Bihar’s thwack in the face of the BJP

The state is not as communally polarised as neighbouring UP and Bihari sub-nationalism had a stronger pull than religious issues in the polls 

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Six weeks before voting began in Bihar, Hardnews visited villages across the state to measure which way the prevailing wind was blowing. Now that the so-called ‘Grand Alliance’ has so thoroughly defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the observations made in the run-up to the polls offer some added insights into the outcome.

Seemanchal, particularly, presents an interesting case study to gauge the impact of the different election strategies employed by the BJP and the alliance of the Janata Dal-United (JDU), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Indian National Congress.

Along the banks of the Mahananda, Barsamiya, the invisible ‘tola’ of mainly Yadavs, Muslims and Badhais (carpenters, Kurmis) faces erosion every year when fertile land is swallowed by the river. The residents of the village do menial jobs to survive. Some make ropes while others go fishing to earn a living. However, their political acumen came as a surprise to me. Having grown up in post-Babri Uttar Pradesh, where communal conflagrations remain routine, I expected the same impact in Bihar. After all, in UP, Hindu-Muslim polarisation in the recently held Lok Sabha polls resulted in a near whitewash for the BJP. Only the state’s two powerful dynasties, the Yadavs and Gandhis, could save their seats.

Not so in Bihar, locals told me.

“There isn’t any point why we should go in a different direction from the Muslims,” an elderly man from the Yadav community explained. “We are aware that it is the Muslims whose vote decides the winner. Why should we antagonise them, knowing that our vote won’t make a big difference? We have to ultimately live together.” Other villagers listening to the conversation nodded in agreement.

Muslim residents echoed those sentiments. “We don’t believe in jaat-bhedbav (caste or communal differences). There is no communal tension in this area. The real problem is the river that you see in front of you,” said Mohammad Junaid Alam, pointing toward the Mahananda.

In a press conference right after the landslide victory, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav pointed out that communal forces had made a concerted effort to instigate disturbances in the state around the festivals of Dussehra and Moharram. In several instances, miscreants employed textbook methods such as throwing a dead pig near a mosque or dumping a dead cow close to a temple. But none led to any flare-up. 

“This is what differentiates UP from Bihar,” Shaibal Gupta, a senior economist and commentator on Bihar said at the time. “The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) network is not very strong here.” Barring pockets like Bhagalpur, which have seen riots in the past, the rest of the state is not as communalised as UP.  

“The riot machinery described by Paul Brass, which is entrenched in a state like UP, doesn’t exist in Bihar,” pointed out Tanweer Fazal, associate professor of sociology at JNU in Delhi. This is perhaps why, while the elections were on in Bihar, it was the states of UP and Jharkhand that witnessed serious communal incidents, including the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on the mere suspicion of consuming beef in Dadri. In the aftermath of that crime, various BJP leaders attempted to make it an election issue in Bihar, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who brought it up to target Lalu in one of his campaign speeches. The BJP also took out communal-oriented advertisements, including one with a picture of a cow, in the last phase of polling – earning a rap on the knuckles from an otherwise lenient Election Commission and a flurry of complaints from the opposition parties. 

In retrospect, it was a flawed strategy.

A post-poll study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) says that, while a majority of the people surveyed supported a beef ban, the campaign didn’t translate into a polarisation of votes in favour of the BJP. Instead, curiously, the study says the election campaigns played a major role in the elections and almost a quarter of the voters made their decisions in the last days of campaigning. The anti-reservation comment by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat also didn’t play a major role in how the people voted.

 

Lalu, throughout the campaign, was seen with RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts and the results show a near consolidation of the Backward Caste votes in favour of the Grand Alliance. Only the upper caste voters and some of the vote bank being brought in by the likes of Ram Vilas Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha seem to have stuck around the BJP-led alliance. Gupta, in a recently held seminar on the Bihar elections, suggested that the CSDS look into the way Bihari sub-nationalism played a role in the way people voted. Bihari and Bahari, indeed, became a big issue in the state.    

Drop Drop Drop

The decision by All India Majlis e Ittehadul Muslimeen President Asaduddin Owaisi to contest  six seats in Seemanchal made the contest even more intriguing.

Seemanchal, a term given to this region owing to its proximity to the Nepal and Bangladesh borders, has been at the bottom rung of the ladder on most development indices. The region also has a sizeable number of Muslims, who play a decisive role in many Assembly segments here. Many of them are Suhrawardis, a term signifying those who migrated from what is now Bangladesh during Shershah Suri’s rule. Unlike in Assam, where the Bengali-speaking Muslims are summarily branded as Bangladeshis by the BJP, and along with Bangladeshi Hindus are viewed with contempt by the Ahomiya chauvinists, the Suhrawardis have assimilated with other communities. 

Initially, the Muslims of Seemanchal were enthused by the AIMIM’s entry into the fray. They had seen Owaisi holding his own on the many news channels, where he is regularly invited to be part of discussions. His younger brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi, was attractive to those who were looking at a scrap with the majority community and the State. AIMIM had no organisational base in Bihar, yet it decided to field candidates. “It might win some votes this time. His chances will be brighter in the next elections, that too if he stays put,” Mohd Sadiq, who runs a pharmacy in Kishanganj, said prior to the voting.

Owaisi, in his rallies, made the backwardness of Seemanchal, along with the need for a Muslim political party, the centre of his election campaign. At first, thousands thronged to his rallies, which is unusual for a small party, but later crowds began to desert him. Many saw Owaisi’s foray as backed by the BJP—the idea being to cannibalise votes from the Grand Alliance. But the area’s Muslims – perhaps galvanised by the BJP’s unpleasant rhetoric – were not ready to waste their votes for a party which could hurt their desire to preserve communal amity. The AIMIM, despite all the noise it had created in Delhi TV studios, could not win a single seat. However, it did manage to corner around eight per cent of votes in the six Muslim-dominated constituencies.   

For the BJP, which faces a tough test in Assam, West Bengal and then in Uttar Pradesh, there are big lessons to learn from this election. It needs to listen to its state leaders like Bhola Singh, rather than allowing its national leadership to unleash majoritarianism to garner votes. While polarisation may work in a state like UP, where the ruling Samajwadi Party is facing an anti-incumbency vote owing to its misrule and the BSP is yet to recover from its wipeout in the Lok Sabha polls, Assam and West Bengal are a very different ballgame.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2015