What Bihar will tell us about national politics

Bihar’s assembly elections often give a glimpse into larger national political trends. In the 1990s, the dominance of Lalu Prasad was representative of the larger assertion of Other Backward Classes, the ascendance of the politics of “social justice” which essentially meant an electoral coalition of religious minorities and marginalised castes, and the deeper democratisation of the polity. At the same time, his consecutive electoral victories also showed that in Indian politics, the question of political representation and electoral arithmetic was, in many ways, more crucial than the provision of public goods and service delivery.

In 2005, the defeat of the Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi combine, and the emergence of Nitish Kumar, signalled the limits of a certain kind of identity-based politics and the yearning for citizens to have a more effective state which could deliver law and order and development. Make no mistake, caste was still crucial in determining political choices. But broad identity-based social umbrellas, which functioned almost as political units, such as Other Backward Classes or Dalits or even Muslims, now fragmented. So extreme backward classes, Mahadalits or Pasmanda Muslims — who were more marginalised within their larger groups — began splitting away and making their own choices. The combination of a different form of identity politics with a dash of governance — exemplified by the emphasis on road construction and law and order — and a formidable chief minister (CM) face helped the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) win the 2010 elections and became a template for other politicians too.

The 2015 election gave a different political architecture. At a time of Narendra Modi’s overwhelming popularity, the surprise alliance of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar showed that voters could exercise different choices in national and state elections (a trend that has become much stronger in the past three years), an effective state leader could neutralise the popularity of the prime minister, smart political alliances could build wide electoral social coalitions and stop the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and that the politics of caste could still be a strong political antidote to the politics of religion.

It is 2020, and the political landscape is radically different from what it was five years ago. Nitish Kumar is back in NDA. Lalu Prasad is serving a sentence after being convicted of corruption. The 2019 Lok Sabha election — where NDA (which has a third partner in Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party) got a staggering 39 of the 40 seats — has shaped the immediate context. And yes, there is the pandemic which will transform politics in ways which are still not clear.

The Bihar elections will give a glimpse into larger national trends in four significant ways.

One, it is the first state-wide election in the wake of the pandemic, and there are new Election Commission guidelines to govern the nature of campaigning, polling, and counting. Elections demand direct interface with citizens, while the pandemic demands the least contact with citizens. Will the new system work? Will it come at the cost of equity and access? Will it cause a rupture in the ties between party leaders and party workers, and between parties and candidates and the voters? Will it accelerate the transition to digital-based politics and what form will this take? These questions are crucial because other state elections, in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry, are scheduled for next year — and they will probably have to adopt the same model.

Second, the election will give a sense of how voters are judging a government in dealing with the most serious crisis in recent times. Bihar’s migrant workers suffered enormously after the lockdown — and they have returned home to no opportunities given the absence of a strong economic base. The inadequacies of Bihar’s public health system have got exposed. Anecdotal accounts suggest that there is resentment against Nitish Kumar due to his pandemic management — on top of anger over his government’s generally average performance in the third term. At the same time, citizens often cut their political leaders slack in times of a crisis. The combination of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar is still a formidable one — and despite the disenchantment at recent events, the leaders evoke faith and are seen as honest figures with good intentions. So will the incumbent, despite an indifferent performance, win, or will voters choose an alternative, reflecting that they have run out of patience? Will other government policies such as prohibition end up being electorally beneficial or costly? Will health become a political issue finally?

Three, the election will give a sense of the health of the Opposition. The same reports that suggest Nitish Kumar is unpopular are laced with a sense of the inevitability of his return — and that comes from the lack of faith the majority of the electorate has in the Opposition. If Lalu Prasad remains out of action, it isn’t certain if the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) will even be able to hold on to its own core base of Yadavs fully; Tejaswi Yadav doesn’t inspire the same confidence; and despite talk of a grand alliance, all the other units in the Opposition — from the Congress to the Left parties — are fairly marginal. It is also not clear to voters how the Opposition will do any better if elected to power. Compare it to the national stage, and the similarities are uncanny of a ruling party delivering indifferent governance, but remaining politically dominant because of the lack of a strong Opposition which can’t really go beyond its traditional, shrinking, base of voters. Will Bihar reinforce or break the cycle?

And finally, the election will show that the real political contestation now is not happening between the BJP and the Opposition, but within NDA, between the BJP and its allies. Maharashtra was another instance of this competitive intra-NDA dynamic playing out. The context is different in Bihar, but
the mistrust between Nitish Kumar and the BJP is obvious. The former was keen that he be projected as the clear leader of the alliance and the CM face (a demand the BJP conceded), and now wants to ensure that his party gets a better deal in the seat-sharing arrangement, so that after the elections, the BJP does not attempt a power grab on its own.

The BJP’s national leadership is clear that it will stick to Nitish Kumar for some more time — not because it trusts him but because it doesn’t want to take the risk of a repeat of the defeat of 2015 — but the party’s state leaders are unhappy at the prospect of another five years of being the junior partner.

In all this, Paswan is keen to expand LJP’s footprint to ensure that his son, Chirag Paswan’s political future is secure. There is a bigger question here. As the BJP’s hegemony persists, will it still need allies and will this shape its behaviour and make it flexible or will it eventually walk alone and swallow up smaller parties?

Given the unique nature of the election, the nature of the political competition within and between alliances, and the nature of the political-economic-humanitarian crisis the country confronts, Bihar 2020 will offer us a slice of the mood of citizens.

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