There is no mistaking the fact that the Bihar assembly election, the dates for which were announced by Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora on Friday, is a hugely significant test of strength in these pandemic times. While pollsters say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity across the country is still intact, the cold reality is that in the last five years, the BJP has not been able to win elections in any big state, except Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, of the 18 states that went to the polls.
It is equally true, however, that the Opposition has failed to get its act together and there is a woeful lack of cohesiveness among the opposition parties. In the last Bihar elections in 2015, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal-United alliance had romped home a winner, mauling the BJP, but thereafter, the JD (U) switched sides and has been in power with BJP support. In the outgoing 243-member assembly, JD (U) has 73 seats, BJP 53, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) 2, and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) one.
In the Opposition, the RJD currently holds 82 seats, the Congress 27, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) 2 and the CPI(M-L) 3. The CPI, CPM and Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party have no members in the Bihar assembly. The current chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is vying for his fourth term in office with an essentially clean image and reputation for efficiency.
While anti-incumbency could well be a factor in this election, and the Centre and State’s failure to root out the coronavirus a cause for the current coalition to rue, Nitish’s principal rival, Tejaswi Prasad, is a greenhorn in politics, thrown into contention by the imprisonment of his father and party founder Lalu Prasad Yadav. The seeming cohesion between the JD (U) and the BJP and would be a factor on the side of the ruling dispensation. Evidently, the odds are stacked in favour of the NDA this time around, with the powerful combination of JD (U) and the BJP. The Congress, on the other hand, is walking on crutches and is hardly a frontrunner.
Now that the dates for the elections have been announced, there will be a rush to finalise alliances. The RJD, from its quota, will expectedly allot some seats to the smaller parties in the alliance, the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) led by Mukesh Sahni and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The Congress will have to accommodate the rest of the allies such as the RLSP, HAM and the CPI, from its quota of 91 seats.
Prime Minister Modi has been pitching in nice and proper, addressing rallies at which he praises Nitish lavishly. He has been on a projects-announcing spree, some of them including the inauguration of sewer treatment plants, the Jal Aapurti Pariyojana, an LPG bottling plant and laying foundations for projects associated with animal farming and dairy in Bihar. There are nine highway projects in the pipeline, if the Prime Minister’s promises are anything to go by. All in all, a crucial battle lies ahead.
The issue of migrant labour returning from other states to Bihar in these Covid times is a subject of intense speculation. With joblessness being high, it is a moot point whether they will go with the ruling dispensation or with the Opposition. Migrant labour indeed constitutes a substantial vote bank. Some sops have been held out to them by the Nitish Kumar government but there is no finality about which way they are tilting. Linked with their possible frustration is the problem of rampant unemployment, especially in these times.
Along with the Bihar elections, there are 65 by-elections across various states that will go to the polls at the same time. With the NDA lacking a majority in the Rajya Sabha, it is important for the BJP to win many contests in states so that it attains a majority or at least comes close to the magic number. There is also the case of Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was able to form a government as a result of a group from the Congress, led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, crossing over. It will be vital for the BJP to maintain its numbers and therefore, its hold over the bulk of the legislators in the country’s largest state.