By Jai Prakash Ojha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
With the conclusion of the 4th phase of polling on 1st November in the Bihar Assembly Elections 2015, the stage is all set for the exciting next phase, to be held on 5th November. This election has been a long drawn out process and despite the lapse of four phases; no political pundit is willing to predict the likely outcome. Both the contestants – the Grand Alliance (GA) and NDA – are claiming victory as the surveys have further abetted the prevailing confusion. However, much water has flown under the bridge, ever since the election process commenced and certain observations can be risked in the light of changed political circumstances and revision in electoral strategies of the NDA and GA.
The first three phases of elections have witnessed a polling percentage hovering around the mid-fifties which is fair enough but certainly not great enough to be termed as overwhelming enthusiasm on the part of the electorate as it is made out to be. There is nothing short of a wave in favour of or against any political combine in most parts of the state. There is nothing like an anti-incumbency factor for Nitish or any undercurrents of the Modi magic that we saw in the previous LS elections. Amidst a plethora of issues, it is difficult to pinpoint any issue in particular that may affect the outcome of the election. The fact that men have been outnumbered by women at many polling booths does point towards increasing participation of women in democracy but by no stretch of imagination can it be construed to be a predilection towards any alliance, as Nitish will be hoping.
At the outset, many observers thought AIMIM and the so-called Bihar Third Front would play spoilers for the GA in this closely fought Bihar election but as per the ground reports, it seems that there is a remote possibility of any division in the so-called ‘secular’ votes. The minorities appear united in their visceral hatred for the BJP and the Owaisi factor may not dent GA’s electoral prospects. Mulayam’s statement supporting BJP further convinced the electorate of a possible quid pro quo between SP and BJP. The NCP, Jan Adhikar Party and the SP may have some localized impact, but it will be preposterous to think that they will emerge as serious contenders to benefit BJP.
When the electioneering campaign kicked off, it seemed as if it was all about Narendra Modi and Nitish with both of them talking of development, special packages and yes, special status for the state and countering each other with statistics on economy and crime rate as the media resonated with debates centered around the much hyped Gujarat and Bihar model of development. There was an element of drama and histrionics too due to the ‘Bihar DNA‘ barb, the infamous dinner controversy, the historic betrayal as claimed and the ego factor. The NDA campaign strategy focused heavily on Nitish but then things took an interesting turn.
The indomitable Lalu decided to take on the RSS Chief for his views on reservation. Nitish lost his eminence despite being the C.M. face of the GA. Lalu became the epicenter of the state political discourse. Focus on issues like development and governance shifted to a discourse centered around reservation and resurrection of divisive Mandal politics, read ‘forward – backward’ divide. The political lexicon got enriched by the addition of colorful and choicest vocabulary as the election campaign touched new lows. Lalu knows that he can’t take on the NDA on the development plank due to his not too inspiring track record on governance and hence, his recourse to shrill caste rhetoric. The NDA was shaken out of its complacency and Lalu became the epicenter of its frontal attacks.
In the course of my interactions with people from all cross sections of the society, it is hard to shrug off the feeling that the RJD chief has emerged as the strongest vote catcher for GA, has regained some of his old magic and instilled some fear in the NDA leadership. The reservation thunderbolt has unnerved the BJP which appears to be in damage control mode as some consolidation among OBCs has taken place after Bhagwat’s utterances. It is not without reason that the PM was compelled to turn the reservation debate upside down by incorporating the communal angle into it and playing the EBC card.
While the GA appears to be working towards caste polarization, for the BJP, religious polarization remains the best bet. Just recollect how the BJP is raking up issues like beef, cow, pseudo secularism and communal reservation. But when we look at history, we see that though the Hindutva card has trumped the caste card in UP at times benefitting BJP, in Bihar the Hindutva brigade has not yet been able to solve the Mandal riddle. RJD and JDU have proved to be far too formidable. However, BJP of 2015 is different from the BJP of 1990 as the state unit boasts of some OBC heavyweights. Political contours may change in the state this time as the EBCs look not much comfortable with the OBCs. Dalits are assertive with both the Dalit icons Manjhi and Ram Vilas firmly with the NDA. It is my conjecture that maximum upper OBC votes would go to GA and EBC votes to BJP. With EBCs and Dalits accounting for around 40 percent of the state population, it seems that this block will be the game changer.
Development has receded from campaign discourse and focus is more on ideology. The political analysts may despair over the absence of people-centric issues but then, this Bihar election does have a soul which seems to be lacking elsewhere. The less said about Congress, the better it is. The electorate is questioning the logic of giving 40 seats to Congress. Whether it will be a GA win or an NDA win, the fate of Congress will remain unchanged as it has been consigned to the sidelines of Bihar polity.
More twists and turns are in store. The Kosi belt with a sizeable EBC population and the Seemanchal region with considerable minority clout are yet to go to polls. The political soothsayers are keeping their fingers crossed as sabre-rattling between the two camps is about to reach a crescendo.
‘Bihar Elections With Ojha’ is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of the Bihar 2015 elections.