The importance of the Bihar assembly election is evident from the way political parties are conducting their campaign. The stakes are high for the two main players in the field: the BJP-led NDA coalition is looking to maintain the momentum of its big general election win in Bihar and beat the so-called grand alliance of the Janata Dal(United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress. And the grand alliance wants to stave off the BJP and stop it from forming its first government on its own in the state.
As the state gears up for the key election, communal polarisation has emerged as a hot-button issue in Bihar. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar were busy announcing development packages for the state, JD(U) president Sharad Yadav blamed the BJP for the rise in communal incidents since the BJP-JD(U) split in 2013. “The [Bihar] government should identify these small theatres of communal violence and devise a special strategy to deal with it... There should be a humanist movement again...[and] it is important because we are approaching a harvesting season of communal violence,” Yadav told an English daily in an interview.
Communal polarisation of the electorate has proved to be a tactic that has benefited political parties over the years. A 2014 study by three Yale scholars, Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver and Steven Rosenzweig, said riots produced ethnic polarisation that benefited ethno-religious parties at the expense of the Congress. It also said that the chances of riots fell 32% each time a Congress leader was elected. The researchers arrived at this conclusion after studying about 315 districts across 17 states in India between 1962 and 2000. The study, however, had many caveats, the biggest being it did not take into account the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, as it did not involve Hindus and Muslims.
Even if one were to accept the Yale study and infer that ethno-religious parties (read the BJP) benefit from a polarisation, are there other parties that benefit from a polarised electorate? No political party has a monopoly on using ethnic/religious polarisation as a political tool to its benefit. The system is misused by all parties to their advantage. While some use it overtly, others are covert. It is no different in Bihar.
Behind the development agenda, parties are busy chalking out strategies on how to get the religious/caste equation right. In the process, the BJP has been boxed into a communal corner, leaving the rest of the ring to secular parties in the state. And the bout was in line with the script until Asaduddin Owaisi expressed interest in entering Bihar’s political arena with his All India Majlis-e-Ittehdul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
Owaisi’s demand for a special package under Article 371 of the Constitution for Seemanchal, which has a significant Muslim population, has rattled the JD(U) and the RJD. The so-called secular combine, which until recently had taken the anti-BJP electorate’s vote for granted, see Owaisi’s AIMIM as a threat to their vote-bank. The dichotomy here is that while both the grand alliance and AIMIM target the same vote-bank, the former calls it secular and the latter has no such pretensions. Owaisi does not use the appeal of ‘secularism’ and is directly addressing the minority community.
It is here that Owaisi and his brand of politics upset the so-called secular group. If Kumar and Prasad, and the Congress, genuinely believe in the good work done by the JD(U) government in Bihar, they ought to focus on it, and not look for the fruits of polarisation that the BJP is allegedly banking on. How is it that when Kumar or Lalu address the minorities it is secular and when Owaisi speaks to the same group he is communal? Is it because Owaisi is likely to beat the so-called secular group in its game of wooing the minorities? Owaisi turns the light on this hypocrisy of the grand alliance, which under the garb of secularism is pursuing to gain the votes of the minorities.
A communally-divided Bihar is not a good prospect and its ramifications are long-term — the BJP should not walk to the seat of power in Patna through this channel. It is equally important that political parties that use the facade of secularism, that piggyback on a communally-polarised atmosphere, and that exploit the fears of the minority community, are brought out into the open.
Owaisi, in that sense, exposes the so-called secularism of the JD(U), the RJD and also the Congress. And that why the Hyderabad MP is important in the Bihar polls.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @vijucherian)