In the hour of Narendra Modi’s electoral triumph last year, he could not have imagined that only a year-and-a-half later, he would face a situation where he and his party would have to devote all their energies to maintain their prime position in the political field.
Unless Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are able to overcome the cballenge of their opponents in the Bihar assembly elections this coming winter, their grip on the throne in Delhi will become shaky.
The first sign that all was not well for Modi in Bihar was available last August when the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress overcame the setbacks they had suffered in the general elections a few months earlier to win six of the 10 assembly by-elections in the state.
The BJP’s tally of four pointed to a waning of the Modi wave that had enabled the party to win 22 of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar in May, 2014. With the BJP’s allies, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) winning six and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) three, the BJP-plus group’s total went up to 31.
To the BJP’s satisfaction, the worst show was by its former ally, Nitish Kumar’s JD-U, which could win only two seats while the latter’s one-time arch-enemy and now an ally, Lalu Prasad’s RJD won seven, showing that its victory by over 136,000 votes over the JD-U in the Maharajganj by-election in June, 2013, was not a fluke.
Clearly, Nitish Kumar’s contention that Lalu Prasad had presided over a “jungle raj” in Bihar when the RJD was in power between 1990 and 2005 had not significantly eroded the latter’s base of support.
But, now, political exigencies have compelled Nitish Kumar to push Lalu Prasad to the background. The JD-U chief is now the chief ministerial candidate of the Janata “parivar” led by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The BJP, however, is unlikely to be too perturbed by these developments. For one, the “parivar” has been saved in the nick of time because only a few weeks ago, it was being said by the SP leaders that the group would not be formed before the Bihar elections. Even now, its “unity” is apparently confined only to Bihar.
For another, Lalu Prasad’s observation that he was ready to consume poison – accept humiliation for the sake of fighting the “cobra of communalism” – has been seen to reflect his unhappiness over Nitish Kumar’s elevation.
The RJD chief’s distress is understandable because his conviction in the fodder scam has undone his gradual political gains as was evident from his party winning of seven parliamentary seats and three assembly by-election seats in Bihar in 2014.
Although the Manmohan Singh government tried to save him with Sonia Gandhi’s blessings by enacting an ordinance seeking to overturn the judicial diktat disqualifying convicted legislators, the document was torn up in front of television cameras by Rahul Gandhi. It was this act that has now led to the anointment of Nitish Kumar at Lalu Prasad’s expense.
But, the fraught relations between the two OBC leaders could not have been eased by the outward show of bonhomie if only because the RJD leader, as a Yadav chieftain, can claim to have the support of the largest group of the backward castes in Bihar since the Yadavs comprise 16 per cent of the population.
Lalu Prasad, therefore, undoubtedly saw himself as the obvious chief ministerial candidate of the Janata parivar till he was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Nitish Kumar, who is a Kurmi, a backward caste which makes up a mere 3.7 per cent of the state’s population.
The preponderance of the caste factor may seem odd and even laughable to people outside the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh “cow belt”. But, it is a matter which is at the heart of electoral calculations in the region.
Although Modi regretted the continued dominance of casteism in Bihar during a recent visit to the state, it is precisely these caste-based animosities that the BJP will try to exploit during the poll campaign.
What is more, to show that it is not lagging behind in playing the caste card itself, the party has claimed that the Mauryan emperors, Chandragupta (324-300 BC) and Ashoka (272-232 BC), who ruled from Patalipura, the ancient name of Patna, were of backward caste origin – Kushwaha or Koeri.
What may be considered unfortunate, however, is why the BJP should have fallen back on these regressive tactics when its USP is supposed to be the prime minister’s development mantra. It was this agenda which won the BJP its famous victory in the general election.
If it is now resorting to the familiar divisive means of the Hindi heartland to edge ahead of its opponents, the reason probably is the party’s realization that it hasn’t been able to push the economic reforms vigorously enough to fulfil its last year’s promises.
Given this failure, the most which the BJP can expect is a narrow victory, which will be nearly as much damaging to its reputation as a defeat.