Why did BJP decide to back Nitish Kumar in Bihar?
Anecdotal accounts from the ongoing Bihar assembly election campaign suggest that the current chief minister Nitish Kumar is facing massive anti-incumbency.
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which continues to be a part of the National Democratic alliance (NDA) at the centre, is contesting outside the NDA fold in Bihar. It has put up candidates mostly against Janata Dal (United) candidates, has been targeting Nitish Kumar in its campaign and is talking of a BJP-LJP government after the polls. While the BJP has emphasized that Nitish Kumar is the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate, it has not taken any substantive action against the LJP, such as throwing it out of the NDA. To be sure, with the passing of Ram Vilas Paswan, the LJP has no presence in the NDA government.
Still, some analysts say the BJP’s inaction has lent credibility to the LJP’s campaign and made things difficult for the JD(U).
Why did the BJP not contest the elections without the JD(U)?
It is useful to look at the political history and demography of Bihar, the BJP’s evolution as a political force in the state, and compare it with Uttar Pradesh, the only other comparable state.
The BJP has not been able to break ground in Bihar on its own, unlike in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP crossed the 30% vote share barrier and half-way mark in the assembly in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 itself. This was the period when the Ram temple movement was at its peak. However, similar success eluded the BJP in Bihar. The improvement in the BJP’s performance in Bihar; captured in rising strike rates and vote shares, started only after it became a junior partner to the JD(U), which also involved diluting the Hindutva rhetoric.
While the BJP achieved its highest ever vote share in the 2015 elections when it contested a larger share of ACs, and without the JD (U), its strike rate fell heavily. The 2015 experience underlined the importance of getting the RJD and JD(U) to part ways with each other, something the BJP achieved in 2017.
BJP performance in UP and Bihar
Hindutva did not yield desired gains to the BJP even in 2015
Although the BJP fought the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar in alliance with smaller parties such as the LJP, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and the Hindustani Awami Morcha, it did not compromise on its Hindutva rhetoric. This tactic, even in regions which already had a high degree of communal polarisation, did not yield the desired gains. In fact, it might have even backfired. In an article published in Seminar magazine after the 2015 Bihar elections, political scientists Rahul Verma and Sanjay Kumar compared the BJP’s performance in districts which saw more than and less than 20 communal incidents between June 2013 and 2015. Their analysis found that while the NDA did increase its vote share among non-upper caste Hindu voters in districts with more than 20 communal incidents, this advantage was neutralised by a counter polarization of Muslims behind the RJD-JD(U)-Congress alliance.
Community-wise support to NDA and MGB
Does Bihar’s Muslim demography prevent religious polarisation?
One of the reasons for Hindutva being a low-reward strategy in Bihar vis-a-vis Uttar Pradesh could be the difference in Muslim demography in the two states. An HT analysis of the 2011 census data shows that share of districts where Muslims accounted for less than 20% of the population in Bihar was 81.6%. This number was 70.4% in Uttar Pradesh. Share of districts where Muslims accounted for a 20%-40% share of population was 10.5% in Bihar and 21.1% in Uttar Pradesh. And districts where the Muslim population accounted for more than 40%, comprised 7.9% and 8.5% of the total districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. An analysis of the 2014 and 2017 Uttar Pradesh election results by political scientist Neelanjan Sircar found that the BJP had the highest strike rates in ACs where Muslims had a population share between 20% and 40% -- large enough to ensure a consolidation of the Hindu vote can ensure victory, but small enough to not power a candidate to victory on its own -- the category where Bihar had a large deficit vis-a-vis Uttar Pradesh. Clearly, the demographics of Bihar put the BJP at a disadvantage.
The BJP has a smaller core voter base in Bihar
The BJP banks on a rainbow Hindu collation to win elections. In states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, this requires handling a constant tension between various caste groups, especially upper castes; who have been traditionally loyal to the BJP, and the dominant Other Backward Classes (OBCs); who were able to capture power in the Mandal phase of politics.
The fact that Yogi Adityanath, who was seen as a radical Hindutva leader at the time of his appointment as the chief minister, is increasingly being perceived as a Thakur chief minister in Uttar Pradesh by not just historically deprived caste groups but also Brahmins is the biggest example of the centrality of this contradiction.
Upper caste Hindus have a much smaller share in Bihar’s population than in Uttar Pradesh. This means that the BJP has a smaller core voter base in Bihar and must expand its rainbow Hindu coalition. This cannot be sustained without compromising upper caste representation.
Share of various communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
Because the BJP has been in power with the JD(U) from 2005 to 2013 and 2017-2020 in Bihar, its claims of championing anti-incumbency will not have much credibility. Having spent so much time in government would have also made it difficult for the party to contest without a CM candidate. These two strategies have helped the BJP in the post-2014 phase in states where it has not been in power for a long time .
Interestingly, one reason the LJP is getting traction for its candidates is that it has fielded a disproportionately large share of upper caste candidates. This, in a way, is aimed at tapping into upper caste backlash against the JD(U), whose core support base comprises lower OBCs and mahadalits in Bihar. Despite its protestations, should the LJP do well, this is could be the BJP’s Plan B -- and it is something that will keep its Hindutva vote bank intact. Any such strategy, however, also runs the risk of disturbing the delicate social balance between upper castes and non-dominant OBC and Dalits which Nitish Kumar’s social coalition brought to the NDA.
Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa helped with data analysis for this article