Survival in the political arena is paramount in the face of an immovable object. The seemingly immovable object, in this case, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The announcement on Monday that Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar will lead Janata Parivar in the upcoming Bihar elections on Monday has put an end to all speculation surrounding in-fighting in the recently-formed political alliance, which seeks to wrest power back from the BJP after the latter’s stupendous success in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
After weeks of sparring, Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav sat across the table at Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav’s residence to remove any irritants in the path of forging an alliance. Both the RJD and JD(U) will now appoint three members each to the panel which will undertake the important task of devising a seat-sharing formula.
The assembly election in Bihar is probably the biggest test the Narendra Modi led BJP will face in a full-fledged State since the 2014 general elections. In the assembly elections since the events of May 2014, the BJP-led alliances have comfortably formed governments in states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Certain political commentators have observed that the BJP’s victory in these three states came down to a disparate opposition. In Jharkhand, for example, erstwhile alliance partners like the Congress and JMM, fought the elections separately. In Bihar, however, the BJP will face a united opposition in the form of the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress party.
In the 2014 general elections, the BJP-led alliance secured 31 parliamentary seats out of 40. Although the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress secured only eight parliamentary seats, it’s combined vote share stood at 44.3 percent. In a first past the post system of electoral politics, it is clear why the BJP-led alliance secured a massive seat share. Despite securing 28 seats, the LJP-BJP alliance secured a combined vote share of only 35.8 percent. What contributed to the BJP’s success in last year’s Lok Sabha elections in Bihar was the split in the Muslim and OBC votes across disparate opposition parties. The Muslim vote, which makes up 17 percent of the voting electorate in Bihar, was split across the JD(U) and RJD –Congress combination.
What added to BJP apprehensions were results of the subsequent by-elections for 10 assembly seats, which took place only three months after May 2014. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Janata Dal (United) alliance won six of the ten seats it contested while the BJP secured the other four. What is interesting, however, is that the vote share of the BJP-led alliance in these 10 seats had fallen from 45.3 percent in the general elections to 37.3 percent in a span of just three months. An eight percent drop in three months does not augur well for the BJP. Meanwhile, the RJD-JD(U)-Congress alliance’s vote share saw an increase from 40.3 percent to 44.9 percent. Of course, it would unwise to assume that results from these 10 assembly segments will play out across 243 seats. It is, nonetheless, an indicator of the challenges ahead for the BJP.
More than numbers, however, it is the lack of cohesion and imagination in the Bihar BJP unit, which may thwart the party’s bid at winning the elections. Aside from the fact that seat sharing within the BJP-led alliance remains an issue that is far from settled, the party has not put forward a recognisable face from the state.
In the past senior BJP leaders like Shatrughan Sinha, CP Thakur and Ram Naresh Chaurasia, among others, have voiced their opposition about former Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi being propped up as the front-runner for the chief minister’s post. After its decimation in Delhi, the party cannot merely depend on projecting Narendra Modi as the face of its election campaign. In its bid to match the might of the caste combinations built by the coming together of JD(U) and RJD, the BJP leadership is trying to establish a counter-narrative that lacks imagination. In a bizarre attempt at appropriating historical figures as caste symbols, Sushil Kumar Modi recently celebrated the 2320th birth anniversary of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka under the aegis of a group promoting the interests of Kushwaha caste.
One advantage that Nitish Kumar has over all his alliance partners and those in the opposition is that his appeal extends beyond the OBC circle to voters from the upper caste and class. Irrespective of all the U-turns he has taken in his political life since breaking away from the BJP before the general elections, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does have a decent track record in governance. All in all, the BJP has a very steep test in front of it.