Commentary

In All The Tumult Of Bihar Politics, One Trend Is Clear

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Jan 07, 2024, 12:25 PM | Updated 12:23 PM IST

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Political analysis in most states of our republic is based on past trends. Victories, losses, upsets, and even surprises, generally take place within established boundary conditions.

These include the breaking or forming of new alliances, and splits within parties.

Once every few decades a fresh paradigm is set, like when a new party emerges, or when an old force withers. Then, a brief period of flux persists for a few years, following which, these revised social coalitions strengthen, fresh frames of political reference are instituted, and new trends evolve.

Bihar is an exception. For over a decade now, the state has witnessed such dramatic political shifts every couple of years that only two types of commentators might venture a definitive electoral forecast — the reckless or the foolhardy.

The problem is that three major parties have repeatedly sought to gain the mandate by allying with one or the other of the three, and by additionally allying with four minor forces. Each has its own agenda, its own core vote base, and side alliances with local parties.

The three major parties are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Janata Dal (United)-(JDU) of Nitish Kumar, and the Yadav family’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

The four minor forces are the Congress, the Left (predominated by the Maoists), the Paswan family’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP.

At some point of time in the past decade all of these parties, barring the BJP, have either tied up temporarily with one or more of the others, before and after elections, or quit a pre-poll coalition — often more than once.

And at one point or the other, each of these entities have contested elections on their own. It is these haphazard fluctuations which make the interpreting of Bihar so difficult.

However, since general elections are fast approaching, and Bihar is a key state, it is imperative that we sift through these shifts to try and make sense of the state.

For that, a good starting point is a survey of the ‘trend disruptions’ which have frequently taken place in Bihar between the turn of the century and now.

Until Narendra Modi stepped onto the national stage in 2013, one firm trend in Bihar was that the BJP and the JDU made an unbeatable combination.

They led in the 2005 February assembly elections (but failed to win a majority), secured a healthy majority in the snap mid-term polls of October 2005, won 32 of 40 Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 general elections, and swept the state in the 2010 assembly elections, winning 206 of 243 seats.

But since Modi’s ascendancy clashed with Nitish Kumar’s own national ambitions, the JDU-BJP alliance ended in the summer 2013, and Nitish just about managed to form a new majority government with the aid of four Congress legislators and independents.

The RJD remained on its own, even though an alliance with the LJP existed on paper.

However, when the BJP under Modi swept Bihar and the subcontinent in May 2014, Nitish uncharacteristically took the moral high ground and resigned as Chief Minister, appointing an unknown named Jitan Ram Manjhi in his place.

The JDU had contested these Lok Sabha elections on its own, as did the Left, while the Congress was allied to the RJD, and the BJP with the Paswans and Kushwaha. This was the second shift.

A third realignment took place during the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar, after Nitish unceremoniously shunted out Jitan Ram Manjhi (apparently, the moral high ground is only a staging point for some). Arrayed on one side was the JDU, the Congress, and the RJD; on the other was the BJP, the LJP, and Kushwaha. The Left went solo.

Although the JDU-led coalition won a thumping majority, the RJD, with 80 seats, was the single largest party. Laloo Prasad Yadav’s ‘fabled’ Muslim-Yadav axis was back in business.

But Bihar politics being what it is, Nitish was forced to cut ties with the RJD in 2017 after corruption charges began to mount, and form a fresh government with the BJP and the LJD. This was the fourth shift.

A fifth repositioning took place during the 2019 general elections, when a BJP-JDU-LJP combine won 39 of 40 Lok Sabha seats with 54 per cent of the vote share. On the losing side was an RJD-led coalition which included the Congress, Kushwaha, and a jilted Jitan Ram Manjhi. The Left was still on its own.

But everything came apart within a year. In the 2020 assembly elections, although the BJP and the JDU remained united, their alliance partner, the LJP, incredulously chose to contest against the JDU. This helped the RJD-Congress coalition which was further strengthened by the Left.

This was the sixth churn. A bruised, macerated, humiliated Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister again, though only with a slender majority, and only 43 seats to the BJP’s 74. With 75 seats, the RJD was the single largest party again, and the Left won 16 seats (of which 12 were won by the Maoists).

A new entrant, the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) representing the Nishad (boatmen) community, allied with the BJP and won four seats. Kushwaha allied with Asaduddin Owaisi (whose party won five seats in eastern Bihar) but won nothing, and Manjhi allied with the BJP-JDU to win four seats.

And then, in August 2022, came the seventh tumult: Nitish parted ways with the BJP to join hands with the RJD-led coalition once again, and form a record eighth ministry.

In this period, the LJP has split, the VIP has been subsumed by the BJP, Asaduddin Owaisi’s MLAs have merged with the RJD, and Upendra Kushwaha is re-allied with the BJP.

So, this is how the field is spread as on date: The BJP stands largely by itself, plus the two warring LJP factions, Kushwaha, the former VIP, and Jitan Ram Manjhi.

Nitish Kumar and the JDU are allied with the Yadavs’ RJD, the Congress, and the Left. The Muslim vote is now firmly with the RJD once more.

But Bihar politics being what it is, an eighth shift before the general elections cannot be ruled out. Nitish Kumar maintains a thorny relationship with the dotted coalition, and suffers his allies only because he realises that the BJP’s vote base in Bihar has expanded in the past decade.

It is only a matter of time before the BJP becomes the single largest party in the state. And while it is too early to quantify matters, it is also clear that the consecration ceremony at Ayodhya will have an impact in Bihar.

It is the way of the world, whether political analysts accept this truth or not, that the road from Marx to Mandal ends at Mandir.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.


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