Note: The original version of the article was published on November 2nd in “The Daily Guardian”.
The first phase of polling for the Bihar Assembly Elections was conducted on Oct 28 while the country continued to battle with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Undoubtedly, this is going to be a very crucial election for many reasons. This is the first election which will be conducted without Lalu Prasad Yadav, while his son takes over the reigns of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The results of the Bihar elections will tell us a lot about the future of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and how the BJP will devise a strategy at the national level. At the same time, we are seeing a second generation of politicians such as Chirag Paswan (son of Late Ram Vilas Paswan) and Tejaswi Yadav (son of Lalu Prasad Yadav) take over their respective parties. The results will show us how they fared and whether they managed to win the support of Bihari voters.
Given the current state of Bihar, with COVID-19 and the migrant crisis, the main focus of the elections has become unemployment. The state unemployment rate is being reported at around 12%, almost double of the national average of 7%. While this number is huge, it has improved drastically since the beginning of the year when the unemployment rate of the state touched 46% as a consequence of COVID-19. In fact, a Team C-Voter survey said that 54% of voters said that unemployment was the main voting issue. Unlike past elections, unemployment is a key focus point for voters. The Election Commission guidelines for both election campaigning and voting during COVID-19 to ensure social distancing and safety of voters. Despite this, parties violated all norms during campaigning and during roadshows and rallies, large crowds gathered without wearing masks or maintaining social distancing.
Ram Vilas Paswan: The Political Weatherman From Bihar
Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan passed away on October 8th after a cardiac procedure. He donned many hats during his long political career. Once a political leader with a massive victory margin, a nine-time Lok Sabha member and a one-term Rajya Sabha MP, minister in cabinets of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, one sobriquet that stuck him like none other was that of a “Mausam Vaigyanik” — an expert in reading the political weather.
His knowledge of Indian polity was paramount and since he always knew which way the wind was blowing, he would conveniently switch sides and be the “King Maker” and a steady face in the Union Cabinet. Paswan held various Cabinet positions under various Central governments including the Ministry of Communications, Information and Technology, Ministry of Mines, Railways and Labour and Welfare among others.
Hailing from Khagaria in Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan was first fielded in Alauli (Assembly Constituency) in 1969 by the anti-INC Samyukta Socialist Party , an offshoot of the Praja Socialist Party where he eventually won. He was close to freedom fighters and the then prominent politicians such as Raj Narain and Jaiprakash Narayan. The 8-time Lok Sabha MP who has held multiple Central portfolios, Ram Vilas Paswan was much more than just a Dalit leader as some commentators portray him to be.
It is said that one can never have permanent friends nor enemies in politics. Ram Vilas Paswan was dubbed as the ‘Weatherman’ by some and had tailored multiple successful alliances that amplified his image as a kingmaker. . Not only was he a crucial player in consolidating Dalit votes, but also a key partner for most of the parties that came to power in Bihar and at the Centre. He allied with Nitish Kumar in the 1999 General Elections as part of the BJP-led grouping which led to the ousting of Lalu Prasad Yadav from his own seat. In 2002, Ram Vilas Paswan had quit Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet demanding the removal of Narendra Modi as Gujarat’s Chief Minister. In the subsequent Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government, he was courted as a Minister of Chemical and Fertilisers. Him joining the UPA eventually put Nitish Kumar in the back seat as the JD(U) lost 12 seats, having won just 6. However, in 2014, PM Narendra Modi gave Ram Vilas Paswan a Central portfolio and considered him an important advisor in tackling Dalit issues. It was this positioning, cross-cutting support and the acceptance amongst those he had opposed that signified his role as a kingmaker.
Ram Vilas Paswan’s death has come at a time when Bihar had started pacing for the crucial state assembly elections where Nitish Kumar is seeking another term and RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav is consolidating the opposition ranks. He leaves his legacy behind, and the state is poised to face a confusing three-cornered contest as Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is looking to make a dent into the BJP-JD(U) alliance. The LJP under Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag Paswan is said to contest from 143 seats taking on the JD(U) directly at some constituencies and leaving the BJP unopposed in the others.
Vote Bank Arithmetic
Over the years, undoubtedly, both religion and caste have played a pivotal role in Bihari politics over the years. Until 1967, those belonging to the upper castes dominated both politics and political parties. However, after the resurgence of the middle class, members of castes such as Koeri, Yadav, Kurmi, Paswan inched closer to the power corridors.
When we look at the caste composition of the state, as per the last census, upper castes in Bihar included Brahmins (around 6%), Rajput (around 5%), Bhumihar (5%) and Kayastha (1.5–2%). The upper castes comprise approximately 16% of the population of the state. Those belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Economically Backward Classes (EBC) constitute a whopping 56% of the total population. Dominant groups in the OBC include Yadavs (12%) and Kurmis (4%). In addition to this, Dalits and Mahadalits, belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) category constitute another 15% of the population.
22 caste groups listed under Scheduled Caste category are considered to be Dalits, and they occupy the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy. In 2007, Nitish Kumar created a new category of ‘Mahadalits’, which would include the most deprived communities. Initially, when a commission was set up to identify the most deprived Dalit castes 18 out of the 22 Dalit castes were included in the Mahadalit category, leaving out Dhobi, Chamar, Pasi and Paswans.
Later, all castes were put in the Mahadalit category, leaving out only Dusadhs (Paswans), who are also the second-largest Dalit caste group. Several political commentators believed that this move by Nitish Kumar was done to marginalize and cut into the vote bank of Ram Vilas Paswan. Due to the creation of the Mahadalit category, the Dalit vote bank split, with Mahadalits supporting Nitish Kumar, while Dalits supporting Ram Vilas Paswan.
After the demise of Ram Vilas Paswan, the question that arises is that whether Chirag’s LJP be able to draw their core Dalit vote bank or will the Mahadalits continue to line up for Nitish Kumar? However, as some commentators think Chirag’s decision to contest alone is not just an attempt to consolidate the Dalit vote bank, but will instead have other implications.
It is important to note that this is the first time the LJP is contesting an election without its supremo, Ram Vilas Paswan. Chirag’s decision to contest alone might be an attempt to propel LJP’s presence across a wider geography in the state (143 constituencies). Additionally, the LJP has decided to field several upper-caste candidates, lending more support to the preceding argument.
Secondly, due to Chirag’s decision, what initially seemed like a two-cornered fight between the RJD and the JD(U)-BJP alliance, has now become a complicated tussle. The decision to contest alone has put the LJP in a unique position to erode the vote bank of both the JD(U)-BJP alliance as well as the RJD, making him an invaluable ally to both fronts. Chirag’s decision has made him an unavoidable presence not just in this assembly election but for the electoral future of Bihar.
That being said, Chirag faces several challenges. An important challenge to be noted here is the presence of Jitan Ram Manjhi, the leader of the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) who broke away from the opposition months before the Assembly polls and joined the Janata Dal (United) and became a part of the NDA. Following Chirag Paswan’s open criticism of the Nitish Kumar government and their failure to ensure development for Dalits across the state, Manjhi’s induction into the NDA was seen as a direct attempt by the NDA to create a Dalit front.
Manjhi has directly attacked both the LJP and the Paswan leaders, and is seen by many as a new Dalit figurehead for the NDA. Given the submissive role of Manjhi in the NDA alliance, it could be said that he would prove to be a much more co-operative ally for the NDA.
Looking back historically, Ram Vilas Paswan has always had a clear electoral strategy in place. However, Chirag’s decision to go against JD(U) in the state elections, while continuing to stay in the NDA at the Centre is likely to cause confusion for any voters. Such a political strategy could backfire
in securing votes for the LJP as voters would be generally unclear about the post-poll scenario and which party the LJP would support.
Although Chirag Paswan was elected President of the LJP in November 2019 and has had time on his hands to learn the inner workings of the party and consolidate his position inside the party, it still remains to be seen whether the JD(U) and Nitish Kumar consider him to be a challenging opponent. In the past few years despite a fall in the vote share, Ram Vilas Paswan’s crosscutting popularity and stature have sustained the party’s prominence in Bihar politics. After his demise, it is up to Chirag Paswan to carry forward his father’s legacy and create an ideal situation where the LJP will be considered as an electorally game-changing ally.
-Shiv Sehgal, Shreya Maskara and Mohan Babu /New Delhi
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.