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First published in The Statesman on 14th September, 2015

The Bihar elections for 243 Assembly seats will be held in five phases between 12 October and 5 November. The timing is crucial and religiously sensitive because the period coincides with several festivals - Durga Puja, Bakr-Eid, Dussehra, Muharram, Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja, Diwali and Chatt. The risk of a minor incident escalating to large-scale mobilisation of communities cannot be ruled out. The electorate can be polarised in consequence.
The entire country has been affected by secular and right-wing dualism along with rationally senseless but symbolic-cum-strategic technique, style, form and content of the political campaign in Bihar. The “electoral theology” of right-wing and the “cross-caste rhetoric” of so-called secular parties are at fever pitch along with subtle references to “misgovernance” and “good governance” of past and present. At the same time, there are political hoardings and posters featuring the photographs of political stalwarts, intense political discourse, audio-visual campaigns with theme songs of political parties, and door-to-door campaigns. To that can be added the personalised rhetoric like “Jumla Babu”, “Jungle Raj”, “DNA”, slogans like the JD(U)’s Phir ek baar Nitish Kumar and Bihar me bahar ho, Nitishe Kumar ho, and BJP’s Apradh, Bhrashtachar aur Ahankar, kya is gathbandhan se badhega Bihar, Abki Baar, Bhaajpa Sarkaar, Ek Baar BJP, Iss Baar BJP and Jaat Paat ke upar ki sarkaar chahiye. The campaign is all about economics versus emotions.
The vulgar pragmatism of electoral compulsion, specifically to ensure a winning margin in the highly competitive election in Bihar, has led political parties to moderate their competitive needs and forge alignments beyond ideological lines and conventional hostility. Examples of this proposition are the formation of the so-called secular alliance of anti-BJP parties, such as Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), Lalu Prasad’s RJD, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress, collectively known as Janata Parivar, and the right-wing BJP teaming up with Dalit-based parties like Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM). Nothing can explain this dramatic fragmentation, de-fragmentation and re-fragmentation of parties except the logical mathematics of social re-engineering to misplace the priorities of Bihar’s electorate on caste and community lines and win the election at any cost and by whatever means.
If we go by the Platonic concept of proportional strength of social constituencies, the so-called Janata Parivar appears to have a winning margin with Muslims (16 per cent), Yadavs (14 per cent), Koeris (5 per cent), Kurmis (4 per cent) as their core social constituency and other floating higher and backward castes (10 per cent). The BJP and its allies will be able to attract the support of the majority of upper castes (16 per cent), Baniyas (7 per cent), Dalits (5 per cent), Maha Dalits (10 per cent) and other most backward castes (10 per cent) and therefore will not be in contest. But we must realise that this electoral mathematics is somewhat utopian... but not a winning factor in this election as it never was in the past.
Considering the twists and turns in Bihar, we find that the 2015 Assembly election is going to be intriguingly different and may bring about dramatic consequences for politics beyond the state. First, Dalit and Mahadalit voters have emerged as a powerful political constituency, whose alignment could be a possible game-changer. Of the total 22 categories of Dalit sub-castes, 21 are marked as Mahadalits on the recommendations of the State Mahadalit Commission, constituted by the Nitish Kumar government in 2007. With 15 per cent of the state’s population and their sizable presence in more than 60 Assembly constituencies, Dalit voters could easily tip the scales for or against a party, if they vote en bloc. They are being wooed both by Janata Parivar (through generous pro-Dalit schemes and informal supply of daily commodities) and the NDA through the technique of fear (like dominant caste violence against them and campaigns like Ghar Wapsi), freebies like distribution of money, lungis, sarees and liquor. However, Dalits and Mahadalits do not seem to affiliate themselves strongly with any party despite the alignment of their own so-called leaders like Ramvilas Paswan, Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi with the BJP.
The second factor, which perhaps is part-reason for the first, is that the political entities of consequence such as the Janata Parivar and NDA are for various reasons no longer confident of the support of their core voters except the possible tilt of Muslim voters in favour of the Janata Parivar. This is perhaps because of the divergent socio-cultural experiences, historical animosity between the dominant and less influential social constituencies, unnatural political alliance, the crisis of the transferability of core voters, and the strong local dynamics, issues, leaders, equations and the role of strongmen. Such factors can have a definite impact on the voting behaviour of Bihar’s electorate. For example, a sizable section of Yadavs are no longer impressed with Lalu Prasad’s rhetoric of “Mandal vs. Kamandal”, his alliance with the traditional rivals, notably the Kurmi leader Nitish Kumar, and the “dynastic matrix” of the family. Pappu Yadav has a certain appeal at the level of the disgruntled Yadavs, though marginally. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s withdrawal from the so-called Mahagathbandhan has already conveyed the symbolic message of humiliation to Yadavs, the targeted group. Similar is the case with Dalits and Mahadalits who do not appear to be confident with their own leaders because of the intra-Dalit rivalries. The altercation between Paswan and Manjhi on the question of “proprietorship” over the Dalit votes is a case in point.
For the Janata Parivar, the position of the Muslims has changed from a potentially strategic partner to a mere vote-bank. This is despite the fact that Muslims constitute more than 18 per cent of Bihar’s population. They are in a position to tilt the scales in more than 50 Assembly constituencies, including Araria, Bhagalpur, Champaran, Darbhanga, Katihar, Kishanganj, Kosi, Madhubani, Purnea, Sitamarhi and Siwan. The reason for the increasing insignificance of Muslims is the absence of choice... except to vote for the Janata Parivar. This has certainly weakened the community’s political leverage. In an attempt to exploit the situation, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, is trying to carve political space among Muslims through his provocative style. Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj (PMM) intends to turn the Muslim Pasmanda votes to the BJP if the party accepts its agenda of “proportionate share in power”. The importance of the Muslim vote cannot be denied in the cut-throat contest ahead.
Amit Shah’s “Mission Bihar” is geared to use the religious cleavage between Hindus and Muslims along with a symbolic reference to the Prime Minister’s habitual reference to “Vikas” in order to consolidate non-Muslim votes behind the BJP. The saffronite outfits like the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shriram Sena are invoking religious-wedge issues like “Love Jihad” and “Population Jihad” to polarise the vote.
The most ominous trend is the right-wing move to lend a communal colour to such issues as the ban on the sale of beef, mutton and chicken by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Bihar bears witness to the socio-political nuisance that has come to be associated with winning an election in India.