used this in almost every state that it stormed since the 2014 elections, be it Jharkhand, Assam, Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. This process of big stalwarts from the Congress and other regional parties—be they Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, S M Krishna in Karnataka or a series of SP and BSP leaders in Uttar Pradesh—joining the BJP before the respective state Assembly elections has emerged as the new election template wherein the saffron party has been playing on the front foot. Strangely though, Bihar emerges as an exception to the trend. Rather, it is Nitish Kumar who seems to not only have stolen the show but rather is outmanoeuvring the BJP at every stage.
For instance, this year alone, six MLAs and five MLCs of the RJD have joined the JD(U). These include prominent figures like Parsa MLA Chandrika Rai (son of ex-CM Daroga Prasad Rai and estranged father-in-law of Tej Pratap Yadav), Jai Vardhan Yadav (son of iconic Yadav leader, late Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav), ex-ministers Faraz Fatmi, Qamar Alam, Prema Chaudhary, et al. The JD(U) also managed to get two Congress MLAs, Purnima Yadav and Sudarshan Kumar, this year, while two RLSP MLAs and one MLC joined the party last year itself. The RJD too managed to woo Shyam Rajak, who was the industries minister in the Bihar government and the JD(U)’s Dalit face, to join the party besides some small figures. This coming and going of leaders remains limited to the two main parties—the JD(U) and the RJD—and no figure of prominence has joined the BJP till now.
This turning the tables by Nitish turns out to be a bit surprising, as orchestrating defections in opponent parties and creating a spectacle of prominent faces from the opposition making a beeline to join it before the beginning of elections is a time-tested template of the BJP. However, what we see in Bihar is that politicians interested in changing loyalties to avail upcoming opportunities are more inclined to join the JD(U) or the RJD than the BJP, which leaves the party in a kind of fix. Despite being the ‘moneybag’ for the NDA and despite having the most consistent efforts in election preparations, the BJP still appears to be a marginal, or rather lonely, player, as far as appearing as an alluring platform for dissident leaders from the opposition ranks is concerned, ahead of the 2020 Bihar elections.
A replay of 2015: The 2015 BJP poll debacle, when the party contested 157 seats and won only 53, was blamed on a couple of factors like too much prominence to Central government leaders and schemes, insensitive comments by seniors and a lack of localisation of the campaign. Come 2020 and the same things are visible again. Though the party high command is publicly showing Nitish as the leader of the NDA camp in Bihar, it has also decided to fight the election on the work and name of PM Narendra Modi again. The reason for this, according to some party insiders, is an internal survey conducted by the party which reveals that Nitish is facing significant anti-incumbency this time and fighting the election on his name won’t be a good idea. Hence the party is back to its 2015 model.
Further, as the campaign intensifies, the problem of insensitive comments is also emerging. Recently, when party president J P Nadda visited Darbhanga, he said people would never have thought that the union aviation minister would visit such a place. He also said that it is only when people vote for the BJP that such things happen and this would stop if the party loses. Many people from the Mithila region took strong exception to this on social media, noting that the royal family of Darbhanga was one of the first in India to start air travel, even before Independence.
Divisions in NDA camp: While the challenges from outside continue, things within the NDA camp are not all hunky dory. This is going to be the first Assembly election in the state where both the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan and the JD(U) will be contesting from the same camp. This would mean that out of the 243 total seats, the LJP would at least want to retain the 42 seats it got in 2015. However, that seems difficult as the JD(U) is said to be insisting on taking 110 or more seats and even if the BJP agrees to reduce its own seats to 100, that would leave only 33 seats.
The new entrant, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM, would also claim some seats out of those. It is for this reason that the LJP is giving repeated ultimatums to the JD(U) through Paswan’s son Chirag. And the BJP seems to be encouraging this to pressurise Nitish to agree to reduce his demands and contest an equal number of seats as the saffron party. But even if that happens and both agree to contest on 100 seats each, the LJP will have to reduce its seats given the demands of the HAM that need to be adjusted within the remaining 43 seats.
Hence, the real electoral dynamics in the ensuing election in Bihar is not between the moves and counter-moves of the opposition and the ruling dispensation. Rather, it is the Machiavellian contestations between Nitish Kumar and the BJP that seem to have emerged as the main electoral script.
The authors are associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad based research organisation
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