Bihar Assembly Elections: It's more than an election

Published: May 29, 2015 - 17:52 Updated: May 30, 2015 - 16:16

Abeer Kapoor Delhi 

The Bihar Assembly elections scheduled for later this year—in either September or October according to Chief Election Commissioner—has been dubbed as the ‘mother of all elections’. There is a reason! Its outcome will determine not just the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ability to win elections for his party in any part of the country, but it will also show whether the old fashioned caste-based politics has enough appeal to overwhelm the new political paradigm driven by a combination of development and majoritarianism. 

This past year has been tumultuous for Bihar’s politics. Much of the blame for the turmoil rests on Nitish Kumar after he resigned as Chief Minister following the severe drubbing of his JD (U) party in the May 2014 elections. He resigned to accept responsibility for the loss, but this decision unleashed a chain of events that has not affected governance, but has destabilised his party’s well-established constituency. Since then he is perceived to have committed a series of blunders that invited scrutiny of the media and opposition parties. His decision to wrest back control of the government from his appointee, Jitan Ram Manjhi, displayed his vulnerability and an unsteadiness that shook the confidence of his supporters. Manjhi, an erstwhile bonded labourer belonging to the Musahar caste [a Mahadalit caste], became the CM and grew in stature and popularity, backed by the BJP, as Nitish became confused and hassled. Manjhi’s government was in power for little under a year, but he is moving around as if he can upset Nitish’s best made plans. 

A lot has changed in the short period since Nitish relinquished his control over the state and then returned. A new force is sweeping the caste dynamic of Bihar. Under the BJP in the 2014 general elections, the lower caste mobilisation, which had determined the electoral fortunes of parties in the past, gave way to one that is contingent on the upper caste vote. The parliament elections represented a reversal of the forces unleashed under the tenure of famous backward caste leader, Karpoori Thakur, whose legacy has dominated the political landscape of the state for nearly thirty years. Now there seems to be a fundamental change in the discourse of caste politics in Bihar. The period where RJD and JD(U) alternated the CM’s position in the state is coming to an end. The BJP has been working in the Seemanchal region since the end of the Lalu Prasad Yadav government and hopes to reap rich dividends from there. 

In the years following the election in 2005, the BJP has been working through RSS and ABVP towards gaining a foothold in the region. The most notable indication is the incident when the Aligarh Muslim University was not allowed to set up a campus in Kishanganj. In the 2014 general elections, the anti-incumbency feeling towards the JD(U) has set in and the party at the Centre has been the largest beneficiary; this is to such an extent that even the Magadha region, the party’s stronghold, had been taken away from its hands. The alliances undertaken in the general election by the BJP helped in creating a campaign that cut across various castes and communities, bringing in as many diverse vote-banks as possible. Through its alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, the BJP cleverly position itself in the differentiated landscape that is Bihar. 

Along with its allies, the BJP accounted for 38.8% of Bihar’s vote-share in the May 2014 parliament elections, winning 31 of the 40 seats in the state. Alone it won 22 out of the 30 seats it contested. Among the upper castes, 78% voted for them in the general elections. BJP swept Tirhut, Mithila and the Magadha districts [barring one seat in the region]. In the 2009 general elections, the BJP only managed to get 12 seats in the state, with a vote share of 13.93%, while the JD(U) had won 20 seats with a vote share of 24.04%. In 2014, the JD(U) only managed to win two seats. 

The vote bank of the JD(U) traditionally has been the Kurmis and the Koeris—the upwardly mobile caste that has assumed the position of kshatriya, but still falls under the OBC category. Until 2013, the alliance of BJP with JD(U) guaranteed votes of both the JD(U)’s base and the upper castes—on the condition that top ministerial berths were guaranteed to the upper caste Rajputs, a move pleasing for the BJP. As opposed to the clear dismissal of these demands by the Lalu government, Nitish complied with these demands of the BJP. This can be identified as the changing wind in which the increasing weight of upper caste discontent with the current political scenario is evident. In this assembly election, caste will again be a driving force. The banishing of Manjhi, the masterstroke to open up a new vote bank that was once out of the reach of JD(U)’s backward caste leadership, might backfire. This has deprived Nitish of support to counter the Modi wave. The spat between Manjhi and Nitish had taken epic proportions earlier this year, when a ‘trust vote’ was initiated in Bihar’s Vidhan Sabha. The stage for the triumphant return of Kumar was thus set, that too in the election year, in the hope that he would save a fledgling party. 

Meanwhile, the BJP is likely to get into an alliance with Manjhi and his party the Hindustan Awam Morcha. Manjhi has had a few meetings with Modi. The discourse of ‘development’ as co-opted by the BJP with the lower caste vote that Manjhi can muster, is seemingly a the nail in the coffin of the JD(U), and opens the way for a BJP-led government, similar to what happened in Jharkhand, last year. However, the Congress is convinced that these elections will serve as the final deathblow to the BJP wave under Modi. The talks of a unified Janata Parivar, with all the factions contesting elections together against the BJP, too, seems to have failed. The seat sharing talks have been underway for almost three months now, and the party leaders themselves are aware of the unlikelihood of such a move before the Bihar elections. 

The caste dynamic still holds a vice-like grip over the elections in the state. Despite the prime minister’s call to rise above the agendas of caste, the BJP senior leadership in the state have attended caste-based meetings.  Figures and symbols have already been appropriated. While the symbols of the Janata Parivar are familiar, the BJP has been actively courting the Bhumihars, by exalting poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s works and making the case for the Bharat Ratna to be conferred on him. 

The real struggle, though, is for the JD(U), and they will have their work cut out for them after the series of populist policies passed by the Manjhi government in the last hours of his tenure in the office. In March, these policies were annulled by the Nitish government to restore his primacy in the state—but has it worked?