The countdown to the three-phased 2020 assembly poll in Bihar beginning October 28 is turning out to be singular even by the state’s own unpredictably chaotic standards. The political churn at work may for the first time help the BJP emerge as the dominant political force in a region where caste centric formations like the JDU (Janata Dal United), and the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) have held sway under the leadership of Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav since the 1990s.
Pushing the two regional parties to the margins like the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh, however, will not be easy given the sharper caste polarization in Bihar. The BJP, on its part, has yet to throw up a single regional leader with the political influence of Nitish or Laloo. Even the RSS has failed to be a force multiplier despite long years of work at the grassroots under the revered Kailashpati Mishra, the Bhishmapitamah of the Bihar BJP, who died in 2012.
Even in UP, the choice of Yogi Adityanath was a last-minute compulsion since a faceless leader, howsoever competent, would have frittered away the mandate. Yogi alone had a captive base which extended beyond his political turf, Gorakhpur. Going by its choices it can safely be assumed that the party leadership is averse to appointing strong CMs to keep intact the appeal of Narendra Modi at the national stage.
Two factors have given the BJP an opening in Bihar: anti-incumbency against an ageing Nitish after a decade as chief minister; and the compulsions of dynastic change within the RJD with a sick Laloo Yadav cooling his heels in jail. Nitish’s own realization of his declining political fortunes compelled him to agree to a virtual fifty-fifty (122-121) seat distribution in a House of 243. Both parties will in turn give 6-7 seats each from their quota to minor allies.
Given Nitish’s voluntary climbdown, it was only sensible of the BJP to reassure him that he will remain CM regardless of which party gets more seats if the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is voted back to power. The clarification was necessary given the efforts of its ally, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), to drive a wedge between the leading partners. Like the RJD, the LJP has undergone a generational change in which the party’s ailing founder, Ram Vilas Paswan, currently Union Minister, has handed over the party’s reins to his over ambitious son, Chirag, the Lok Sabha MP from Jamui. Chirag, a failed actor, is currently LJP president and is desperate to expand the party’s influence by hook or crook.
Chirag’s decision to quit the NDA at the state level by putting up candidates against each JDU nominee to ensure their defeat and help BJP emerge the largest single party, and have its own CM, is a gambit which is unlikely to work. The stratagem, in fact, may already have sown the seeds of suspicion between the two parties. The LJP lacks the resources, poll machinery, and financial muscle to challenge the JDU in 122 seats without the BJP’s help. Retaining Ram Vilas in the Union ministry on the premise that removing a recognized Dalit leader with a precarious health condition would not go down well with the electorate is at best a specious explanation.
That a sizeable section of the Bihar BJP favors dumping Nitish at the earliest is no secret given his past betrayal. The CM’s decision to walk out of the NDA in 2015 and join the RJD led mahagatbandhan still rankles. Getting the state assembly to pass a resolution against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) earned him further displeasure. Nitish remains as slippery as an eel, and as envious of Narendra Modi as ever. Political compulsions alone brought him back to the NDA in 2017. The BJP was forced to accommodate him due to its own compulsions which Nitish knew only too well.
The competitive bid of national parties to stay politically relevant at the state level helps insignificant groupings like the LJP to punch above its weight. The Paswan community comprises six of the 13 per cent of the Dalit vote in Bihar. Ram Vilas Paswan, an eight time MP, has been their undisputed leader ever since he decided to split from the JDU in 2000. The LJP and JDU have been at daggers drawn since. Paswan himself is famous for his political flip-flops. He was a cabinet minister in Vajpayee regime, quit the NDA over the 2002 Gujarat riots, and fought the 2004 LS poll as a UPA ally to win four seats. The LJP’s best performance in the assembly polls was in 2005 when it won 29 seats. The number slipped to 10 in the 2006 repoll which became necessary after a brief spell of President’s rule. The party scraped the bottom of the barrel in the 2009 LS poll as a member of the fourth front comprising the RJD and the SP. Three seats is all it won in the 2010 assembly poll which it fought as an RJD ally.
Fear of political irrelevance brought Paswan back into the NDA fold in 2014 when it struck gold with six LS seats, thanks to the Modi wave. In the 2015 state polls it won just two of the 40 seats it contested.
With such a pathetic electoral record, there is no way in which the LJP can hope to replace the JDU as the BJP’s principal ally in Bihar. There is thus no way in which Nitish can be dumped in the foreseeable future. Taking advantage of his weakness to win more seats is all the party should be focused on for now.
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