While the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal-United are busy fighting each other, the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying not to repeat the mistakes it made the last time out, says Satyavrat Mishra
The Bihar assembly elections may be months away, but political parties have already sounded the poll bugle. Although it is expected to be a bipolar fight, neither side seems to be ready for what promises to be a fierce battle.
Foes turned friend, Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United, along with the Congress, may claim to represent 45 per cent of votes as per the 2014 Lok Sabha elections data. However, the baggage both political groups carry is so heavy as to prevent them from moving forward; and the anti-incumbency factor is making several JD-U legislators nervous. And then, there are differences over the seat-sharing arrangement. These differences have finally forced the RJD chief to rule out a full JD-U-RJD merger ahead of the Bihar elections. The JD-U leadership, which has tried very hard to forge a new party with the merger of six parties born out of the erstwhile Janata Dal, is now wondering whether the idea is feasible at all.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, while still basking in the glory of last year's impressive victory, is trying not to repeat the mistakes it made in last year's by-polls for the state assembly. In August 2014, the saffron party was routed by the JD-U-RJD-Congress combine in the by-polls and could win only four out of 10 seats. There was also substantial erosion in the BJP's vote share from 45 per cent to 37 per cent and that too in just three months after the Lok Sabha elections. The party is a divided house in Bihar and it is not in a position to project anyone as a chief ministerial candidate, which has not gone down well with its traditional voters. The odds still seem to favour the party but leadership differences seem too deep to paper over.
"The ruling combination in Bihar, that is, the JD-U and RJD, is more an alliance of convenience than a natural collation. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad represent two completely opposite types of leadership. Prasad represents the type of governance that is on the borderline of chaos, while Kumar has been a symbol of good governance and rule of law. A clash is inevitable and initial differences are already evident," said a political analyst.
Senior RJD leader and Prasad's close aide, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, has staked claim to 145 seats out of the total 243 for his party. "If one analyses our performance in assembly segments of the Lok Sabha elections, we were the first runners-up/winner on 145 seats, whereas the JD-U was number one or two on only 43 seats. Kumar cannot cite the 2010 assembly election results, because he was part of the NDA at that time," said Singh in Patna on Friday.
Singh, who has been used in the past to voice the views of Lalu Prasad to test the mood of people, underlined that "winnability" will be the major factor in the seat-sharing arrangement. A visibly upset Kumar retorted, "Why just 145? All 243 seats are available."
A resilient Lalu Prasad is now trying to 'guide' Kumar on policy matters, while Kumar wants to be seen as being 'independent' of Lalu's shadow. For instance, Prasad recently very publicly "asked" the Kumar government to challenge the Patna high court's order annulling reservation in promotions. Kumar, in his reply, said that his government was serious about this and the RJD was free to raise such issues. Political analysts also point out that since Kumar's return to the chief minister's post he has rarely been seen with Lalu, except at Janata Parivar meetings.
Despite ego clashes, party insiders confirm that the JD-U and RJD will contest the election together. "We don't have an option. To stem the rise of communalism, we will fight together. However, both parties have to understand there is no big brother here," said a senior RJD leader.
He added, "Lalu Prasad is still the tallest Yadav leader in Bihar, despite the emergence of Ram Kripal and Pappu Yadav. Muslims, who constitute 17 per cent of the population, are his most loyal supporters. His capacity to transfer the votes may have come down but he still has the appeal. On the other hand, Nitish Kumar's USP is good governance and his emphasis on women and Dalit empowerment. Don't forget we, along with the Congress, got 45 per cent of the votes in 2014 elections. Together, we have the strength to give the BJP a very, very tough challenge."
However, detractors are quick to point out that 45 per cent of votes also contain the votes for Nitish against Lalu and votes for Lalu against Nitish. Hence, this number is misleading.
The real winner of the internal fighting between the JD-U and RJD has been the BJP. The party has been successful in portraying Kumar as someone who cannot live without power. The ouster of former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi by Kumar has helped the saffron party widen its support base even in the Mahadalit and extremely-backward-castes, which have been out of the BJP's reach since its inception. The upper castes are 21 per cent of the state's population, while the EBCs are a formidable 30 per cent. The charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also get them votes, say BJP leaders.
However, the saffron party will perform well only if it does not repeat the mistakes of last year's assembly by-polls. At that time, the party suffered in several constituencies because of over-confidence. Therefore, last month, the party leadership ordered party MLAs and MPs to tour their constituencies regularly and to be in constant touch with workers. Failure to do so could result in denial of tickets, warned a senior legislator.
On the other hand, the party is facing a peculiar problem. The rise of backward leadership in the BJP has not gone down well with its upper-caste leaders and their vote base. The inflow of a stream of 'outsiders' into the party and their claims on nominations had hurt the party's chances in the past. In last year's assembly by-polls, the BJP had lost at least two seats because of this.
With the election just months away, the political parties have thrown all their might in the poll preparations. "This time the fight will be an interesting one. Just keep watching and remember Bihar has a habit of surprising people," said a senior leader.