Tucked away in a nondescript corner of Bihar’s capital is the Prabha-Jayaprakash Memorial Museum – a tribute to socialist stalwart Jayaprakash Narayan and his wife, Prabhavati Devi. The museum has a series of images that record JP’s remarkable life – as a freedom fighter; a peaceful revolutionary who ignited a movement which rattled Indira Gandhi; and a political leader who brought together non-Congress formations after the Emergency.
Nearly four decades after the death of Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, his protégés are still battling it out for Bihar. As the politically significant eastern state gears up for one of its most important elections, the question everybody is asking is: will the alliance led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar succeed in staving off the BJp or will the BJP lead a government in Bihar for the first time?
The dates for the Bihar assembly elections haven’t been announced yet, but the political slugfest has already begun. Political pundits are gazing into their crystal balls, but there is no clear answer. Many are turning to Bihar’s vibrant political past to get a grip on the future of the state.
It is clearly a do-or-die election for all the players fighting for the 243-member assembly.
A BJP win will burnish Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s depleting political capital at the Centre, reinforce Amit Shah’s supremacy in the party, obliterate the humiliation of the Delhi defeat and give the BJP more than strong shot in the UP elections. But a loss could mark the beginning of the end of the Modi era, trigger internal convulsions and distract from governance.
It is also a battle for survival for the anti- BJP alliance of Nitish, Lalu and the Congress. Nitish faced a humiliating rout in the Lok Sabha polls; this is a moment to avenge the defeat. Lalu has lost four elections in a row and stares at oblivion. And the Congress morale will shoot up both inside and outside parliament if the BJP loses, offering a model to non-BJP parties on how to stop the Modi juggernaut in the state that sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha and 16 to the Rajya Sabha.
Bihar’s politics has always been exciting. The first 20 years after Independence saw what political scientist Rajni Kothari termed the “Congress system”. In Bihar, the Congress had the strong backing of the state’s Hindu upper castes, Muslims, and Dalits, with the socalled “forward castes” monopolising key positions. Bihar also witnessed a battle over land.
As peaceful revolutionary JP ignited a movement that rattled Indira Gandhi, Bihar became the site of a fundamental political question – is civil disobedience legitimate to fight an elected government and are elections the only way to express popular will?
The end of the Emergency saw the Janata Party come to power, reflecting and catalysing a change in power equations.
By 2005, Bihar was ready for change. And Nitish Kumar, in alliance with the BJP, created a “coalition of extremes” — the BJP brought in the dominant upper-castes; Nitish focused on the more excluded within marginalised groups. Combined with “development” — improvement in infrastructure and law and order — Nitish and the BJP won a second term in 2010.
The battle until 1990 was about displacing the Congress, and then revolved around who would end Lalu’s rule. But the big theme now is whether the BJP will succeed it maintaining the momentum of its spectacular Lok Sabha win. It won’t be long before we know.