Nitish Kumar is set to be the Chief Minister of Bihar again.
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)’s decision to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on the eve of the polls has turned the Bihar Assembly elections into an open contest. From what initially looked like a formidable ruling alliance comprising the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the LJP pitted against a weakened Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress opposition, the prospect of two of the three NDA partners fighting each other on all seats makes for a more even contest with the post-poll scenario becoming decisive for government formation.
While the LJP’s move is assumed to have the BJP’s blessings to undercut Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (and his JD(U)) and emerge as the leader of the alliance, a la Maharashtra, whether this gambit pays off to the BJP’s advantage remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the BJP is in pole position already, having managed to wrest 121 seats out of 243 with the promise to accommodate the LJP from its kitty. Now the BJP has more seats to contest after the LJP’s exit. The JD(U), which will be contesting the remaining 122 seats, will share seven seats with Jitan Ram Majhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM). Although the BJP could accommodate the Vikassheel Insaan Party with a few seats from its share in a last-minute manoeuvre, the dice looks firmly loaded in favour of the BJP.
The LJP’s decision throws open the possibility of the BJP tacitly backing LJP candidates in seats where it is on an equal footing with the JD(U). That would see Kumar’s grip on power loosening, and the BJP getting a chance to install its own Chief Minister for the first time. In Bihar, the BJP has always had a better strike rate compared to the JD(U) despite remaining content as the junior partner.
Now, with Kumar’s popularity taking a hit in the aftermath of the migrant exodus, COVID-19 mismanagement and a three-term anti-incumbency, the BJP believes the opportunity is ripe to assert itself as the senior partner. The BJP also reckons that the JD(U) doesn’t have a solid caste base beyond the Kurmis and the support groups cultivated by Kumar can be gradually won over.
On October 6, the Bihar NDA held a joint presser and reiterated their support to Nitish Kumar as the leader of the alliance. Sushil Kumar Modi, Nitish Kumar’s mild-mannered deputy, even went on to say that the latter would be the Chief Minister even if the JD(U) won fewer seats than the BJP. Yet, it was important that these statements were made by the BJP leaders of Bihar.
LJP’s Chirag Paswan, it is believed, has the backing of BJP’s central leadership, and they expect to win nearly twice the number of seats to the JD(U) and install a more hardliner leader in Bihar.
Paswan had been gunning for Nitish Kumar ever since he assumed the mantle of LJP president in 2019, and, he has consistently chipped away at the Chief Minister’s image.
A decade-and-a-half ago, in the twin elections of 2005, it was Ram Vilas Paswan’s newly-floated LJP which effectively ended Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Lalu Prasad’s long reign in Bihar. The LJP had achieved some degree of success in the first of those elections when it contested 178 seats and won 29, but it had to eat humble pie in the elections that followed later that year when its tally was reduced to 10. Ever since, the LJP has been a much weakened force despite contesting 75 seats in 2010 in alliance with the RJD and 42 seats in 2015 with the BJP.
With his father Ram Vilas Paswan health taking a backseat, actor-turned-politician Chirag Paswan is hoping to punch above the party’s weight banking on his appeal among the youth, having nothing to lose in the bargain. The BJP has exploited the resultant situation to the hilt, hoping to end up with a decisively larger seat tally than the JD(U). It remains to be seen whether Chirag Paswan can manage to improve on LJP’s tally of two seats (from 2015) and take his party’s vote share to double digits.
However, this strategy also runs the risk of benefitting the Opposition. Although there are many smaller parties in the fray, Bihar has largely seen bipolar contests unlike neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. The contests between the JD(U) and the LJP could turn to the advantage of the RJD-Congress alliance, and throw all poll predictions out of the window.
The Bihar assembly elections are split wide open. Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.