Politicians do not fear defeat. They’re haunted by oblivion. That’s what might make the Bihar assembly polls a watershed.
Besides being the trophy for the best argued contest in India’s electoral history, the new legislature will decide the future of contemporary claimants to the social justice plank — Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and Sharad Yadav.
If they’re trounced, Bihar won’t be the same again. Not just that. Even UP would seem within Narendra Modi’s striking range, Mulayam Singh Yadav joining in the doghouse his Bihar counterparts he has deserted midway.
Conversely, a victory for the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance could alter the country’s political landscape. It’ll give them the psychological high to dictate the agenda for the remaining period of the Modi rule.
But let’s shun clairvoyance and take a look at the historicity of the electoral face-off.
The BJP draws as much from the politics of Kamandal as from the legacy of the Mandal formula it had initially opposed. Former Premier VP Singh who applied the OBC quota would often underscore the primacy of caste over religion: “Mandal kamandal ko tod kar bahar aayega.”
That was in the late 80s-early 90s. Times have since changed.
A host of factors have altered the rules of the game: Babri demolition of 1992; economic reforms ushered in around the same period; the IT boom, cross-border terrorism; decline of the Congress; governance deficit in the Hindi heartland — where the Janata Dal or its splinter groups ruled intermittently.
The challenge before the Mandal protagonists is to not let caste get subsumed in assertive majoritarianism. Or allow Modi to run away with the aspirational vote by showcasing his ‘concurrent watch’ a better bet than Nitish for Bihar’s development.
For that reason a salient feature of Nitish’s campaign would be soft secularism. Or call it soft Hindutva if you like.
The purpose is to prevent communal polarisation that suits the saffron side.
All stakeholders in the three-party combine are one in that thinking, claimed an insider. Barring pro forma references to the BJP’s past, restraint would be visible in even the speeches of Lalu, the Yadav chieftain who earned a national profile by stopping LK Advani’s Ram Rath in 1990.
“Ye Jungle Raj 2 nahi Mandal Raj 2 hai,” he declared at the combine’s Patna rally. The one-liner sought to serve two objectives: arousing voters’ caste allegiance; rebutting the BJP’s claim that a vote against it would mean a reversion to the lawlessness identified with Lalu’s stint in power.
The strategy makes sense as the very composition of the Nitish-led front is assurance enough for the Muslims in the state that elected just one NDA member from the community to the Lok Sabha in 2014. “They don’t need to be reminded of the BJP’s track-record,” argued a JD(U) poll manager.
The jibes Lalu took at Ram Vilas Paswan for being an ally of the saffron party were understandable — the sole NDA MP from Bihar having won on an LJP ticket.
Confident of garnering a big chunk of the over 30% Muslim-Yadav votes, Nitish cannot pull off a victory without a sizeable share of the EBCs-Maha Dalits joining his fight for Bihar’s development with pride. The 16% strong Upper Castes aren’t just with the BJP, they spearhead its campaign, their youth combatively vociferous.
Considered miles ahead in poll management, with superior logistics and resources, the BJP’s banking on the EBCs-Maha Dalits fear of the Yadavs. “But that’s neutralised by their suspicion of the equally exploitative, pro-saffron Bhumihars,” reasoned a Nitish aide.
He said the perception that Lalu was stronger on the ground could turn the CM’s Kurmi clansmen creatively competitive to show up in larger numbers. Together with the Koeris, they constitute 11% of the electorate.
The BJP working, so to speak, to proselytise or balkanise the ECB-Mahadalit social combine, it’s risky to wager on the outcome.
But the first phase of polling might show which side has the haystacks tied down better in the wind.