Will Ram Vilas Paswan help BJP topple Nitish Kumar’s applecart in Bihar?

By Hemant Abhishek | Last Updated: Mar 01, 2014, 00:08 AM IST

Hemant Abhishek

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on February 27 helmed a pre-poll alliance with the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) in Bihar. This signalled Paswan`s return to the NDA fold, 12 years after he quit the alliance after the 2002 Gujarat riots. As a result of this seat-sharing deal, the LJP will fight seven out of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. BJP has given three seats to Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and plans to contest the rest 30 seats on its own. In the 2009 elections, the BJP had won 12 of the 15 seats it contested on; while its erstwhile ally Janata Dal (United) had bagged 20 off the 25 seats it fought. After the latter`s exit from the NDA, the BJP has turned to Paswan to help power Narendra Modi`s bid for the prime ministerial post by gaining a lion’s share in Bihar.

Since his 2002 divorce from the NDA, Ram Vilas Paswan`s stock has witnessed a steady decline. The downslide began right after the breakup. In the Bihar Assembly polls of 2005, the LJP secured 10 seats and 11-odd-percent votes. But it slid to a meagre three seats and 6.75% of all votes polled in the 2010 elections.

The last General Election was perhaps Paswan`s nadir. His party struggled to register even a single win in the state in 2009 with even Paswan failing in his bid to retain for the eighth time his stronghold - the Hajipur Lok Sabha constituency. His party, however, managed to win approximately six percent votes. His nervous grin at the announcement of alliance showed his desperation to stable his party’s rocking boat by latching onto the Modi bandwagon. His repeated mentions of his son Chirag Paswan and the constant attempts to let ‘Paswan junior’ face the press in the run-up to the poll tie-up also showed that Ram Vilas is looking to ease his scion into the rigours of national politics. But passing a burnt baton seems far from an ideal perspective.

Well it’s amply clear that Paswan`s chips are indeed down in Bihar, but then why is the BJP still betting on him? That is because Paswan still potentially holds key Dalit votes in the state and LJP’s loss likely looks like JD(U)’s gain – which the BJP can ill-afford.

Early on in his political career, Paswan emerged as the champion of the backward classes—the chunk that now finds resonance in Nitish Kumar`s `maha Dalit` (extremely backward caste)-appeasement-tactic. Paswan, along with Lalu Prasad Yadav, also once held sway over the Muslim vote bank in the state. The community constitutes about15-odd-percent of the total voters.

After its breakup with JD(U), the BJP is now looking at Paswan to dent Nitish`s stronghold on both the above-mentioned demographic factions.

The BJP knows that just its dominance on the upper castes in Bihar will not be good enough to get it 20-plus-seats in the state – hence it feels a strong need to consolidate either (or ideally both) Dalit and Muslim vote-share. The alliance with LJP, when combined with party president Rajnath Singh’s recent offer to apologise for any ‘wrongdoing in the past’ (read Godhra riots/Ayodhya), shows that the BJP is going all out in its efforts to woo the minority voters.

Hajipur, Samastipur, Jamui, Munger, Khagaria and Vaishali are among seven seats that the BJP has shared with the LJP—a majority of these happen to have JD(U) as incumbents. The BJP had in 2009 not fielded candidates on these seats and this time around it hopes that the LJP can wrest a few of these away from Nitish Kumar.

The BJP is looking to further solidify its 14% vote-share of 2009 and will look to sink its teeth into JD(U)’s strong hold on the Dalit community or into Congress-RJD-combine’s sway over Muslim votes. And it is betting on the dark horse of Bihar to upset Nitish Kumar’s applecart.