PATNA/NEW DELHI: The low-key campaign for the first-phase poll has ended in Bihar, the first state to hold assembly elections under the shadow of coronavirus epidemic this year. This phase involves polling in 71 constituencies on October 28. Opinion polls repeatedly hint at a return of the BJP-JDU government, but the presence of the anti-incumbency wind, not a wave yet, is not lost sight of either.
Electioneering was lackluster in the initial days due to the coronavirus social distancing norms, but picked up pace as the deadline neared. The assembly elections are crucial for both BJP and incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, who is seeking his fourth term in office after being CM for a total of 15 years.
The poll outcome will also depend on the ability of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to expand its social base and on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the state.
In this election, the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more at stake than Nitish Kumar. The 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha election wins apart, the BJP has not been able to garner major victories in the state assembly elections in the last five years. Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are exceptions to this, though the party barely scraped through to form government in the latter.
BJP had been blessed by a pro-incumbency factor and increased its tally after winning the 2014 General Elections. From being in power in only seven state assemblies in 2014, its rule extended to nearly 20 states by 2018. In 2014, the saffron party was in power in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh either directly or with alliance partners. By 2018, the only states the BJP could not grab power were Tamil Nadu where AIADMK held the reins, Kerala under LDF, Andhra Pradesh under YSRC, Telangana under the TRS, Odisha under BJD, and West Bengal under Trinamool Congress.
From seven states the BJP ruled in 2014, 13 in 2015, 15 in 2016, 19 in 2017, the victory marched slowed and then came a season of stagnation for the party at state levels. In 2018, BJP suffered losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh while the next year, the party lost Jharkhand and Maharashtra. The Aam Aadmi Party swept the Delhi assembly polls on February 11 this year for the third time in a row, showing the BJP that the saffron party has serious limits to its growth.
BIHAR AS AXIS
Even from a political point of view, Bihar is an important state. In fact, it is considered the axis of India’s politics. The Congress hegemony in national politics ended with the culmination of the Total Revolution movement started by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. In such a situation, the Bihar assembly elections have become important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For Nitish Kumar, the “Sushasan Babi (Mr Good Governance) tag is called into question as he is fighting for his fourth term. This election is also seen as a referendum on Nitish Kumar.
Many voters are said to be “angry” with Nitish Kumar. They look for a change of face in the CM’s office. Nitish, a quiet operator, has been in power for 15 years except for a short break in 2014-2015 — when his bete noire Jiten Ram Manjhi was made chief minister. This, after Nitish Kumar resigned, accepting responsibility for his JDU’s poor show in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In the LS polls, the JDU had got just two seats.
After ten months, JDU asked Manjhi to resign, to make way for Nitish Kumar to take over as CM. Manjhi refused and was expelled on February 9, 2015, resulting in a political crisis. The governor asked Manjhi to seek a vote of confidence on February 29, 2015, the first day of the Budget session of the assembly. BJP announced its support to Manjhi but he was short of numbers. Manjhi resigned as CM and on February 20, 2015 Nitish Kumar got back to power.
Nitish Kumar’s record of 15 years has been mixed. After initial improvements in governance in 2005, there was a downslide culminating in the bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the migrant labourers issue.
Since 2005, when Nitish Kumar came to power, the extremely backward classes (EBCs)–who together form roughly a quarter of the electorate– backed the Janata Dal (United). This time, the anger over the government’s handling of the migrant crisis as also the pervasive unemployment is making many reconsider their political choices. This anger is now compounded by a confusion over competing claims by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Opposition Grand Alliance or Mahagadbandhan over jobs– the former has promised to generate 1.9 million jobs while the latter has promised one million government jobs.
This is also the first assembly elections in Bihar in 30 years in which Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) founder and deceased former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan and veteran socialist leader and another former Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh will be absent. These leaders and other political stalwarts have shaped the course of Bihar’s political landscape and were star campaigners in all the elections since the 1970s. They set the agenda, dominated public discourse, and changed the direction of the political wind with great ease and special skills, alongside chief minister Nitish Kumar. This time, the new generation stepped in to lead campaigns for two prominent political establishments – the RJD and the LJP.
Paswan, who was Union minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, died at a private hospital here on October 8 due to various health issues and cardiac problems. The LJP walked out of the ruling NDA on October four and announced it would go it alone in the assembly elections but will remain part of the BJP at the Centre and would fight JD (U) candidates in the polls.
LALU / RJD / TEJASWI YADAV
Jailed Lalu Prasad, whose rustic styles and intonations in the campaigning arena had helped him create a solid support base for him as also the party among the rural and backward caste populations, is currently at the Rajendra Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi, due to health problems, but with police bandobast. Prasad was convicted in December 2017 in four fodder scam cases that had their genesis in 1996. He has secured bail in three cases so far and bail is eluding him in the fourth.
Former Union minister and a founder-member of RJD and one of the tallest socialist leaders in Bihar politics, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who was close to Lalu, died on September 13 due to coronavirus. A former rural development minister in the Congress-led UPA government, he had rattled Lalu and the RJD when he sent a hand-written letter saying he was quitting the party, on September 11.
Former Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manji is seeking re-election from his home turf Iamamganj, which he won by a margin of 30,000 votes in 2015. Pitted against Manjhi from this reserved constituency that borders Jharkhand is former assembly speaker Uday Narayan Choudhary, once a staunch loyalist of Nitish Kumar before falling out with him in 2017 when the latter decided to align with the BJP. Choudhary, who won the seat four times before losing to Manjhi in 2015, has been fielded by the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
PM, RAHUL BATTLE IT OUT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the NDA campaign on October 23 by addressing three rallies and attacked the Opposition for its “audacity” in demanding the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir special status. He also endorsed another term as CM for Nitish Kumar, to scotch rumours that the BJP might foist a Brahmin (Ravi Shankar Prasad) as the next CM. Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in his first election rallies in Hisua and Kahalgaon attacked the BJP over the central government’s “failed” strategy to tackle the pandemic and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s “failure” in helping the migrant labourers and failing to provide jobs.
The RJD and the Congress are contesting in 42 and 21 seats respectively in the first phase Bihar assembly polls on October 28. JD (U) will contest 115 seats, while the BJP has fielded candidates on 110 seats. A total of 1065 candidates are in the fray for the first phase. Ninety four constituencies will go to polls on November 3 in the second phase and 78 seats in the third phase on November 7. The counting of votes will take place on November 10. -IHN-NN
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