Bihar polls
Voters queue up to cast their ballots for Bihar state assembly elections at a polling station in Masaurhi on October 28, 2020 Image Credit: AFP

These are polls like never before. Although there are as many as five alliances and 26 varieties of political parties in fray in assembly elections for the Indian state of Bihar, to attract 70 million voters, it is essentially a fight between the powerful Bhartiya Janta party (BJP) and its main challenger Tejashwi Yadav, son and political heir of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

BJP is trying hard to secure its own place by becoming the single largest party in an assembly of 243 seats. The party is attempting, although crudely, who its opposition should be in coming decade by lending covert support to sundry parties including to the ambitious Chirag Paswan, son and political heir of the towering Dalit leader Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti party.

The voters of the ruling alliance are confused because Chirag, part of the NDA in New Delhi, is sharply targeting incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar and his Janta Dal-United (JDU), which is BJP’s ally too. Seeing Chirag’s formula of love-Modi-hate-Nitish formula, a Patna-based analyst said, “we haven’t seen a Chirag-type of dalit who is out and out right-winger. How strange is this where some of the anti-Nitish Kumar votes may shift to RJD, fuelled by Chirag under the watch of the BJP? We just don’t know what’s on?”

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Bhupendra Yadav, in charge of the Bihar election and fast-rising leader of the BJP, told Gulf News, “The BJP and Nitish ji want to take Bihar to a new destination, new politics and new alternatives. Just wait and see, how new surprising options, even, in the opposition space will emerge through this election.”

It’s an open secret that the BJP is tired of pillion riding with CM Nitish Kumar in the driving seat. Having 40 Lok Sabha seats, Bihar is too important a state to not have BJP’s serious attention.

End of Mandal-era leaders?

BJP, which doesn’t have strong mass-based leader in the state was waiting for its move patiently. Through this election it wants to cut to size not just the RJD and the JD-U of Nitish Kumar but some of its own old hacks from the pre-Modi era, including Sushil Kumar Modi who are out of sync with BJP’s plan for the future of Bihar.

The central theme of the election is this: In the last 30 years, Bihar’s two most powerful and successful leaders, former Chief Minister Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar, who have ruled Bihar for 15 years each, are now “Dhalta Suraj”(have entered the sunset of their career) but they haven’t fully left the battlefield yet. This election is a precursor of what Bihar will be after these heroes of the caste-based reservation exit Patna.

These stalwarts were beneficiaries of the Mandal politics in the 1980s, which gave political power firmly in hands of the backward and most backward castes. They explored the psychology, sociology and philosophy of caste and exploited it to come to power and retain it.

Increasingly, the Mandal politicians are finding limitations of the caste-centric politics, including younger ones, Chirag and Tejashwi, with the rise of BJP and more so after Modi’s rise. Modi and his deputy Amit Shah’s election strategy is a clever mix of strong leadership plus Mandal and Kamandal (Saffron politics) on the ground. BJP is creating “frenemies” for future use by covert politics. They want obliging “vote katuas” when the real opponent emerges against it through current churning.

While BJP wants to win Bihar exclusively, in the coming decade, two dynasts Tejashwi and Chirag are also in a desperate fight to fill-in the vacuum that is going to be created by the exit of the elders, from their respective parties. Tejashwi has a much richer legacy of his father and is emerging as a bit of a haughty player of the street politics than Chirag. The tag of “9th standard fail” is a dampener in 2020 for Tejashwi but age is on his side.

Fight for survival

The Yadav family wants to keep firm grip on the RJD and wants the state power in its fight for survival. Their followers haven’t tasted power for last 15 years and without impressive results in this election they would desert the family. BJP is keeping that fact in focus.

To strike RJD in its roots, it has kept its unpleasant alliance with Nitish Kumar on in this election, who got 16.8% votes in 2015 when it was a partner of the RJD. However, every vote counts and minimum of 10-12% plus expected votes of Nitish Kumar (while facing anti-incumbency) is an asset for the ambitious BJP which had 24.4% vote share.

Many analysts believe BJP may have underestimated Tejashwi’s potential to galvanise this election. Lalu’s beta is creating a buzz in election campaigns. Tejashwi, to the surprise of many, has taken total control of his party and handled the family feud with political panache. Like his father, he is not talking of the secular-communal politics. That would have helped the BJP.

He has shown the guts to skip photos of his father and mother Rabri Devi, both former CMs from the hoarding of the RJD. He is tweaking the politics of memory by not talking about “Social Justice” (samajik nyay) which was an election plank of his party since its birth in 1997. Talks of social justice in Bihar, instantly unites the forward classes of Rajputs, Brahmins and Bhumihars in favour of BJP.

He talks about “Economic Justice” (arthik nayay), especially when the Bihari youth are stressed due to absence of economic opportunities. His earthy speeches in a colloquial language, about the unrealistic “promise of 10 lakh government jobs” is a dream story the youth of Bihar would like to hear again and again.

His advisers claim that the Biharis will break caste arithmetic.

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When asked if forward castes would vote for the Yadav leader, his adviser said, “Brahmin use pyar nahi karte to nafrat bhi nahi karte. Tejashwi kora kagaz hai (Brahmins may not be loving him, but they don’t hate him. He is a plain slate)”.

The RJD has shrewdly given tickets to around 10 Rajputs, 25 extremely backward and 10 Baniyas to expand its base.

Challenging economic situation

As Bihar is facing challenging economic situation, suffering from the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has seen the plight of its migrant labourers, it is no surprise that the loyal RJD supporters are enthused to vote for the RJD.

The advisers of Tejashvi claim they have shifted from MY — Muslims and Yadav’s vote base to MYY. They claim that “Youth” of Bihar has been added to their vote base.

But in Bihar’s politics, nothing works in a straight line.

Last week I asked a poor farmer, Amarendra Singh of Sukhiya village near Masaurhi, what is the mood of voters around, he talked about his slow-moving milk trade.

When asked to know about his voting preference, after a pause he added, “Jaatiwale ka bhi sunege” (will hear the caste leaders, too).

Singh had no fears of the Coronavirus, he wasn’t wearing a mask.

In his region, serious mismanagement of policy implementation of the liquor prohibition has created a law and order problem. There is rampant corruption in government projects and the absence of government jobs particularly in Railways, Police and in Education are bigger worries than the Coronavirus. Singh wasn’t interested at all in talks about the anti-Corona vaccine. He told me with a straight face, “hume tika nahi lagana” (I don’t want the vaccine).

But, even those Biharis who have no guarantee of the next day’s meal won’t be disinterested in debating elections. Singh’s neighbour Jaishankar tells me, “berojgari” (unemployment) is the only issue that could defeat the BJP-JD-U.”

An election to remember

Whatever the result, Nitish Kumar, 69, will never forget the 2020 election. He has not criticised Chirag strongly knowing well that if it is a hung assembly, in trying to make permutations and combinations to form the government, he may need Chirag who has put up candidates on the seats contested by the JD-U but hasn’t put up a fight on most of the 110 seats contested by the BJP.

BJP sees the state as fertile ground for Saffron politics. It looks like Modi and Shah adopted a little longer route in their efforts to get power by continuing with Nitish Kumar with whom they have too many unsavory experiences. BJP is officially fighting for 110 seats but it is alleged that it has given its 21 candidates to LJP and 8 candidates to ally Vikasheel Insaan Party.

Key questions are: If the BJP get 25 plus seats more than JD-U, would Nitish Kumar himself prefer to be the chief minister when the NDA is in position to form the government?

The BJP would gain if the Biharis will vote on caste lines and help them rule again with or without Nitish Kumar.

Can Tejashwi be seen as the leader who can deliver? Is he giant enough to break the infamous caste rigidity?

Biharis, by voting in 2020 poll, are searching their better future

Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.