Political reckoning for BJP in India’s northern states

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Principled or opportunistic? Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is an isolated man in his state. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As India gears up for a spate of state elections in a run-up to the general polls next year, the second-most influential state is throwing up a few surprises. Bihar is the second-most populous state, so it has a large number of parliamentary seats and plays a major role in the region known as the country’s ‘Hindi heartland’.

Tasting blood after defeating the BJP in last month’s by-elections for the seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur – which had been represented by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya – Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) have reportedly decided to carry through with their partnership for the 2019 general election.

Now, reports on the ground suggest that emissaries of the two parties have started back-channel talks to strengthen Uttar Pradesh’s emerging “grand alliance” by accommodating smaller outfits such as Mohammed Ayub’s Peace Party or the Krishna Patel faction of the Apna Dal.

In adjoining Bihar, Dalit leader and union cabinet minister Ram Vilas Paswan has, in just one month held five “in camera” meetings with Janata Dal (United) head and incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar. The chief minister, in a series of recent statements, also disapproved of the BJP’s aggressive “Hindutva” push, while also seeming to extend an olive branch to leaders of former or current ruling party allies.

Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is facing multiple corruption cases with investigations against him and family members by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a federal agency often accused of being used to “fix” the central government’s political opponents, and other agencies. But surprisingly, his fortunes have been on an upswing – having won by-elections in the Araria Parliamentary constituency and annexing the Jehanabad assembly constituency as well.

So, the big question is, is the tide turning against the BJP in the Hindi heartland states of UP and Bihar?

Why UP and Bihar matter

In states where it has a base, the BJP achieved maximum results in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It won 25 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan; 26 of the 26 seats in Gujarat; 26 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh and 10 of the 11 seats in Chattisgarh.

But the saffron party’s real bonanza had come from UP and Bihar, where its political footprints have not been that strong. The BJP won 71 of the total of 80 seats in UP (73 with allies) and grabbed 22 seats of the 40 seats (31 with allies) in Bihar, propelling the National Democratic Alliance to its biggest win with 336 seats (282 for the BJP alone) in the Indian Parliament’s lower house. A possible big fall in the BJP’s numbers from UP and Bihar could spell real trouble for the saffron party next year.

In UP, the BJP’s “Ayodhya temple” plank has reaped rich political dividends on occasions in the last two and a half decades, but – even as BJP insiders concede – it will be rather difficult for the party to repeat its 2014 performance. Bihar – with its complex caste matrix and ever-changing socio-political dynamics – poses a bigger challenge to the BJP.

Lalu’s resurgence

Mohd Idrees, a 58-year-old tailor in Dhanga village in North Bihar’s Madhubani district; Santosh, a 36-year-old Ola driver in the capital Patna; and Om Aggarwal, a 35-year-old businessman based in Darbangha, all gave the same prognosis: “The 2019 political battle in Bihar will be between Lalu Prasad (chief of the Rashtriya Janata Dal) and the BJP”. And currently, veteran Bihar political watcher Mani Kant Thakur says, “It is advantage Lalu”.

Lalu ought to be down and out. He’s in jail and was recently convicted in a fourth Fodder scam case. He is also barred from contesting elections and is saddled with the baggage of 15 years of “misrule and jungle raj” that he and wife Rabri Devi were said to have presided over from 1990 to 2005. Meanwhile, the CBI, Income Tax department and other investigating agencies have launched fresh cases of corruption against him and his family members. Yet despite all this, why is the public mood swinging in his favor?

Nitish Kumar’s isolation

The answer is seen in the politics of Nitish Kumar, who, over the past four years, has done a series of flip-flops and is today seen increasingly as a solitary man. In the run-up to the last state assembly election, he tied up with Lalu and – after a win called the “Mahagathbandhan” (grand alliance) – elevated Lalu’s two sons as ministers in the state cabinet – one of them as deputy chief minister.

“Nitish provided Lalu the political credibility that he so badly needed at that time. For him – or for the BJP leaders – to raise the corruption bogey against Lalu at this stage does not cut much ice. The same bullet cannot be fired twice,” said Ajay Kumar, who runs a news portal called Bihar News.

In July last year, Nitish did another U-turn by dumping Lalu and – violating the spirit of the 2015 assembly election verdict – formed a government with the support of the BJP. “The state’s electorate sees the development as a treachery against Lalu. If it had been impossible for Nitish to carry on with Lalu, he could have gone in for fresh elections. But, he chose an easier option”, senior Congress leader Kishore Kumar Jha said.

“The developments, as have ensued, have helped project Lalu as a victim. Large chunks of the electorate including Muslims, Dalits and extremely backward communities are seen as gravitating in favor of the RJD”, Professor DM Diwakar, of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, said.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP polled 42.6% votes in UP against a combined total of 49.8% of the BSP, Congress and the SP. If the SP, BSP and Congress votes combine in 2019 – as is likely –the saffron party will face a real challenge.

In Bihar, Lalu’s RJD – in the worst of its performances in the 2010 assembly elections – secured 18.8% of votes, against 16.4% by the BJP, 22.5% by the JD (U) and 8.3% by the Congress. A combination of the RJD, Congress and the HAM – among other smaller outfits – projects it as a winning team.

BJP’s strategy

As in UP, the performance of the Yogi Adityanath government has been less than satisfactory, with a series of controversies including a mass of children dying at a Gorakhpur government hospital amid a lack of oxygen supply and the recent Unnao rape case involving a BJP lawmaker. In Bihar, in his second innings as chief minister with BJP support, Nitish is also seen as having committed a series of blunders including the state government’s decision to clamp down on the “sand mafia” – a measure that made him unpopular with the working class, as construction activity remained at a standstill for several months.

The state’s law and order situation has also been worsening. At the recent “Ram Naumi” (Hindu festival) communal riots started at Bhagalpur and rapidly spread to several other states. In the run-up to the 2019 polls, the BJP is likely to focus on emotive, religious issues as its main campaign plank for both Bihar and UP.

Emerging scenario

In the Hindi heartland states, the battle lines are being drawn between the BJP on the one hand and a combination of regional parties on the other: SP, BSP and the Congress in UP and the RJD, Congress and HAM in Bihar.

In Bihar, the BJP and the RJD have begun their search for other alliance partners. Manjhi’s HAM has already aligned with the RJD, while Paswan and Kushwaha are hedging their bets. There is a possibility that – closer to the 2019 election – a section of the ruling JD (U) lawmakers representing the minority-dominated “Seemanchal” (bordering districts) will either openly align with the RJD or will attempt to sabotage prospects of the JD(U)-BJP combine.

Interesting times ahead.

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