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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: Bihar Oppn to bank on strong social base, anti-incumbency

Muslims across the board blame Modi for destroying livelihoods. Some argue that the BJP divides communities. And almost all blame Nitish Kumar for what they see as his betrayal by aligning with the BJP.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 20, 2019 09:26 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Patna/Gaya/Nalanda/Vaishali/Darbhanga/Madhubani
In Gaya’s Dumri, Mohammed Anwar (left) runs a small business and blames Narendra Modi for “disrupting livelihoods”.
In Gaya’s Dumri, Mohammed Anwar (left) runs a small business and blames Narendra Modi for “disrupting livelihoods”.(HT Photo)

It is early morning, and Shyam Yadav, 35, is just opening his small grocery shop in the Bidupur bazaar of Vaishali district. He exchanges banter with some regular customers, and catches up on the morning headlines as television news plays in the background.

He does not like Narendra Modi, and believes it is time for a change at the Centre. “But I am not sure any more. Before the Balakot strikes, we were confident that the BJP would lose. Now, I think it has an advantage.” When asked what is it that explains his disillusionment about Modi, Shyam says, “What has the government done? So much hulla (noise) and such little work.” He then adds, “I am a Yadav. And I can tell you that the BJP and Nitish Kumar are against us. Look at how they have treated our leader.”

Shyam Yadav perhaps speaks for a large segment of Yadav voters across Bihar. Traditionally loyal to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), this powerful OBC (Other Backward Class) group has stayed with Lalu Prasad’s family — and has become even more firm in its support for the party with the arrest of Prasad in the fodder scam.

In travels to six constituencies in Bihar, it became clear that Muslims and Yadavs — called the M-Y combination — remain steadfast with the tentative alliance of RJD-Congress and smaller parties. (The seat sharing deal has not yet been sealed). This is the alliance’s big strength. The two groups together constitute over 30% of the population.

But it is also a sign of its vulnerability because the alliance in itself does not seem to have the support of any other major caste group. It will thus end up relying on local candidates to help it cross the finishing line.

The loyal base

Outside a temple, a group of men are playing cards in Nalanda’s Mahanandpur village. Most belong to either upper caste groups or Extremely Backward Class (EBC) groups and are vocal in their support for the BJP. But among them is a lone, but strong voice of dissent.

Mahesh Yadav, a small farmer, enumerates a list of failures he ascribes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. “Modi did note bandi (demonetisation) and it failed. Nitish did daaru bandi (prohibition) and it has failed. Modi failed in creating jobs in Delhi, Nitish has failed in creating jobs in Bihar. Modi goes against opposition in Delhi, Nitish goes after opposition in Bihar. They should lose.”

A similar refrain can be heard in Nalanda’s Giriak. Bindeshwari Yadav is a truck driver, and Manoj Yadav is his assistant. Both are critical of the BJP, believe Modi will lose, argue that Lalu Prasad has been unfairly convicted and support his son, Tejashwi Yadav.

The Yadav critique of the Modi regime is bolstered by Muslims.

In Gaya’s Dumri, Mohammed Anwar, 45, runs a small business. He believes that the Narendra Modi government has been bad for the economy and livelihoods. “Think about demonetisation. Can you count one benefit? He just fools people all the time.” Anwar believes that the constituency will witness a close contest, with former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi likely to be the candidate of the united opposition.

Across the Muslim pockets of north Bihar’s Darbhanga and Madhubani, and Patna’s Phulwari Sharif, it is the same refrain. Muslims across the board blame Modi for destroying livelihoods. Some argue that the BJP divides communities. And almost all blame Nitish Kumar for what they see as his betrayal by aligning with the BJP.

Taj Mohammed, an auto driver in Patna, said, “Nitish ji won our trust when he broke with Modi in 2013. He got our support when he allied with Lalu Prasad to defeat BJP in the state elections in 2015. And then he went and allied with BJP. He won’t get any Muslim support.”

The challenges

The fact that Yadavs and Muslims constitute almost one third of the electorate gives a united non-BJP opposition a tremendous advantage. But this is where the challenge also commences. In a triangular or four-cornered contest, these two social groups in themselves are enough to see candidates or a party through. But in a straight bipolar contest, having only two loyal groups — even if they are demographically substantial — will not be enough.

And this is where the opposition is aware it will need to bank on smaller allies, and individual candidates, to bring in additional votes.

Sitting in the RJD party office in Patna, a local leader said, “We have been flexible and accommodated Jitan Ram Manjhi because we hope he can get Manjhi votes. We hope that Upendra Kushwaha will get us Kushwaha votes in many areas. We are hoping that upper caste candidates from our party and the Congress will be able to break away upper caste votes of the BJP. We are insisting on seats for candidates like Mukesh Sahni, a Nishad, from Darbhanga, because he can get us EBC votes which would otherwise have gone to the BJP.” In addition, he claimed, that left parties — the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (ML) — have pockets of influence among landless Dalits in particular.

He also suggested that there has been rising disillusionment with Nitish Kumar even among his older supporters from backward groups. This will help bring them towards the alliance, especially in the 17 seats the Janata Dal-United is contesting.

This is an attractive plan on paper. But it relies on three elements. The first is, of course, that the alliance takes formal shape. At the time of writing, there persists intense wrangling between the Congress and RJD in particular, with the latter alleging that the Congress is punching above its weight.

The second premise is that local candidates of the alliance, who are non-Muslim and non-Yadavs, have enough appeal within other social bases to be able to wrest away these votes from the BJP.

And the final premise is that elections will primarily be about local factors and arithmetic.

If winning over other social groups is one formidable challenge, the other is establishing some kind of narrative dominance. Across constituencies, the BJP’s messaging — of a strong leader in the form of Modi, of decisive action and “revenge” against Pakistan, of work in rural areas, of steps to take on corruption — can be heard. This messaging has percolated to the ground due to the party’s organisational apparatus, propaganda machine and mass media.

An opposition leader in Bihar admits, “We had and have a powerful narrative in the form of unemployment and farm distress. But we have somehow not been able to establish it strongly enough on the ground.”

And the final challenge for the alliance now is time. Bihar has large constituencies, many with over 1.5 million voters. Elections are three weeks away. And candidates in most seats are not even clear.

Admittedly, neither is the list of candidates from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) out. But given the reliance of the opposition alliance on local candidates, as opposed to the BJP’s focus on the national narrative and the organisational machine helping it, it is perhaps even more urgent for the alliance to declare its candidates.

With a strong social base, and a degree of anti-incumbency against the state government, the opposition in Bihar has ground to build on. But the limits of its social coalition, alliance troubles, lack of leadership and narrative means that the NDA has an edge.

First Published: Mar 20, 2019 09:24 IST