BIHAR OPTS TO GO BACKWARDS TO GO FORWARD
As voting begins in the state to elect a new government, caste alliances are driving elections under the catch-all phrase of ‘development’. In a ground report, Hardnews travelled through the state to understand which way the wind is blowing
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
The Bihar Assembly elections are primarily a fight between two ‘coalitions of extremes’, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, the Lok Janshakti Party and the Hindustan Awam Morcha and the Grand Secular Alliance (GSA) or ‘Maha Gathbandan’ comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and the Congress.
This election is turning out to be an ugly, no-holds-barred battle. Voting has already begun, and a growing number of voices from the state suggest a strong resistance by the Nitish Kumar-led coalition to the well funded Narendra Modi-led juggernaut is shaping up.
There has been a gradual shift even in the pre-poll surveys that had earlier projected the NDA as a clear winner. Some observers still give it an edge, others suggest a win for both, in different ways: the headline says one thing whereas the body of the copy says just the opposite. This pseudo-scientific farce will end on November 8, but who is complaining?
On October 12 the first round of voting took place, after nearly three months of campaigning. There are many national issues that will get tested in the process. The foremost would be a vote on Modi’s popularity and whether he alone can win state elections in a federal polity, with a strong state leadership. The last time he tried to repeat his success from the general election, he got a severe drubbing in the Delhi Assembly elections. Secondly, this will be a referendum on Modi’s 16-month rule and whether people see him delivering on the promises he made during the 2014 parliamentary election campaign. There is growing communal tension in different parts of the country in the last year on issues close to the agenda of the Hindu Right such as the beef ban, ‘ghar wapsi’ and ‘Love Jihad’. Lastly, this will also be a vote on Nitish’s leadership and the work he has done since coming to power. In other words, the poll outcome will answer many questions pertaining to the future of secularism and pluralism that people have been raising.
The Bihar elections will serve as a litmus test to ascertain whether the ‘Modi wave’ is still coursing through the cities, towns and villages of the country. The NDA decided to fight the elections under the leadership of Modi and did not declare a chief ministerial candidate. On the other hand, the GSA is being steered by Nitish, the
The two main factors influencing the vote are development and caste. Yet, to look at these issues in isolation or to narrow down the discussion to only them would be problematic. The elections are a complex melange of overlapping issues that stem from the peculiar social system, hierarchy and history of Bihar.
We travelled through Bihar in late September, listening to what the people had to say, what they thought and what, according to them, would determine the elections. At the time, people were guarded in expressing their choices. There was visibly no ‘hawa’ then, but we discerned that the ground reality was fast shifting.
(A Dalit voter in the outskirts of Kishanganj)
Where does my vote go?
“My vote will go to Nitish and Lalu, they are our caste brothers and we will vote for them, the BJP has done nothing for the poor in the time they have been in power at the Centre,” said our rickshaw-puller, who belonged to the Yadav caste and wanted his name to remain anonymous. He talked with a clear understanding of the politics. “Development has taken place under Nitish, he brought cycles and roads to villages,” he said. At the same time, he raised an issue that is influencing choices. “Nitish and Lalu both have strong leaders in our constituency and if one of them defects to another party our vote will be compromised.”
Bihar is an extremely politically aware state, with each person versed with political nuances. ‘In Bihar people relate with politics just as they eat their paan,’ said JD (U) leader Ali Anwar Ansari.The state has the most articulate citizens. In every district we travelled through, one phrase remained constant, “we will be looking at the candidates fielded by each party and not the party alone.” As this election is fought by a combination of unlikely alliances it is no longer an easy decision for the voter.
The seat distribution has been a cause of worry for most parties. The seat-sharing formulae have seen the state being divided amongst the alliance partners. This has meant that sitting MLAs have had to stand down to accommodate representatives from other parties to respect the seat
The Gathbandan has distributed the tickets evenly between the two state parties with each getting 101 seats and the Congress 41. On the contrary, the NDA camp has been riven with dissension due to serious differences over seat distribution.
Most vocal has been Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM), dissatisfied with the number of seats that his party has got. The infighting in the NDA could prove to be its nemesis in many constituencies. Modi was called to Bhagalpur to quell the infighting.
There is such an overlap between different political parties that voters have forgotten who represents which party. Political aspirants change their loyalty like their clothes if they do not get a party ticket. What about the voters? Do they follow their leaders? Only November 8 will tell, but many voters have a fair idea on whom to dump.
All parties faced problems of candidate selection, and in many cases these exploded into unrest. We met Prof. Shabbir Ahmad, Janata Dal (United) town president of Muzaffarpur, and his understudy, KishanChoudhary, who was hoping for the Sakra ticket. Choudhary earlier had reconciled with not getting a ticket in this election, but then his hopes soared again. “A friend of mine has been given the seat by the BJP,” he said, “His wife feeds me with her own hands and this has turned things in my favour.” He didn’t get the seat, it went to the RJD.
When Satish Yadav defected from the JD(U), Raghopur fell in the constituencies allocated to the RJD and
Lalu chose to field his son, Tejaswi. It was the constituency of Rabri Devi, wife of Lalu and mother of Tejaswi, and sources in the party are confident that Yadav junior will win with a thumping majority.
Many who have been denied seats have staged protests and in many instances these have become public and vocal. Much of the distress that the BJP has been experiencing is due to those who failed to get a ticket. The BJP Minister of Parliament from Barrah, RK Singh, said that instead of sitting MLAs being given tickets, the candidates fielded by the party are criminals and it is no surprise that the party workers are enraged. “I have been a party worker for the past 30 years, and this is how my party rewards me?” said a party worker protesting outside the BJP office in Patna.
This surely has affected the voting dynamic in the race, as both parties have cut sitting MLAs from their rosters. Those denied tickets joined the third front consisting of the Samajwadi Party (SP). The nationalist Congress left the front, smelling a tacit understanding of the SP with the BJP.
So, though visibly it is being fought by the two major alliances, the election is actually being fought by multiple alliances.
However, veteran political stalwarts like Abdul Bari Siddiqui have set aside these fears. Talking to Hardnews he said that these minor upheavals will always take place, like tiny eruptions. After campaigning has started they are soon forgotten. According to him, the way politics is fought in the state has changed. There is a marked difference in the way candidates were selected in the past. Earlier, it was merit that was given precedence instead of familial or personal connection. However, these problems stemming from the process of candidate selection and seat allocation seems similar to 1990-style coalition politics.
(RJD party workers coming out of the party office in Patna)
An election of alliances
Shaibal Gupta, of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), in a conversation with Hardnews called this election one in which ‘coalitions of extremes’ have been stitched together, both in the case of the BJP and the Grand Secular Alliance.
The NDA has stitched together an extreme, caste-based coalition which an observer called ‘formidable’. Even in candidate selection, the BJP has been more democratic in certain cases. “They have found good young workers in the field and given them tickets,” the observer said. “They have tried to capture the entire caste spectrum in their coalition.”
Sanjay Mayukh, BJP media spokesperson, said, “We are winning, our coalition is strong, our candidates are strong and we are fighting on issues of development.”
The NDA allies together represent a backward vote that includes a large section of the backward castes, and accounts for nearly 65 seats amongst them. The BJP represents the upper castes, which once belonged to the Congress. The BJP is trying to stitch together a caste coalition like they did in Haryana that makes Muslim-Yadav consolidation irrelevant. Gupta recognises the need for a massive “backward mobilisation to stop the BJP.”
There are many who criticise the coalition tactics of the BJP. JD(U) MP Ali Anwar Ansari feels a discussion about EBC is a smokescreen as the majority of the seats have been given to upper castes. In the case of Manjhi, he said that, other than Jitan Ram and his son, the number of seats given to Dalits is negligible.
A similar coalition had helped Nitish capture the state in 2005 – a mobilisation that he achieved with the NDA. Now, 10 years later, following a landslide defeat in the general election, he has turned towards Lalu who has been his opponent for the past 20 years.
Lalu was politically discredited by the JD(U)-NDA coalition that ruled the state, their existence based on countering the lawlessness brought by the Yadavs. This election will determine the future of Lalu; his viability and legacy are tied to the performance in this election. So is the future of both his sons,Tejaswi and Tej Pratap.
Elections in Bihar are essentially about formulae based on caste mobilisation. And in every election the manner and the formula with which they are mobilised changes. In the general election, Nitish’s focused on the poor, but failed. The RJD vote share in the general election was higher than that of the JD(U), but lower than that of the BJP. Together the RJD and JD(U) had a higher vote percentage than the BJP.
His attempts to rally behind the EBCs too failed with his experiment with Jitan Ram Manjhi. Many in Patna claim that Nitish has a very small vote percentage himself, “little or none”. “But it is his popularity that cuts through all the castes and communities and that is why he is still the favoured Chief Ministerial candidate after 10 years of rule.”
While those in the BJP counter this, Mayukh says, “They [the Maha Gathbandhan] play politics of reservation and caste while we play the politics of development. We all forget that it was in an alliance with us that Nitish became who he is. And as long as our remote control worked, the government worked.”
This alliance has forced the Modi-led BJP to fight at two levels. Lalu and Nitish represent these two levels. The first represents the age-old forward castes versus backward castes dynamic, and Nitish represents the image of development. His alliance has projected itself as a secular alternative to the divisive politics of the BJP.
Then there are fears amongst the minority leaders in the opposition parties. According to Ansari, the future of the country will be decided, and this is when we must protect it from becoming another Pakistan. “We will oppose the anti-democratic forces represented by the BJP,” he says.
The patch-up between Nitish and Lalu is seen to be a unique reunion. Sunil Yadav, a party secretary in the RJD, recounted the Swabhiman rally held on August 30.
“During the Swabhiman rally, in which the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress shared the dais, the entirety of Patna zilla was full of people; they came from far and wide on their own to see what was happening.” They came to see the triumphant return of their leader, Lalu, he adds.
Not everyone is happy with Nitish’s association with the RJD supremo and the Congress.
“The association of Nitish with Lalu has left a bad taste in my mouth,” said an upper-caste auto-driver, who couldn’t understand why Nitish, who has done excellent work, had to get into an alliance with the Congress, which has been accused of corruption, and the RJD, whose Lalu brought ‘jungle raj’ to the state.
“Everything you see today, even us travelling at night, is given to us by Nitish Kumar, he has brought unprecedented development to our state,” he said.
Even the BJP has picked up on this contradiction, trying to drive a wedge on the issue. It is evident that the Maha Gathbandhan, and its narrative, in terms of caste stands in opposition to the BJP. The Prime Minister, in his several speeches in the state, has targetted Lalu as the devil or ‘shaitan’ . He, warns Modi, will bring Jungle Raj II to the state.
But political circles in Patna are clear that it is Lalu who is bringing in the support, and the vote. He is the tallest leader of the Yadavs, regarded as the man who gave them political legitimacy and power. “We could not sit like this and talk to you, if it wasn’t for Lalu.”
There are contrarian opinions on the vote-catching capacity of Nitish. Some say he has no real vote base: “He has a floating vote, the Kurmis represent a small vote, but his popularity is such that it cuts across the caste and class barriers,” said a local journalist. “It is Lalu who is bringing in the votes, he is the force behind this alliance.”
The BJP has selected several Yadav candidates to counter Lalu, and they will be strong opponents of the RJD candidates.
Who is this ‘Vikas’?
Mayukh says, “Our Chief Minister is an idea, not a person. It is the idea of development or vikas, and the people of Bihar understand that.”
Development or vikas is the catchword for this election. It is a word used endlessly not only by party leaders, but also by the common man.Village after village echoes this word. “We don’t care where our vote goes, till we understand that person is willing to give vikas.”
The idea of governance and development took root in the public imagination after the 2014 general election. “There is an essential difference between those engaged in the market and those who are not, and that affects the vote. Those who deal with the market will move towards the BJP as it is their party, while the rural areas will tell another story,” said Gupta.
It is clear that the BJP is the party of the merchants and traders and it doesn’t matter whether they are Yadavs or Nepalis, as long as they run a business and are connected to business they will support the party. Patna, Kishanganj and Purnea are towns that showed support for Modi in the early days, but it melted as the voting began.
“The Bihar economy is not fully integrated into the national and the global, so the words of Modi, his model, his experience in Gujarat have very little influence on the state,” said an economic analyst in Patna. However, there is a definite fascination with the PM’s charisma, his rhetoric of ‘achhe din’ has not died down in Patna and in areas of Madhuban—a stronghold of Koeris and the Brahmins.
Urban Patna is not very happy with the work Nitish has done, it claims that not much has changed in the city. Movement has increased and so has safety, but traffic jams glut the pot-holed roads.
Rural Bihar (88% of the state is rural) tells another story. It has been the focus of the Nitish government, and it is here that it is said he has done the most work.
“He gave us cycles, he gave us roads and he brought electricity,” said a rickshaw-puller in Patna. All the women who have come out to vote in big numbers have been major beneficiaries of Nitish’s policies. In fact, many of them feel safer than they ever felt before.
Under Nitish, roads have been built and highways connect large parts of the state. However, for much of the time he has been in power, it has been with BJP support. From the Prime Minister, and senior ministers such as Radha Mohan Singh to party workers, they have not missed any opportunity to remind him of this.
“Till the party was in an association with us, they were working fine, it was us who were in control, our remote controller was what was keeping the party in check,” said Rajesh Singh, a BJP worker from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. He is one of many workers the BJP has brought in to manage poll booths.
In 2013, after eight years of being in a coalition with the BJP, Nitish broke away after Modi was selected the prime ministerial candidate over him. He contested the general election alone, and suffered a dismal show. He resigned as Chief Minister and appointed Jitan Ram Manjhi in his place. The decision was catastrophic, and Nitish had to oust him and resume his position.
This series of events has had no effect on the popularity of the chief minister, if opinion polls are anything to go by, even trumping that of the Prime Minister in the state.
While development, packages and progress are the relevant issues, the BJP’s Hindutva agenda through its ‘beef politics’ is not working in the state. The RSS is helping the BJP, but the party would hope that their volunteers are able to get their voters out. At the same time, the BJP in the state has been distanced from the workings of the RSS. Sushil Modi, it is said, is not close to their agenda, and this has created a distance. While leaders such as Giriraj Singh are present in the state, the Bihar unit’s leadership does not engage as visibly with
the Hindutva agenda.
Journalists comment, “The money of the BJP can fix most things, if they see dissent they buy it out, they know what will bring people to their side under any circumstances.” If the election is won, it will be on the organisational strength of the BJP.
It is said that each candidate is being given an individual budget by the central party to fight the elections.
Mayukh says, “We bring in as many people as necessary to bring about awareness about the importance of the vote and what our party will be doing for them.” Union Ministers, local leaders and party workers from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states have flocked to help out.
Poll booth management is the BJP’s strength, it has brought nearly 30 people for each booth. “You cannot say we are bringing outsiders into the state, because we are all Indians,” said Mayukh.
Nitish versus who?
“The BJP doesn’t have a chief ministerial candidate, and that makes a difference. Modi and other leaders are going into villages and saying that the chief minister will be of their caste (biradari),” says Sunil Yadav of the RJD. It will not work, he adds. “The voter in Bihar is not stupid, he can see through these tactics of Modi and the BJP.”
The issue has even started to bother the educated among the upper castes. Two youths, one works at a bank and the other with the electricity board, said, “The BJP still has our vote, because Nitish and Lalu have come together, but we are frightened that they will make someone CM who is subservient to the RSS, like in Jharkhand, Haryana or Maharashtra. We don’t want that to happen.If they bring the beef agenda, Bihar will explode. Nitish is still the best, but we can’t vote for him any longer.”
The BJP has been working on its organisational structure in the state, and has made major headway. A visible sign of this was the vote share (29%) that it got in the 2014 general election.
(Professor Shabir Ahmad and Kishan Choudhary (R) Janta Dal (U) party workers in conversation with Hardnews in Patna )
Nitish has been working to create an image independent of the BJP and for this he brought in Prashant Kishore, the man behind Modi’s campaign. He has travelled all over the country, wooing those who left the state to work elsewhere. He shared the dais with Arvind Kejriwal, knocked on people’s doors, and undertook the controversial ‘Badha Chala Bihar’ campaign.
In 2005, the JD(U) relied on the cadre system of the BJP, using it for groundwork. Now, the gap is being bridged with programmes that showcase the work done by the Nitish government. The party has activated workers in different parts of the state.
While the groundwork may not have the same strength as that of the BJP, allying with Lalu and the Congress has bolstered their chances. The effort is visible now. The voter sees and is extremely pleased. The JD(U) has electrified over 36,000 villages (that’s 4,000 short of the total number of villages in the state), and there is resounding support for the party in the countryside. Many have said, “Nitish is Bihar, and Bihar is Nitish.”
At the same time, the cult following of Lalu is said to be the main driver of the vote. Lalu’s speeches have been directed at the PM, criticising him and questioning his regime andits promises.
In a bid to subvert the Yadav vote, the BJP has attempted to field its own candidates from the community. Lalu maintains that this election is a fight between the backward and forward castes. Both narratives attempt to polarise the vote.
In Bihar one finds an aversion towards the communal agenda, but in such a staggered election one does not know when a spark can turn into a fire. The interior villages are living contradictions to the communal fervour in the rest of the country. These villages are aware what caste or religion is in a majority and the vote snowballs. If the Muslims are in a majority, the vote will swing in the direction the Muslims are voting. Reporters in Purnea and Kishanganj talk of midnight sessions the night before the vote, where it is decided which way the entire community or village will vote.
Nitish urges people not to be swayed by the BJP’s rhetoric or promises. Meanwhile, Modi pledges a package
Before the polling started it seemed that it would all come down to the wire, and possibly end in a photo-finish., now observers are wiser.