Bypolls often go unnoticed as their results do not matter much to the party in power or in opposition. They just add to or subtract from their tally in the state assembly or Lok Sabha.
However, next week’s by-elections for five assembly constituencies and a Lok Sabha seat in Bihar may turn out to be the breaking point for the so-called “mahagathbandhan”, or “grand alliance”. Recent unity efforts, after remaining at loggerheads for nearly five months, have failed as the parties could not arrive at a consensus on seat-sharing for the polls.
The by-elections will be held for the Samastipur Lok Sabha seat besides Belhar, Daraundha, Nathnagar, Simri-Bakhtiarpur and Kishanganj assembly seats on October 21 and the counting of votes will take place on October 24.
The bypoll for the Samastipur Lok Sabha seat was necessitated by the death of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) MP Ramchandra Paswan. The five assembly seats are going to polls as four MLAs of the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and one from the Congress were elected to the Lok Sabha this year.
After initial hiccups, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress have firmed up a seat-sharing arrangement, with the RJD contesting from four assembly constituencies and the Congress from one assembly and the lone Lok Sabha seat. RJD leaders defended the party’s decision, saying the four assembly seats were its “traditional strongholds” and that no ally would be able to take on their rivals in these areas.
Congress was divided over the issue of continuing the collaboration with the RJD and other grand alliance partners but the intervention of central leadership sealed the pact for the bypolls. Congress insiders claimed that altogether 19 state election committee members insisted on going it alone in the bypolls but nine of them strongly endorsed continuation of the alignment with the RJD.
The trouble started when the RJD unilaterally announced its candidates from the Belhar, Daraundha, Simri-Bakhtiarpur and Nathnagar assembly seats, leaving only Kishanganj for the Congress. The state Congress unit was also demanding the Simri-Bakhtiarpur seat but agreed to only one assembly seat following the intervention of the party’s central leadership.
The demands of three other grand alliance partners including the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) were ignored, prompting them to field their candidates against the official Rashtriya Janata Dal nominees.
Spurned by the RJD, former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi-led HAM has fielded Ajay Rai as its candidate from the Nathnagar seat while the VIP, headed by Bollywood set designer Mukesh Sahni, has put up its candidate from the Simri-Bakhtiarpur constituency. Sahni has also announced support to the HAM candidate in Nathnagar. The RLSP has not shown interest in the bypolls.
So, it will be RJD vs JD(U) on four assembly seats – Belhar, Simri-Bakhtiarpur, Nathnagar and Daraundha – while the BJP and Congress will cross swords on the Kishanganj seat. In the Samastipur Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress is challenging the LJP.
Angered by the “arbitrary act” of the RJD, Manjhi sought to know whether the party wanted to remain in the grand alliance or walk out. He went on to accuse the RJD of helping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the name of fighting it. The former chief minister has been upset since not getting a “respectable” number of seats in the last Lok Sabha polls.
The HAM president also rejected RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav as the mahagathbandhan’s chief ministerial face for the 2020 state assembly elections. “Tejashwi may be the chief ministerial face of the RJD but not of the grand alliance for the 2020 polls. That will be decided after a discussion among the front’s leaders,” Manjhi said.
Backing the former chief minister, VIP chief Mukesh Sahni maintained that the grand alliance was formed not to project only one person as the leader. “Five parties have formed the grand alliance and nothing has been discussed as yet as to who will be the chief ministerial candidate,” he said.
Though RJD leaders claimed everything was hunky-dory within the mahagathbandhan, they flatly said there will be no compromise on Tejashwi as the chief ministerial candidate. “If the mahagathbandhan forms the government in Bihar, Tejashwi will be the chief minister as his name has been announced after consultation with the allies,” said RJD MLA Bhai Virendra.
Tejashwi Yadav wants the allies to hold their horses and ignore petty matters during the bypolls as the political equation may change before the high-stakes assembly elections in 2020.
However, a section of the allies led by HAM has alleged Tejashwi is acting at the behest of the BJP and attacking Nitish Kumar on one pretext or another. On the contrary, some senior RJD leaders led by former union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh want to cosy up with Nitish given the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship between the BJP and JD(U).
Against this backdrop, questions are now being raised on whether the mahagathbandhan exists only on paper or it is still a reality as its constituents are making competing claims on the assembly seats where bypolls are scheduled after a week.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)