Sharique N Siddiquie
With a month long Bihar Assembly elections commencing October 21, 2010, the politics in the state has again heated up. Widely considered a litmus test for the ‘pro-development’ Nitish Kumar regime and the raw charisma of ex-CM Lalu Prasad Yadav, this election will more or less determine whether Bihar opts for development or is it still bound by its caste and minority obligations.
So what are the various issues that will affect the voting patterns in the state, determining the ‘ruler’ of its eight crore odd population, the third largest among Indian states? Is it all about caste or has development taken the fore-front? Here is a look:
Criminalization is the biggest issue in Bihar. 15 years of (mis)-governance during Lalu Yadav’s regime, saw Bihar virtually turning into a banana republic. During this time the rise of ‘Bahubalis’ like Shahabuddin and Pappu Yadav became common. Crime was rampant and kidnapping virtually became an organized industry.
Nitish Kumar assumed power in a state which had not been successful in cracking down on criminal elements. Under him, Bihar became relatively safer. ‘Bahubalis’ like Shahabuddin are now behind bars with the courts even barring them from contesting polls. Migration of businessmen has stopped and law and order is back in place again.
Though JD(U) has also inducted tainted politicians like Taslimuddin in its ranks, the overall image is unlikely to be hit by such moves. The fact that around 50 thousand criminals are behind bars will surely help Nitish.
Only Congress, which is in the fray without any alliance after a long time, can make this an issue. On the other hand, it will prove difficult for the Lalu-led RJD-LJP combine to defend themselves over this issue as clearly Nitish has an upper hand here. What’s more, Lalu has openly declared that some elements in his government had caused misrule, hinting at his brother-in-law who has now deserted him.
Development is the issue of aam aadmi and Nitish claims it to be his only poll plank. During the regime of the previous government, Bihar turned it into one of the most underdeveloped states of India. The division of the state and formation of Jharkhand was the last nail in the coffin of its development as it lost almost all industries that it had to the new state.
The condition of the roads was pathetic and electricity was believed to be an occasional visitor to the homes of common man. Adding to the misery was the condition of educational institutions. College sessions were so bad that people jokingly used to call graduation a ‘Five Year Plan’. Education mafia was so strong in areas like Gaya and Jehanabad that no student failed even when appearing in exams from colleges that never existed in the first place.
In these elections, NDA is appealing for votes with thrust on development and will try to showcase its achievement of past five years. Nitish Kumar regularly holds ‘Janata Darbaar’ (public grievance meeting) in various districts to look into the problems of the masses which helps him in connecting with people.
The mass recruitment of the primary teachers in the state would also work in favour of the ruling coalition as will their salaries, having being paid after a long duration.
The government can only be criticized over the issue of Kosi floods which have become a yearly affair now, as the ruling coalition of the state not only failed in controlling the breach in the river on time but also fared miserably in the rehabilitation of the affected people and in the distribution of relief funds. Politics between the Centre and state government made a mockery of relief to the affected.
Lalu Yadav has started to play up his good work in the Railways that attracted wide appreciation. But the question that arises here is why he failed to write the same success story when his party ruled Bihar for 15 long years.
The Congress party will also try to cash-in on the development programmes of the Central government like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the Rs 70,000 crore loan waiver scheme for the farmers. Sonia Gandhi and PM Manmohan Singh have been rubbishing the development claims of Nitish, saying it was central funds and schemes which were actually working.
In a state where caste plays a major role in electoral politics, the NDA will surely give a tough fight to the MY(Muslim-Yadav) factor of RJD which is combined with the Dalit vote bank of ally Ram Vilas Paswan. The very backward MBC (Most Backward Castes) voter connects with the persona of Nitish Kumar and despite the charisma of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, it seems mostly in favour of NDA.
Nitish’s strategy of further bifurcating the backwards castes into MBC (Most Backward Castes) and EBCs (Extremely Backward Cates) is expected to work in his favour combined with the cracks in the MY factor of Lalu Yadav.
The master of social engineering, Lalu Prasad Yadav has forged an alliance with Paswan’s LJP to counter NDA. After the erosion of his MY (Muslim-Yadav) vote bank, Lalu Yadav has turned to woo forward caste voters. This is a significant change, as all his life Lalu Yadav has projected himself as a messiah of social justice. Lalu is primarily eyeing 16% Muslim and 11% Yadav votes together with his share in the MBC electorate.
Apart from this, Lalu is also hoping to benefit from upper caste votes as per his new social engineering tactic of lending tickets to upper caste leaders.
This alliance can also be benefited by the hold of Paswan over Dalit votes especially 5% Paswan (Dushadh) vote bank.
Congress, which is in the fray on its own, will try to woo back its traditional vote-bank of forwards and Muslims. The acceptability of the party among all the castes will also come in handy and might just give it the required edge.
There is a big divide in Bihar, not on communal lines but between have and have-nots. This divide has created the problem of Naxalism and counter-Naxalism.
The two main groups of Naxalites, the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) and the Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist (People’s War) merged to form the united Communist Party of India, Maoist or CPI (Maoist) in September 2004.
Naxal violence became frequent in Bihar after that as both groups were the most powerful ones, accounting for about 88 percent of the countrywide Naxalite violence and 90 percent of the resultant deaths.
The succeeding years witnessed a further expansion of these groups from traditional strongholds in Patna, Gaya, Aurangabad, Arwal, Bhabhua, Rohtas and Jehanabad in southwestern Bihar, to West Champaran, East Champaran, Sheohar, Sitamarhi, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga and Madhubani districts. The Naxalites have also extended their areas of influence to Shaharsha, Begusarai and Vaisali and areas along the Uttar Pradesh border.
The problem still persists, though weakened by the politics of Lalu Prasad Yadav who divided the group between Yadavs and non-Yadavs. Every political party shall have to evolve a strategy of tackling this menace to garner backward votes.
The Naxal attacks have also reduced in the past few years due to the strict security scenario in the state and also because of the combined development efforts by the state and the central government. This will also help Nitish Kumar and might just turn the rural voters in his favour though Congress would also like to encash this development citing the welfare programmes of the Central government.
Muslim votes & Ayodhya verdict
The recent Allahabad High Court verdict on Ayodhya title suit will also prove to be a vital factor for voters in Bihar. Though the communal divide in Bihar is not as serious as the caste divide, Ayodhya issue is something that everyone among the state relates to.
Indian politicians have shown a lot of maturity in handling the verdict and that resulted in peace across the nation, even when many were not fully satisfied with it. In Bihar also, nobody is raking up this issue directly, barring Paswan. But the past trends have shown that these elections cannot escape the undercurrent created by it.
With Nitish Kumar trying to portray a secular image, he will face a tough time proving his secular credentials because of his alliance with BJP, primarily seen as the main culprit of the Babri demolition. Though Nitish has started his damage control mechanism by barring controversial leaders like Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi from campaigning in Bihar, it will still be very difficult for him to explain his alliance to the minority community.
The BJP is also angered by Nitish’s move but it is difficult for them to sideline Nitish in Bihar so they are putting up with it.
On the other hand, Congress and RJD-LJP combine are in no mood to let Nitish get away on this issue. With Rahul Gandhi raking up the minority issue just before the elections, it is up to Nitish to prove his secular credentials and justify his alliance with the BJP.
The most important twist in these elections is the Congress fighting on all the seats without any alliance with any regional party after more than a decade. This will prove to be one of the most important factors that will decide the voting trends in India if it were to continue in future elections too.
With PM Manmohan Singh at the helm and the charisma of Rahul Gandhi driving its strategy, Congress is all set to make a big splash and come out with a higher number of seats.
Though the state Congress in Bihar lacks the edge and a clear leader, resurrection looks possible for the grand old party in the state. It has cleverly put a Muslim in-charge and is giving preference to the youth.
Other issue that might have an effect in these elections is Land Reform Bill (Batwara Bill). A government commission had suggested a radical land reform, bestowing rights on the land to the tillers of the soil rather than to the original legal owners. Though it has been put in the cold-storage by CM Nitish Kumar, its ghost might just come back to haunt him because the upper caste is not happy with it and considers it a threat.
So, this might alienate the upper caste voters from the NDA alliance.
Corruption is going to be another issue that might affect the voting pattern in Bihar. The alleged irregular withdrawal of Rs 11,412.54 crore from the state exchequer for various welfare schemes and the picture of subsequent uproar in the assembly that even led to throwing of chair and pots are still fresh in the mind of the voters. Combined with the ever increasing prices of essential commodities, this will surely have its impact on these elections.
It is a triangular political war in Bihar. It will be very interesting to watch the mood of Bihari voters. But one thing is certain, Bihar has finally awakened and is voting for the right reasons.
It is also for the Bihari voters to decide the course of their future and send out a message about whether they want development now or they still give more importance to their caste. It is clearly a fight between the traditional and the modern way of governance.