In about a month from now, the all-important state of Bihar will deliver assembly election results. These results will mark the end of an era in Bihar politics that emerged out of so-called socialist politics. It ascended to power in the ‘90s. 2020 is the end.
This is the last election the stalwarts of an era are around and relevant: Lalu Prasad Yadav, 72; Nitish Kumar, 69; Sushil Kumar Modi, 68; and Ram Vilas Paswan, 74.
May they live a long and healthy life, but the truth is that at least two of them are suffering from serious health problems, Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. They’re both in hospital, though Lalu’s is more a long guest stay. This is the first assembly election they won’t be campaigning, doing press conferences, helicoptering around to the remote corners of Bihar, being the faces of the party who draw votes in their names.
Chirag Paswan and Tejashwi Yadav have already entrenched themselves as the faces of their party. As Ram Vilas Paswan recovers from a heart surgery, Paswan Junior has taken a huge risk, semi-separating himself from the National Democratic Alliance and positioning himself as a challenger to Nitish Kumar. Paswan has made a calculated risk to catapult himself onto a new political stage about to emerge. Most don’t see much of a chance for him, but who knows?
Lalu Prasad Yadav has been the defining pole of Bihar politics. Many voters have been aligned for or against Lalu. But the old tiger is carrying out a jail sentence in a Ranchi hospital, even as his son Tejashwi makes a heroic attempt to inherit the mantle. Tejashwi suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even an honourable defeat this time would see his position strengthen in the new political stage of Bihar.
Bihar politics after this election will increasingly see Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal as the two main poles of Bihar politics. Nitish Kumar, who’s managed to be chief minister by hook or crook for 15 years. But now it is very likely that the BJP will win substantially more seats than the JD (U), becoming the elder brother in the alliance for the first time. Even if the BJP is mysteriously generous enough to make Nitish Kumar chief minister, we can be sure it will be the last time he will be taking oath for the post. By the next Bihar elections in 2025 or even the Lok Sabha elections in 2024, he will have been made irrelevant by the BJP.
The caste equation
Key to these changes is caste. The main swing voter demographic is known as EBC, the Extremely Backward Classes. In the absence of official data, they are estimated to be 24-30% of the population. Nitish Kumar’s political success in great measure has come from consolidating support of this group and giving them patronage. The BJP has tried to shed it’s upper caste image by trying to woo this group, as upper castes are only around 13%. The RJD’s inability to win Bihar is because they’re unable to impress this group, which is suspicious of dominant Yadavs. By slowly finishing off Nitish Kumar, the BJP is trying to become the monopolistic holder of the EBC vote — exactly how it has an unshakeable hold in UP today.
The BJP’s face in Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, is from an EBC community. He pointed out in 2015 that prime minister Narendra Modi’s caste was listed as EBC in Bihar. Sushil Kumar Modi is 68 and is jokingly called Nitish Kumar’s representative in the BJP. As the BJP in Bihar moves towards a point where it becomes the state’s dominant party calling the shots, it won’t need Sushil Kumar Modi anymore. At some point, BJP might even make it possible, under RSS pressure, for Bihar to have an upper caste chief minister, something that is considered impossible in the state’s politics.
Chirag Paswan and Tejashwi Yadav are contesting perhaps the most important election of their lives, as this election will determine their place in the new stage in Bihar politics. The cynical observer doesn’t see either of them making much of a mark, and it is quite likely that new players may emerge to fill the vacuum the old leadership will leave behind. The next 5 years will see a lot of churn in Bihar. One dark horse some say is Kanhaiya Kumar, who is waiting it out to make a mainstream comeback after this election. A new stage and its new possibilities are open to be exploited by anyone. Unlike India’s national politics, Bihar has no dearth of political entrepreneurs to try their luck.