It’s rare. The future of a state Assembly is being awaited as if the destiny of the nation hinges on the outcome. Come November 8, Bihar may throw up these alternatives of political formation.
More Power in Parliament and the World
Before Amit Shah’s Pakistan reference, there was the whole crucial turn in mood owing to the reservation debate. Lalu Prasad, the old Mandal talisman, had used the RSS chief’s call to revisit quotas as his biggest campaign tool—and by all accounts changed the complexion of the game. But even rivals will grant about the BJP is that it never gives up. Its attack is sharp-focused on the issue. Statements were issued clarifying their full endorsement of reservation. Full-page ads filled Patna’s newspapers. Their most effective counter: the idea of reservation for minorities, and how the other side plans to carve out space within existing quotas, affecting existing beneficiaries. How these messages filter out will be crucial.
The ‘Nitish-warriors’ saw in Modi’s renewed rallies a desperation in the NDA to climb back into the contest after the first two rounds, in which 49 and 32 seats of South Bihar voted, did not quite go according to the script. Many others, including BJP insiders and war-room veterans, assert the PM’s rallies pumped up the BJP’s fortunes in the third phase—and they will wrest 32-35 of the 50 seats. The NDA will walk away with the lion’s share in the fourth phase too, they say—55 seats in north-west Bihar vote on November 1, places like Bettiah and Sitamarhi where Brahmins form a key segment. Muzaffarpur too has a strong Maithili Brahmin component. The OBCs too form a populous component and if they consolidate with the Muslims, they become a formidable force. Hyping up the suggestion that a 5 per cent quota for Muslims would damage OBCs is an attempt to subvert that alliance. The BJP’s contention is also that it’s getting the votes of not just the upper castes—Brahmin-Rajput-Bhumihar-Kayasth—but of a rainbow caste coalition, with a goodish portion of Koeris, Mallahs, Kumhars and Chandravanshis, part of the economically backward, and the Musahars from among the Mahadalits, going for Modi. An overt targeting of Lalu Prasad also helps—his old playground in the Kosi
belt falls here.
Even in the 57 seats that vote in the fifth phase, seen to be a Nitish-Lalu-Congress zone with a large concentration of Muslim votes in Seemanchal in the northeast—Kishanganj, Purnea, Katihar (where NCP’s Tariq Anwar is contesting)— the BJP is not giving up. It is banking on Maithili Brahmin pockets in Madhubani and Darbhanga, and on another little game in which the BJP is trying to draw out the other side in a polarized atmosphere, to an overt courting of the Muslim vote, so that a counter consolidation happens.
BJP leaders, Shah included, assert the party will get a “majority on its own”, with the 82 seats being contested by the allies, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP being the “icing on the cake”.
The BJP, however, desists from putting an assumptive figure to their victory calculation. So do the allies, among whom old warrior Paswan – contesting 40 seats now, as against the 75 he did in alliance with Lalu last time -- seems to be waning. Manjhi’s HAM, a fledgling party, is being tried out in 21 seats; and Kushwaha’s RLSP in 23. Of the allies, Manjhi seems to be bringing the maximum benefit to the BJP, in the form of a chunk of the Mahadalit vote.
The BJP is contesting 159 seats, for the first time in a lead role in Bihar. If it touches the half-way mark, winning around 125-130 seats on its own, the Modi Government will get fresh wind in its sails and push its agenda in Parliament —GST, labour law etc.—more vigorously. A defeat of the political forces challenging the Modi model would change the atmospherics. The Congress and Left, the bulwark of resistance in the Rajya Sabha, may find fewer takers for their line of argument.
Far-reaching changes in the field of higher education and cultural cleansing could be carried without much ado. The Congress, too, will have to rethink its strategy in Parliament and regional parties like Trinamool, Samajwadi Party, BSP and BJD would naturally prefer to plea-bargain with the BJP than play ball with spent forces. It could also result in a challenge from within to Sonia-Rahul’s dual leadership.
To begin with, the BJP would have to choose a chief minister. Sushil Modi was seen to be a natural choice at one time, but now it’s veering around to the idea of having a backward caste leader in the top job. Names like Prem Kumar, former RSS pracharak Rajender Singh and Rameshwar Chaurasia have been floated. If the Mahadalits appear as the bloc that tipped the scale in NDA’s favour, a leader from that segment, even Manjhi, may have a chance. Going by Maharashtra and Haryana, Modi-Shah may favour a fresh face. Someone who can also deliver in 2019 elections.
Internal politics in the BJP is also likely to dissipate. If Bihar falls to the BJP, there’s no looking back for Amit Shah. His tenure as party boss would be extended without the bat of a saffron eyelid.
The pending Cabinet reshuffle will proceed from a position of confidence. Politically, the up-tempo mood will infect the next round of elections, particularly in Assam, where the party already looks strong. It may even get emboldened to go it alone in Punjab, breaking its strained ties with the Akalis, and attack West Bengal and Kerala with vigour. Troublesome allies like Shiv Sena can be put in place, neutralising a constant pinprick. By 2017, Uttar Pradesh may be the next Hindi heartland state to fall into the BJP lap.
Internationally, an invincible Modi would be read as a marker of stability. This may just change the economic climate and finally persuade foreign investors to look at India with more than just casual interest. It may, hopefully, enable the Prime Minister to rein in the ‘Hindu fringe’—the extreme right and their self-serving proponents.
Nitish-Lalu Deals and BJP Dissidents Will Act Up
The effects of a victory of the Mandal satraps would hardly be restricted to Patna. In a political version of the butterfly effect, it would bring about a climate change in Delhi as well. A second defeat for the Modi-Shah duo after the Delhi debacle could also change the internal matrix of the BJP. The hitherto subdued disgruntled elements within the party are likely to raise their heads. Whether it would have a sobering effect on the likes of Sakshi Maharaj, Mahesh Sharma and Sangeet Som is debatable, but it would certainly change the way BJP conducts its politics. The Modi Government would have to rethink its Parliament strategy, too. A win for the Grand Alliance in Bihar will also put the Congress in a much better political frame to counter the BJP onslaught in Assam, despite the depletion its electoral fleet suffered after Hemanta Biswa Sarma’s exit.
Even with a victory, Nitish will only embark on a fresh set of challenges. He will have to opt for constructive politics because, without the Centre’s support, he will not be able to deliver half the promises made to the Bihar electorate. (The BJP could offer cooperation to shore up the chances of its own legislative agenda.) But for a totally non-partisan approach, Nitish will have to convince and get on board his alliance partners, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sonia-Rahul, who are more antagonistic towards the BJP. How post-election politics plays out in Bihar if the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine wins would depend on the nature of the victory. In fact, the shape of the government hinges on whether Nitish/JD(U) wrests a bigger number of seats than Lalu/RJD.
The Nitish-Lalu chemistry witnessed during the campaign —a sign of a real transaction on the ground in the form of an exchange of Keori-Kurmi and Yadav votes—may evaporate if the equation tips too much to one side. An assertive Lalu could become an albatross around Nitish’s neck; conversely, a confident Nitish may become too arrogant for Lalu’s digestion and result in a conflict. However, if the exigencies of political survival, which brought them together, is allowed to set the tone, Lalu would allow Nitish to run the government in a manner that he and his party accrues brownie points, which will bring in dividends in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, reviving his political fortunes.
In the event of a grand alliance victory, the choice of chief minister is of course settled. But the question of a deputy CM hangs in the air. If Lalu gets anywhere between 75-80 seats, he could thrust one of his progeny; either son Tejaswi Yadav or daughter Misa, as a deputy CM on the Nitish-led government. Not to mention the luxury of being able to have a bureaucracy of his choice. In the best-case scenario, with functional harmony between the two, Nitish will have to deepen social justice, attract investment to boost the economy, and give attention to areas like tourism infrastructure. For one lesson all have received from this election is that Bihar, undoubtedly, is turning aspirational and slowly moving out of its caste moorings.
Voices from the grand alliance and independent observers affirm that it has done well in the first two rounds—indeed, enough to put the BJP on the defensive initially—and restricted the NDA’s chances in the third phase too.
The caste arithmetic was decisively in its favour in the first two rounds. Besides the minority votes, the renewed focus on the reservation debate seems to have helped bring together and consolidate the Yadav and Kurmi/Koeri vote, parts of which were showing signs of liberating themselves from a pure caste based logic and floating towards an idea of growth. Despite the BJP’s optimistic projections for itself in the third phase, the JD(U) claims it has the numbers, despite sections of the EBCs going over. By their own projections, they will have enough to form a government by the time the fourth phase is over—the fifth, even if the Congress does well, it will be surplus.
The details apart, it’s the potential emergence of Nitish as a figure who offers an alternative model of governance around whom a realignment of forces can be envisaged on the national scene, which may be the lasting effect of a win in Bihar. And if he does offer such a prospect, it’s because of his style of governance. Already, Mamata Banerjee has emulated his initiative in Bengal, with free cycle schemes for girl students. In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav has effected a massive cabinet reshuffle and embarked on an image-building exercise, built around new infrastructure projects like the Lucknow metro and expressways. A Nitish win in a way will exude the political logic: if you do work, it will gain you lasting goodwill and electoral traction.
A Day of Opportunists and Soft Allies in Play
If no alliance gets a majority, the BJP would gladly take the risk of propping up Manjhi. Lalu cannot hold office because of his conviction and imprisonment in the fodder scam, nor can he contest elections. The BJP can only hope that the benefit of propping up a Dalit CM may serve it well in neighbouring UP (where the BSP lurks as a wounded, but dangerous rival). In fact, this has long been the BJP’s Plan-B. Saffron apparatchiks have worked out the logic behind this: an upbeat Lalu may not be willing to prop up a diminished Nitish as the Bihar CM and do him the favour of boosting his chances of being projected as the PM candidate of a Congress-supported alternative formation in 2019.
In a fragmented scenario, the lesser elements will naturally come into play. The kind of role Ram Vilas Paswan plays will be interesting. Though Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP are seen to be the soft spots of the NDA alliance, a hung verdict will give him some leverage. (If Paswan’s ticket distribution has been questionable, Kushwaha is seen to have bitten more than he can chew.) There are other players: NCP has distanced itself from the SP now after breaking the grand alliance with it, and could join a Nitish-led regime. On the other side, RJD rebel Pappu Yadav would surely not mind propping up the BJP. The smaller parties could also have to strain to keep their identity and flock together—there is a rumour in Patna that Manjhi’s party for instance may move lock, stock and barrel back to the JD(U), sans Manjhi of course.
Is there an outside chance that Nitish and BJP can come together again, in the event of a hung verdict? It looks like a highly improbable proposition.