How Bihar has exposed the limits of each party | Opinion
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), despite polling almost the same number of votes as the Mahagathbandhan (MGB), has managed to retain power in Bihar. What does this tell us about the state of various political formations in the state?
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is the single-largest party for the second time in a row. Last time, it lost power despite being a part of the winning coalition after the Janata Dal (United) walked over to the NDA in 2017. This time, the RJD led pre-poll alliance has fallen short of a majority. It is tempting to see the RJD’s 2020 (75 seats) performance as a deterioration over 2015 (80 seats). However, when read with the fact that the RJD failed to win even one Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 elections, 2020 seems like a Phoenix act.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks like the biggest beneficiary. It is believed to have used the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to undermine the JD(U) — the LJP acted as a spoiler for the JD(U) in 26 seats — to become the senior partner in the NDA. If true, then the fact that the BJP got Nitish Kumar to part ways with the RJD in 2017 and then possibly unleashed this tactic is indeed shrewd politics. However, it has failed to emerge as the single largest party yet again.
The JD(U), despite retaining power, has lost stature both within and outside the NDA, emerging a distant third and winning its lowest-ever share of seats. Nitish Kumar has displayed unconditional reverence to Narendra Modi during and after the elections and his erstwhile independent posturing is all but gone.
What is one to make of these empirical trends?
The BJP wants to create a rainbow Hindu coalition, transcending the boundaries of caste. The NDA and MGB’s identical vote shares show that this has not happened. The BJP’s Bihar performance is unlike that in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where the Hindu consolidation strategy has worked wonders. To be sure though, political Hindutva in UP has, historically, had a sharper edge.
The JD(U)’s politics has centred on building the “coalition of extremes”. The traction for this comes from a silent support base of Extreme Backward Classes (EBCs) and Dalit groups. Nitish Kumar’s good governance rhetoric is largely about protecting this numerically-significant, but individually-vulnerable, section from a return of oppressive upper caste/Yadav rule. This election has underlined the political limits of this strategy. Kumar increasingly stares at the possibility of becoming a mere figurehead as his hold on both government and politics will face a growing squeeze.
The RJD seems to have become a victim of its own strength. Even a perceived revival of its fortunes may have triggered a counter-consolidation to prevent its return to power. The MGB’s graph plummeted in the second and third phase after it was seen at the cusp of power. The Yadavs are loyal and indispensible to the RJD, but seem to scare everybody else. Without resolving this dilemma, it cannot capture power.
The performance of the Left forces and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) also hold important lessons.
With 16 MLAs, the three Left parties have shown the best strike rate in the MGB. Why did they do so well? A plausible answer can be that it was only the Left which could credibly champion the MGB’s rhetoric of economic justice. Why has the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation, a marginal Left force in the country, performed the best? Unlike the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist), it never did business with the RJD, when it was in power, in the name of secularism. This built its credibility as an anti-establishment force and allayed EBC-Mahadalit fears about the RJD where it contested.
The AIMIM has got five MLAs in the Muslim dominated Seemanchal region. What explains its success? The BJP, after having delivered on its core Hindutva agenda of Ayodhya, Article 370 and the triple talaq legislation (seen by Muslims as a precursor to the Uniform Civil Code) pushed the envelope by raking issues such as Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. Mainstream secular parties (including the RJD) have adopted a ”tactical” non-confrontationist approach on such issues. This allows the AIMIM to rally Muslims in places where their demographic advantage allows the luxury of greater political assertion.
The 2020 result in Bihar tests the limits of all kinds of vanguardism. It continues to frustrate the BJP’s hopes of becoming the Hindutva vanguard. Nitish Kumar has learnt that the politics of being the lesser evil in the name of posing as a vanguard of governance is doomed to end in a political coup d’état.
The RJD still seems to be paying the price for a sectarian betrayal of the non-Yadav backward castes in whose name Lalu Prasad assumed the vanguardism of social justice in the 1990s. By putting all three major political currents on notice, Bihar’s electorate has delivered a profound mandate.