There is a consensus building among opinion polls that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could outperform the Janata Dal (United) in the upcoming Bihar assembly polls. Anti-incumbency against JD(U) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is being touted as the main reason.
Conspiracy theories suggest that the BJP has prompted Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to field candidates against the JD(U) in a bid to weaken Kumar’s claim for a fourth term.
Till the 2000 polls, the BJP was the senior partner of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, of which the JD(U) and the LJP are currently members. Despite having more MLAs (67) than the Samata Party (34) and the JD(U) (21), late BJP leader AB Vajpayee preferred Kumar as Chief Minister, when people of the state gave a hung verdict.
After the Samata Party and the JD(U) merged in 2003, the BJP became the junior partner in the NDA in Bihar. For the past 15 years, the national party has been piggybacking on the shoulders of Sushashan Babu, as Kumar is referred to in Bihar.
Kumar was picked by Vajpayee because the state BJP lacked leaders of the stature of Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav, or George Fernandes. BJP’s Sushil Modi, who is Deputy Chief Minister for three terms and an OBC leader, is not considered a mass leader. He has preferred the MLC route, rather than contesting elections.
In party circles, Sushil Modi is accused of being soft on Kumar and toeing his line. If the BJP gets more seats than the JD(U) on November 10 when the results are announced, and is in a position to install its own Chief Minister, it is unlikely that the party will choose Sushil Modi. In 2015 when the BJP and the JD(U) parted ways, the party didn’t name Sushil Modi as its chief ministerial candidate. That said, Sushil Modi enjoys the highest rating among state BJP leaders with 12 percent in the Times Now-C Voter survey preferring him as Chief Minister.
Rameshwar Prasad Chaurasia, a four-time BJP MLA from Nokha constituency, is contesting this election on an LJP ticket from Sasaram. Chaurasia’s proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi could see him emerge as a dark horse after the election.
Giriraj Singh, a minister in the Union cabinet, has also emerged as a preferred CM candidate. Singh is a known detractor of Kumar since the days when he served in the state cabinet. Singh is a Bhumihar Brahmin, and it has to be seen how this will go with the BJP’s OBC voter base.
Another chief ministerial contender from the BJP could be Nityanand Rai, who is currently a minister of state in the Union cabinet. Rai is a Yadav leader with the potential to make a dent in Lalu Prasad’s traditional support base. Nand Kishore Yadav, a former Leader of Opposition and currently a minister in Kumar’s cabinet, could be a surprise pick as well.
In all, social engineering will play a key role in determining the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.
While some BJP state leaders have been cosying up to Kumar, central leaders such as Giriraj Singh have attacked him over a number of issues. The BJP has somewhat succeeded in emerging as an opposition within the alliance. While people of Bihar are angry with Kumar for underperformance in his third term, the BJP has emerged largely unscathed of Kumar’s anti-incumbency, by showcasing Narendra Modi’s work for the poor and downtrodden, and en-cashing his popularity. The Prime Minister is slated to hold a dozen rallies starting October 23 to boost the NDA’s chances.
Over the years, the BJP has created a strong vote block consisting of upper caste, the OBCs, and the SCs. Since women turnout in polls is higher than men in Bihar, the central government’s schemes, such as Ujjwala, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, etc. could turn in the BJP’s favour. The transfer of Rs 500 for three months to women Jan Dhan account holders could also help the party’s fortunes.
The BJP is facing rebels who have left the party and contesting on tickets from other parties. This has meant that the party is contesting some 50 seats less than what it did in 2015. The overdependence on Narendra Modi could also be its undoing as data shows that people vote differently for general elections and state polls.
The migrant crisis and high unemployment levels amid COVID-19 could cast a shadow on the BJP. Thirty-two of the 38 districts in Bihar were the most affected by reverse migration. Here the administrative efficacy in implementing central schemes will play a key role.Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker-turned political strategist and commentator. Twitter: @politicalbaaba. Views are personal.