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Bihar's political conundrum

Bihar
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That the Bihar government would survive the vote of confidence was expected. The vote on Wednesday was only a formality, part of a tradition and a...

That the Bihar government would survive the vote of confidence was expected. The vote on Wednesday was only a formality, part of a tradition and a virtuous way of breaking an alliance. This act of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has opened up a new world full of challenges and opportunities. The Chief Minister has to draw upon all his experience and intelligence to overcome the adversities and make the best use of favourable factors. All depends on how far the Muslims of Bihar, most importantly the Backward Castes among them, would be impressed by the secular noise that Nitish Kumar has been making, causing the denouement. Mamata Banerjee's call for a Federal Front is far from Kumar's mind right now. He has to stabilize his hold on Pataliputra before thinking of waging a war for Hastina.

The violent clashes between workers of the BJP and the JD (U) in Bihar on Tuesday in the wake of a bandh enforced by the former are the fallout of an acrimonious divorce after 17 years of marriage of convenience. The noise will become louder by the day since one party has to cut into the other for existence and for future battles. The need for the JD (U) to be seen hating BJP is more than the other way round. It was a win-win relationship which had kept the powerful Lalu Prasad Yadav and his RJD at bay since 2005. But the separation became inevitable with the rise of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the BJP.

Why does Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar love to hate Modi? Is it a mere clash of two strong personalities? Or a BC leader's sheer envy of another BC leader who is likely to become Prime Minister of a nation that accounts for one-sixth of the human race? What are Kumar's compulsions and what are his fears?

Why hate Modi now and why not in 2002 when the riots in Gujarat took place under his watch? Is the wedge a creation of the Congress which loves to play one BC leader against another, thus keeping both of them busy where they are? Lastly, between Modi and Lalu, whom does Kumar detest more?

It is certainly not a commitment to secularism that has been forcing Kumar's hand. He was the Railway Minister when the pogrom in Gujarat took place. Vajpayee feebly spoke of raja dharma and suggested that Modi be removed. Vajpayee did not insist or persist. There was not a squeak of protest from Kumar who went on to praise Modi the very next year. The same is being played up by BJP leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad to prove that Kumar was indulging in double-talk. As long as Kumar was a member of the NDA Cabinet, Modi was not a problem. So long as Lal Krishna Advani was the face of the party, the BJP was not an issue. The moment Modi came to the fore, the equations underwent drastic change.

The two important factors responsible for the crisis are Modi and Lalu. The peculiar political and caste coalition that Kumar had created for himself to take away a section of Muslims and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) from Lalu is threatened by the emergence of Modi. While the backward Muslims who have been supporting JD (U) may go back the whole hog to the RJD, the EBCs are vulnerable to pressure from the BJP under Modi; a leader belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) is likely to become Prime Minister.

That is the reason why the rise of Modi in the BJP and the belligerence of Kumar have been simultaneous. Kumar felt threatened by Modi's elevation. He has valid reasons for that. Modi, as Gujarat's Chief Minister, is one of the leaders of the BJP. He did not influence the party policy or destiny. Now that he is almost the prime ministerial candidate, continuation of alliance with the BJP would mean breaking up of the social alliance Kumar had so assiduously built over the years.

There are three watershed developments that impart clarity to the caste and political equations in Bihar. The first was the defeat of the BJP-JD (U) candidates in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004. Of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar the BJP-JD (U) alliance candidates could win only 11 in spite of the utterly chaotic rule by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi. The second was the resounding victory for the BJP-JD (U) alliance in the November 2005 Assembly elections. The third is the triumph of RJD candidate in the recent by-election for the Maharajganj Lok Sabha seat. The RJD won by a whopping majority of 1.7 lakh votes.

We have to first understand the way Kumar crafted the coalition to appreciate his antipathy towards Modi about which the former has been making no bones. One may not like to talk or think in terms of castes. But it is a reality, as Lohia said, and we have to factor in caste when it comes to political analysis. Otherwise, it would be unrealistic and futile. Nitish Kumar belongs to Kurmi, a backward caste, which accounts for 3.5 percent of Bihar population. The community is not spread over the State. It is geographically concentrated in pockets, unlike the Yadavs who comprise 11.7 percent, and Muslims who form about 17 percent.

Nitish had to first break the formidable coalition of MY (Muslims and Yadavs) that was responsible for Lalu's stranglehold on power in Bihar. He exploited Lalu's weakness for rich Muslims and the raw deal that the backward Muslims were getting under RJD dispensation. All the goodies were going to upper caste Ashraf Muslims. The backward castes among Muslims, such as Pasmanda Muslims, were grossly neglected. While RJD nominated 14 MLCs, 12 of them were Ashrafs. All the seven Muslim vice-chancellors appointed during RJD rule were forward caste Muslims.

Kumar had successfully courted the Pasmanda Muslims, promising a better deal. In October 2005, one month before Assembly elections, seven Pasmanda political parties issued a joint statement asking their community voters to defeat Lalu.

Then Kumar went about addressing the Mahadalits who are not with Ram Vilas Paswan. They include Dusadh, Chamar, Pasi and Dhobi castes. The EBCs are non-Yadav backward classes who comprise 32 percent of Bihar's population. This is the biggest chunk which was pocketed by Kumar. These castes have been so badly neglected by Lalu that they represent only five percent of the Bihar Assembly seats.

The alliance partner, the BJP, brought to the table the Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Kayasthas from upper caste who account for about 16 per cent of the population. The BJP has the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with its disciplined cadres who are extremely helpful in electioneering and booth management.

The Muslims rallied solidly behind Lalu Prasad since he took the bold step of arresting Advani who was on Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya and sent him to jail. This had sent very strong signals to Muslims. The Yadavs are with Lalu even today. As long as this MY coalition was intact, there was no question of defeating the RJD in Bihar. Moreover, the Muslims punished BJP-JD (U) coalition in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections for the Gujarat riots. Till Kumar weaned away the Backward Castes among Muslims, Lalu was ruling the roost.

After the social coalition was successfully created, the BJP-JD (U) combine swept the Assembly elections in 2005 by winning 143 of the 243 seats. Kumar was fully aware of the negative impact of the Gujarat riots on Muslims in Bihar although Patna is 1,500 km away from Ahmedabad. That was why he did not allow Modi to campaign in any of the elections in Bihar.

Kumar had delivered on his election promises and became popular with the masses. He had turned Bihar, a BIMARU State, around, a la Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, and the BJP-JD (U) combine had won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the 2010 Assembly elections comfortably as a result of a Nitish wave. While it got 32 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats, JD (U) won 82 percent of the seats it contested and the BJP pocketed 89 percent of the seats it fought.

The by-election to the Maharajganj LS seat was held after Modi's elevation appeared certain. The Modi campaign was all over the media. The result was the migration of Pasmanda Muslims back to RJD. Otherwise, its candidate would not have secured such a huge majority. This development confirmed Nitish Kumar's fears that if he continued to sail with the BJP, the Backward Caste Muslims are sure to dump him in the Ganga.

It was a political compulsion and the survival instinct that forced Kumar to break with the BJP. The latter was right in calling the act viswaasghaat, but it is something that was unavoidable. Had Kumar kept quiet and continued in the alliance, he would have got drowned along with the BJP and Lalu Prasad Yadav could have been resurrected.

Now what? The Congress which has gone to the rescue of the JD (U) Chief Minister is as good as dead in Bihar after the putative prime minister and scion of the ruling dynasty Rahul Gandhi experimented with untruth in 2010. It was before he made a mess of the Congress in the UP Assembly elections. In Bihar the Congress won just two percent of the seats it contested. Rahul wanted to recharge the party cadre by going it alone. The elections proved to be a blow to both the RJD and the Congress.

There has been talk that the Congress would broker peace between the erstwhile friends Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. The Congress has been in alliance with the RJD for almost two decades. It cannot abandon the relationship to start a new one with the JD (U). Lalu did nothing to warrant a divorce. But having both Lalu and Kumar on the same side would be like having two swords in the same scabbard.

Both have been chief ministers and both have been heading two social coalitions. Making Yadavs and EBCs work together is going to be impossible. There would be a clash of interests. Kumar may be hoping to chip more into the Muslim voters who have been left with Lalu. Modi would be vigorously campaigning in Bihar to attract the EBCs.

A BC leader fighting to become the Prime Minister for the first time has his attraction to the OBCs and EBCs across the country. Bihar would not be an exception. The BJP would be more aggressive now that it is out of the government. There is a possibility of the votes being equally divided between the RJD, JD (U) and the BJP, with the meager vote that the Congress has proving to be decisive in some of the constituencies. If the Congress has its way and succeeds in forging a new coalition with both the RJD and the JD (U) on board, then the verdict in Bihar in the 2014 general election would be one-sided in its favour. Otherwise, it would be fractured.

Hindutva has not much of appeal in Bihar. Even when Advani was stopped in his tracks and sent to jail in 1990, there was no violence. Modi is aware that Hindutva has outlived its utility. He did not accept an invitation to visit Ayodhya earlier this week. It would be Moditva with development plank. It would be a clash of Gujarat model and Bihar model. The latter is more inclusive with the benefits percolating to the poor. The situation in Gujarat is slightly different, if we go by reports.

That was why Kumar taunted, "We do not need a development model that cannot address malnutrition". But then, Lalu is considered to be an antithesis of development. How to keep his development plank undiluted and the vote bank undiminished is the challenge before the beleaguered Chief Minister of Bihar.

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