Every election carries some unique features. Bihar Election 2020 is no exception. Essentially speaking, cutting across the social groups and political formations, there is almost a consensus that the incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does not have a matching rival for the chief ministerial post. Ironically, this is the case even when his performance in every respect (governance, development, delivery of welfare schemes to the public) has dissipated considerably. Despite this dissipation, even his ally, the BJP, is trying to find out his replacement in peculiar or less familiar ways of manipulations. While it has announced him as the ally’s face of Chief Minister, it has also asked its another ally, the LJP, to checkmate the JDU (Asmita Bihari, Rediff.com, September 11, 2020). This kind of manipulative politics may not have been played earlier, in Bihar as well as elsewhere.
There are many political-watchers who have a feeling that the BJP is less interested in Bihar than in the West Bengal elections 2021, where it will have a direct contest with the incumbent TMC; whereas, in Bihar, the politics is much more fractious this time than ever before. The BJP, because of not having a credible and promising chief ministerial face, possibly does not want to discredit itself in Bihar before going to the West Bengal elections.
Or, the BJP might be thinking that in the post-poll scenario, it will have the might to foist, anybody endorsed by the RSS, upon Bihar, and that will be acceptable to its people. They have done so in Haryana (Manoharlal Khattar) and Jharkhand (Raghubar Das, an OBC from Chattisgarh).
Be that as it may, this is yet another interesting feature of Bihar elections this time, that the Hindu upper castes and Banias are more desperate to have BJP as the hegemonic political force in Bihar. This way, the BJP, so to say, does not seem to be as much prepared to ‘oblige’ its own core support-base. Given this situation, Bihar needs to introspect on yet another aspect of its many-sided deficit: an unprecedented leadership crisis.
The desperation of the upper castes and Bania has been there in Uttar Pradesh as well, since 1989-90. With the arrival of Yogi in 2017, they have staged their come back and this remains to be seen if, the stories of horrific persecution (such as the one in Hathras) of the women of the subjugated castes (mostly Dalits), will really result into a regime-change in UP, or will it really have any impact in Bihar elections?
In Bihar elections, the dominant Dalit caste, Paswan, under the leadership of Ramvilas Paswan (1946-2020), has consistently been demonstrating that they go quite solidly with their leader. This has been the strength of the LJP. The Paswans of Bihar feel leaderless as Ramvilas Paswan and his younger brother Ramchandra Paswan (1952-2019) have passed away. There is a possibility that this will create some sympathy and even if Chiragh Paswan may not have an effective connection with the Paswans in Bihar, he may succeed in retaining or strengthening his base among his caste as well as in getting the votes transferred to its ally, the BJP. Such a scenario may be more helpful for the BJP, and thereby more damaging for the JDU. Nitish may have to worry on this count. This is a foregone conclusion that in the post-poll eventuality of BJP’s effort at replacing Nitish Kumar will have a likelihood of greater success in terms of obtaining favour from the legislatures from other smaller allies, such as Jitanram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahni.
The Vote-Katwas and the Owaisi Factor
As of now, the BJP has the least to worry about spoilers (vote-katwas). This worry is greater on the part of the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan. Here are the reasons:
Pappu Yadav, through his Jan Adhikar Party, has been doing a lot to invest in populism and in reaching out to the people across Bihar. His most recent populist interventions were into helping out the stranded migrant Bihari working class during the lockdown for the pandemic. His foray is mostly among the Yadavas and Muslims, otherwise an essential core-base of the RJD. Add to it the factor that almost 40% of Yadavas have been voting for the BJP.
Overall, in Indian politics, in the era of Neo-Hindutva under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the Muslim communities, even for the ‘secular’ parties, have become politically untouchables. Lynching, and in all other kinds of oppressions and victimizations (including disenfranchisement through new citizenship laws), they have been suffering particularly in the recent years, the regional, caste-based, dynasty-perpetuating parties, have hardly spoken out. The Muslims have been fighting their own lonely and miserably unequal battles with the regime as well as with the media, wherein, even judiciary has mostly been failing them as blatantly as they can. Unfortunately, such battles have been equally lonely even in Bihar, where all regional and sub-regional forces have been getting Muslim votes in varying proportions. The greatest beneficiary of the Muslim votes—the RJD and the Congress have disappointed them as much as any other formation. Only possible explanation for the apathy of the political parties is that the majoritarianism and anti-Muslim hatred has permeated into the core support-base of not just the BJP but also into the base of other political parties. This is also testified by the fact that while announcing the seat-sharing arrangements to the press, the Mahagathbandhan made it a point that no Muslim leader is seen on the dais.
With this kind of ‘brutal’ isolation and peripheralization, sections of Muslim communities have got added reasons to harbour sympathy for the leader like MIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. He has already been working hard at least among the Muslim concentration regions of Bihar, viz., Kishanganj and adjoining districts called Seemanchal. This region is also contiguous with four northern districts of West Bengal having a substantial Muslim population. While Owaisi may win some seats in Seemanchal, it may also cut into Muslim votes of the Mahagathbandhan on many seats in and outside the Seemanchal. Given the degree of majoritarianism, beyond Seemanchal, lesser number of Muslim candidates has got Mahagathbandhan tickets. This has created quite a disenchantment among sections of Muslims. The seats having 20% or more Muslim votes, and with a history of having been represented by a Muslim member, are witnessing this disenchantment even more strongly and stridently.
Nevertheless, the seats where Muslims are below 20% and don’t have Muslim aspirants, have got only one worry, as helpless watcher that the BJP should not be able to raise its tally. The Muslim desperation, particularly in such seats, is so much so that even their strong grievances against Nitish Kumar may become a lesser concern on certain seats, where the JDU candidate has got some credentials of being not so much explicitly anti-Muslim. This is possibly and arguably also because this election is manifesting BJP’s anti-JDU politicking. Some sections of Muslims are rationalising that the way Congress has de-saffronised the Shiv Sena at least for the time being, the JDU at the helm has in a way checkmated the BJP in becoming the brute power hegemon in Bihar. Also, some Pasmanda Muslims have been getting state favours in terms of representation and clientelism via Nitish’s JDU; in addition to that, the proximity of some Ulema with Nitish is also a factor.
There is another very small section within the helpless Muslims who wish to propose that on an experimental basis, the Muslims should just withdraw from the process of electioneering; let the Hindus decide among themselves, and the Muslims should only go to cast their votes quite silently and uneventfully. Of course, there are not many subscribers to this proposal.
Given this kind of socio-political scenario, it is naturally inevitable that there is a perceptible rise of communitarians, and many of them are slipping into communal reactionaries, who talk of Muslims should vote only for Muslim candidates. One is able to witness the rise of these fissiparous and self-defeating tendencies in many WhatsApp groups operating at village and mohalla levels.
These Muslims fail (or refuse) to realise that antidote of majoritarianism is pluralism; howsoever, difficult that might appear to be made workable, in the present circumstances of unprecedented majoritarian consolidation. These hard-headed nuts also fail to realise that even if, just for argument sake, for once, you discard this conviction, in sheer practical terms also, a minority cannot afford to pursue this politics. Moreover, they also fail to realise that, if majoritarian hatred and consolidation persist, then even an enhanced Muslim representation inside the legislature will not help them, as it happened post-1938 in UP and elsewhere. (Mukul Kesavan, “Partition’s Hinge: How Muslim Separatist Politics Took Roots between 1937-1942” The Telegraph, August 7, 2005) They will be there as helpless opposition, and nothing more than that. These Muslims also need to realise in sheer pragmatic terms of electoral politics that in these harsher times, they are left in an either-or-quandary. What is their precise priority at these moments of unprecedented vulnerabilities? Enhancing Muslim representation or choosing lesser evil? At this moment, the sad reality is: the Muslim minorities cannot ensure both of the above, concurrently, for themselves.
The RJD Calculus: Will That Really Help as Much?
The RJD has its own problems. It has not been trying to expand its support base among the lower OBCs (Ati Pichhrha) and MahaDalits in any sincere manner. This has doggedly been refusing to let emerge and project leaders from these social constituencies as future Deputy Chief Ministers. Given deficits in age, education, political experiences, and ability to reach out to and forge a deep connection with the masses, Tejashwi is hardly acceptable as chief minister beyond the Yadavas. It has cleverly tried to dent into upper-caste vote-base of the BJP through the Congress and among the economically weaker upper and dominant castes through the traditional Left. At the same time, through the CPIML (Liberation), it has tried to reach out to the historically oppressed castes. There is no denying the fact that such an alliance stitching should be expected to help significantly. But shall that really ensure as much as it could have if certain leaders from the marginalised castes could have been projected more prominently?
Additionally, Tejashwi, while attacking his Nitish chacha, more through social media and less on the streets (even in the pre-lockdown era), has not been able to make strident campaigns against the failings of Nitish’s governance: rise in crimes. Neither the RJD-Congress nor the Left forces, nor even the still un-saffronised media, have exposed the rise of organised crime even in rural areas more particularly since 2016, through bootlegging. In fact, with the Panchayati Raj (2001), real estate mafia and the liquor prohibition (2016) have, in ironic and stranger ways, given rise to the rise of gangsterism in rural areas and small towns in which the local police has been blatantly accomplice. For instance, in Muzaffarpur, a Deputy Collector and a Superintendent of Police were put under suspension. But the matter has not been pursued and investigated further to expose the racket and nexus, spread and thriving, menacingly across Bihar. Even in the Muzaffarpur Shelter Home horror, the RJD reacted rather belatedly and with visible restraint. This may be one of the reasons why the JDU has no shame in fielding one of its accused Manju Varma, a former minister, once again? Likewise, on the Srijan Scam (Satyavrat Mishra, Rediff.com, September 3, 2017) as well as on the issues of the stranded labourers during the pandemic, and on flood issues, too, the RJD has hardly been seen to be as strident on the streets. In fact, at times, Tejashwi was as much missing from the scene as the ruling dispensation. The RJD does realise that the media and judiciary have its own blatant selectivity on such issues, which are often helpful to the regimes and allies of the BJP. In this scenario, this was all the more necessary for the anti-BJP forces to hit the streets. But the RJD carries such a baggage of non-performance on governance and development that possibly because of this, it never feels confident enough to hit the streets pursuing such politics against the NDA. Or, may be, majoritarianism is so deep that nothing is going to really help the opposition!
Mohammad Sajjad teaches Modern and Contemporary History in Aligarh Muslim University and has published books including Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge 2014/ 2018 reprint)
[Its abridged version was carried by the Rediff.com October 13, 2020]