BJP faces a massive challenge
The political scene in Bihar is hotting up with the crucial assembly election barely a couple of months away. With Nitish and Lalu deciding to shelve their differences and contest the polls together, anti-BJP parties have their tails up. JDU, RJD, Congress and NCP, constituting a grand secular alliance, have stolen a march over NDA by projecting Nitish as their chief ministerial candidate.
On the other hand, NDA’s Bihar campaign is threatened by internal factionalism. Even though he would be BJP’s natural choice for CM’s post, Sushil Modi’s nomination is opposed by a section within the BJP. That former union minister C P Thakur has thrown his hat into the ring. Then there is ally, RLSP’s President Upendra Kushwaha who is not only eyeing the CM nomination but also looking to contest 67 of the 243 seats in the assembly.
Jitan Ram Manjhi may help BJP make a serious dent in the Mahadalit votes, but the 50 seats he is reportedly seeking, are too much for the BJP to part with. Similarly, LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan too is expected to bargain for a substantial seat share given that his party won six of seven seats it contested in 2014 general election. Unlike a year ago, when Narendra Modi wave pitch forked NDA to a historic Lok Sabha majority, the Bihar elections will be fought around local factors.
In Bihar, BJP has not even begun to articulate issues. Nitish Kumar seems to have gotten a head start on this with pro-development campaign plank built on his past record as chief minister. If he presses ahead with a door-to-door campaign, as is being planned, he is likely to gain momentum as the campaign proceeds, especially since other side is unlikely to project a face. The BJP is further handicapped by the fact that it cannot stake Prime Minister Modi’s name and prestige in this election, not after the drubbing PM got in Delhi election early this year. The BJP no longer looks invincible. An emboldened Opposition confronted the BJP with renewed vigor. The Congress-led campaign against the Modi government’s Land Bill began to gain traction in rural India already in grip of an farm crisis. And though inflation was down, prices of essential food items continued to climb. It is against this backdrop that the coming Bihar Assembly elections need to be viewed.
Despite their differences, the fear of extinction has brought Lalu and NItish on one platform with the RJD supremo accepting Nitish as the alliance’s next chief ministerial candidate. They have realized that to remain politically relevant, they must pool their resources. For the Congress, the stakes in Bihar may not be high, but the fact remains that a BJP defeat here would make it a gainer nationally. For if the Congress is seen to be part of a winning team again, the alliance forged in Bihar could become core of an anti-BJP front. For the BJP, a defeat in Bihar would send out the message that it peaked last year with the J&K polls -- and that it could well be downhill from now.
The unite or perish logic of the arithmetic thrown up by the Modi election had its own message for both Lalu and Nitish. While NDA polled 38.8 % of the popular votes, it had won a whopping 31 seats, Lalu, Nitish and Congress totted up between them an impressive 45.6 per cent, but won only nine seats because they were divided. The bye-polls held a few weeks after wards, only confirmed this message when Lalu and Nitish joined hands and won six out of ten seats, much to surprise of the BJP.
Though reduced to a 15.6% vote share in 2014, Nitish is known for good governance and is a brand. Many would remark during the 2014 poll campaign that while they were voting for Narendra Modi in general election, they would opt for Nitish in 2015 assembly polls. Failure to project Nitish as CM candidate would have made the alliance a non-starter, reinforcing an element of uncertainty about it when BJP is clearly going to make political stability its poll theme.
Bihar promises to be a high stake election. It is more than just another state election. BJP victory would signal continuation of the Modi momentum and add to the party’s Rajya Sabha numbers, badly needed to get legislative agenda through. Its defeat, however, would spell problems for the party in more ways than one, emboldening even its own allies in government.
Victory of the Nitish-Lalu-Congress combine would bring a non-BJP government to power in a large state, with its ripple effect in Uttar Pradesh going to polls in 2017. The battle for Bihar, which promises to be a do or die battle, is not just about capturing the state; it is about who controls India in the coming years. The stage has been set, the battle bugles have been sounded. Now its the turn of the election time strategists to roll the dice.