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What will Chirag Paswan do in Bihar?

By Aditi Phadnis
October 13, 2020 11:36 IST
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If the Chirag Paswan-led LJP posts a good result, the young leader could become a formidable caste challenger in the years to come and a permanent fixture as a BJP ally, reports Aditi Phadnis.

IMAGE: Lok Janshakti Party chief and member of Parliament Chirag Paswan launching the 'Bihar First- Bihari First' campaign in Patna in February this year. Photograph: Pappi Sharma / ANI Photo.

Could the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) become the Bharatiya Janata Party’s secret weapon in Bihar?

In the state-level leadership of the BJP, this formulation is being discussed quite openly even though well before the election was even announced.

Home Minister Amit Shah, who is a member of the party’s parliamentary board (its highest decision-making body), had declared Chief Minister Nitish Kumar the leader of the Janata Dal (United)-BJP coalition, should it come to power.

 

In other words, state BJP leaders had no say in deciding the next chief minister if their coalition manages to win a majority: They would be foisted with Kumar, whether they liked it or not.

“BJP can form a government on its own in Bihar. But one thing should be understood that we formed an alliance with JD-U in 1996 and we have an old partnership. So why should we leave our partnership? We are not going to break our alliance. Having said that, we surely are in a position to fight alone and form a government by fighting alone. There should be no doubt about that,” Union Minister RK Singh, who is the MP from Arrah, told local reporters a few weeks ago.

There is a sizeable section in the BJP that believes the association with JD-U has affected its credibility and cramped its style. Criticism of the Nitish Kumar regime’s treatment of migrant labourers from Bihar has been especially loud from BJP quarters, to the extent that the Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal lashed out at the functioning of the state government during the pandemic, but deleted his Facebook post later.

Nitish Kumar, who is no stranger to such attacks, has kept his cool, knowing the BJP is faced with the TINA factor: A caste coalition cobbled together by him of the most socially backward castes will bring the much-needed edge to the BJP, propelling it to power, which eluded it when Kumar severed ties and threw his weight behind the Opposition Congress and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Despite its best efforts, BJP is still seen in Bihar as an upper caste, largely urban-centric party. It has been trying to change this image by fielding leaders like Nityanand Rai (a Yadav) but to little avail.

But with LJP, which represents Dalit communities like Passi and Paswans, deciding to fight against the JD-U in all seats, the BJP might be able to undermine Kumar’s hegemony.

The LJP has a committed voter base of the Paswan community, which is only 4-6 per cent of the total population. In the 2010 Bihar assembly election, the LJP fought in an alliance with the BJP and got 6.75 per cent of votes and won only three seats. In 2015, its vote share dipped to 4.8 per cent and it won only two seats.

With other small caste-based parties opting out of the JD(U)-BJP coalition, like Upendra Kushwaha’s outfit or the party led by Mukesh Sahani,  they can only dent the JD-U’s chances -- not the BJP’s. So, it does not hurt the BJP at all to see Paswan and others walk out of the coalition in the state.

What is more, for Chirag Paswan, this foray gives him the chance to portray himself as a possible Dalit counterpoise against Kumar in the 2025 assembly election.

But senior leaders in Bihar say the BJP has finessed Chirag: He wanted to contest 40 seats, which the BJP flatly refused, propelling him to the point where he had no option but to challenge the other partner in the alliance, JD-U.

Ambedkarite leaders in the BJP like Sanjay Paswan, who have been given a short shrift by the party, are watching these developments carefully. If the Chirag Paswan-led LJP posts a good result, the young leader could become a formidable caste challenger in the years to come and a permanent fixture as a BJP ally. This means an independent Dalit base within the BJP would never get a chance to develop.

For the moment, however, all political observers are united that LJP’s exit is a ploy that was likely crafted by the BJP to diminish Nitish Kumar.

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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