Bihar is the first state to go to the hustings in year 2010. In that, it has the attention of political parties, pundits, media and laymen alike. For how the wind blows through the six phases of polls and who comes to power in Bihar will decide a lot of things for the various stakeholders with regards to their near and distant futures.
The way these stake-holders i.e. the political parties are positioned and what that eventually leads to on the counting day of November 24 will set the ball rolling for more electoral rounds slated next year in some of the most crucial states of India: Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
The major issue to sort out for the parties will be aligning with each other. The coalition picture has drastically changed from the last Assembly election of the state in 2005.
That year, BJP + JD(U) (partners of NDA) were pitted against Congress + RJD while the Ram Vila Paswan-led LJP took the bold and disastrous option of joining hands with the out-of-form Left.
The result was the end of the 15-year old Lalu Prasad-led RJD regime in the state and the re-opening of Bihar to other political options.
This year a lot has changed: Congress has decided to plough a lonely furrow, RJD & LJP alliance from the parliamentary elections of 2009 continues and the alliance is not as firm in fabric as it has been through its 15 year marriage. And, development alias ‘sushasan’ is seemingly the biggest poll plank – not caste or religion.
Perhaps the last part of the above is the most crucial of changes for Indian politics and it will be cast in stone probably if Nitish & Co win.
For this is what Nitish had to say to Biharis when he sounded the poll bugle: “Each one of you have to decide whether you want the process of development to continue after the polls or want to go back to the days when progress was sacrificed at the altar of politics of caste, community and religion.”
He has asked for his remuneration after five years of ‘inclusive’ development and schemes. Nitish, undoubtedly, has turned a new chapter in Bihar as he worked relentlessly – and mostly alone, along with senior babus – at undoing Lalu’s legacy of failures and apathy.
In that style of functioning he alienated himself from his alliance partner, the BJP. Such was the sidelining of the party that BJP legislators from the state, for the first time, forced the central leadership to hold secret ballot and decide the future of Deputy CM & Bihar BJP chief Sushil Modi who they accused of playing second-fiddle to the government.
The BJP was forced to crack the whip within but could not tell Nitish to modify his modus operandi and take it along.
It is the compulsion of a state ridden with complex caste equations and its own saffron tinge that forced BJP to stay on as a meek alliance partner, with gritted teeth.
For Nitish is supremely confident of his own move and groove. His party emerged as the largest one in 2005 with 88 seats in a 243 member Assembly as he promised a new chapter for the Extremely Backward Castes, Most Backward Castes (MBCs) or Mahadalits (a separate category of 18 sub-castes of Dalits which comprise 36% of the electorate) and Muslims – all traditional votebanks of Lalu and the Congress.
As he came to power, the new CM unleashed a slew of measures aimed at these constituencies: 20% reservation for ECBs at panchayats, special Rs 815-cr project for Mahadalits, helping Ali Anwar and Dr Ezaj Ali get nominated to Rajya Sabha and reopening of Bhagalpur riots case etc.
He has also paid special attention to the welfare of women as Bihar became the first state to give 50% reservation to the fairer sex in panchayats, apart from introducing other schemes in the area of education and employment.
This social maneuvering and engineering is crucial for Nitish as much of the upper castes of Bihar (less than 15% but holding the key in 72 seats) are unhappy with his land reform initiative that sought to give the backward land-tillers right of land.
This ‘Batwara Bill’ was dumped in cold storage along with any thoughts of deserting the BJP, a traditional upper caste vote catcher. Not only that, he is a Kurmi which are only 3% of the population and can’t really help him. Nitish has, thus, cleverly divided the Dalit vote bank of Lalu and Ram Vilas Paswan.
Wooing the upper castes in fact has caused new permutations in the RJD-LJP camp as well. While Lalu is depending upon the resurgence of his MY (Muslims,Yadavs, 26% of electorate) votebank which prevented his vote share from dipping below 23% in 2005 and LJP is hoping to get its Dussadh Dalit votes, both are courting upper caste defectors.
Prabhunath Singh, for example, quit the JD(U) and got ticket from the RJD-LJP combine which has even promised reservations for the upper castes in jobs. The Congress too has sensed an opportunity and has given 79 seats to Rajputs (32), Bhumiars (25) and Brahmins (18).
The Muslim population is about 17% in the state and has been in the favour of RJD-LJP in the past years. Last Assembly and General Election however saw them switch loyalty in favour of Nitish who has cultivated them by resolutely staying away from the ‘Hindu’ politics of BJP.
This was another sore point in the alliance as the secular CM regularly irks the BJP over Narendra Modi, Varun Gandhi and his presence in Bihar or even in its newspapers. Not only that, he has reached out to the pasmanda or backward Muslim sections too.
Not to be left behind, Paswan too has made the right noises to grab the minority vote that can affect results in up to 60 constituencies. He has been opposing the Ayodhya verdict of the Allahabad HC and made it a point to acknowledge concerns of Kashmiri separatists. Lalu is the old master of playing to this gallery with his refrain of having got LK Advani arrested at the peak of his Ayodhya rath yatra and is sure to pull out a surprise this time around too.
Together, they are a formidable minority community option.
While it seems to be a two-sided affair, the solo play of Congress is an interesting development that was born after its revival in the Hindi heartland in General Election 2009.
Rahul Gandhi has been at the forefront of this new found resolve of the Grand Old Party to rebuild its organization in states. Lakhs of youth Congress members have been elected in Bihar preceding the poll season and this is sure to add to the 10 seat tally of the party.
The party is looked at suspiciously by Muslims – and has appointed a young Muslim as its chief there for perception’s sake - but the backward castes and upper castes may get disillusioned by the rest and hold on to the Hand this time.
It is therefore a three way road for the Bihar electorate and it is sure going to be a bumpy ride. One can only hope what Jayprakash Narain said in the ‘70s is right: “Bihar’s electorate may be illiterate but it is not stupid.”