The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (United), the two main constituents of the NDA, are fighting a sort of proxy war against each other for Dalit votes and trying to out-manoeuvre each other in the game of one-upmanship to become the single-largest party after the assembly polls with numbers close to the magic figure of 122 in the 243-member Bihar assembly.
The war is being fought by the BJP through the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) on one hand and by the JD(U) through the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) on the other hand. While the LJP has been an old ally of the NDA, HAM chief and former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi recently announced that he was joining hands with the JD(U) and pledged his unflinching loyalty to Nitish Kumar.
Manjhi’s decision to join forces with Kumar is being seen as a tactical ploy to counter Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan and his son Chirag, who has of late been hurling acerbic criticisms at the Bihar Chief Minister over myriad issues, including the alleged mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and the floods.
The LJP has announced it will field candidates against the JD(U) candidates while praising the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Recently, it came out with full-page advertisements in print media apparently targeting Kumar. “They are fighting to rule us while we are fighting for the pride of Bihar,” the tagline of the advertisement read.
The HAM chief reacted sharply to Chirag Paswan’s outbursts, saying his party was ready to challenge the LJP if it chose to field candidates against the JD(U). “I will strengthen the hands of Kumar, who has been targeted by the LJP,” Manjhi said.
The ruling coalition already has a Dalit leader in Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan and hence accommodating Manjhi, also a leader representing the deprived Musahar caste, would not be an easy task. Manjhi has already made it clear that he is not going to merge his party with any other political party. He has demanded assembly seats in double-digits in the upcoming polls.
Manjhi had quit the JD(U) in 2015 after being forced to step down as the chief minister to make way for the return of Nitish Kumar. He later on formed the HAM and contested 21 seats during 2015 Bihar assembly polls as an NDA constituent. With the return of Kumar in the NDA fold in July 2017, he walked out of it to join hands with the opposition Grand Alliance.
Before the 2010 assembly elections, Nitish Kumar had split the scheduled castes by bracketing 21 castes as Mahadalits leaving aside the Dusadhs (Paswans). He had announced certain measures for the welfare of Mahadalits and to provide them a three-decimal plot (1,306.8 square-feet) for housing.
The move was aimed at garnering the votes of majority of the Scheduled caste population and isolating Paswan in Bihar politics. The gambit had paid rich dividends to the JD(U)-led NDA, which won 206 out of 243 assembly seats in the 2010 state assembly elections. The Paswans too were included into the Mahadalit group eventually by Manjhi during his tenure as chief minister.
In a tactical move to woo the Scheduled Castes, Kumar has gone a step further this time by ordering to frame rules for giving a job to the kin of a SC or ST person who gets killed in any untoward incident. He also ordered disposal of cases pending under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by September 20.
The move has evoked sharp reaction from opposition parties as it is pregnant with the threat of internal feuds among the Scheduled Caste families leading to killing of elder members for getting government jobs on compassionate grounds.
RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav accused Kumar of playing the Dalit card ahead of the assembly polls, contending that it would encourage the killings of SC and ST people in the state. He also questioned as to why the people belonging to the general and backward communities have been left out.
In fact, the main purpose behind this battle for Dalit votes is the objective of becoming the single largest party or group after the elections.
For Kumar, this election would be the last chance to become the chief minister till 2025 but he faces an uphill task given the anti-incumbency factors over alleged delay in handling the rush of lakhs of migrants in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
On the other hand, a section of the BJP leaders like Union ministers RK Singh, Giriraj Singh, Nityanand Rai and former union minister Sanjay Paswan believe that the political situation was conducive for the party to win the upcoming Bihar elections alone as Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys massive support among the masses.
“BJP can form a government on its own in Bihar. There should be no doubt about it. The support base of our party and our leader Narendra Modi is solid in Bihar. But we respect our alliance with the JD(U) formed in 1996. We are not going to break the alliance,” said union minister RK Singh.
Kumar had snapped his 17-year-old ties with the BJP in 2013 after Modi was nominated as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Kumar fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections alone and could win only two seats with a vote share of nearly 16 per cent.
He had joined hands with the RJD led by Lalu Prasad Yadav and won the 2015 assembly elections to become the chief minister. But it broke the alliance and joined the NDA again in 2017. The JD(U) and BJP contested the Lok Sabha polls together along with the LJP and won 39 of the 40 seats.
Their relationship, however, worsened after the BJP offered just one cabinet berth to the JD(U). The JD(U) leader spurned the offer, creating a rift between the allies. However, the BJP in a bid to mollify its ally, declared that it would contest the Bihar polls under the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
Politics in Bihar has reached a stage where leadership has become the target of scorn and cynicism in the game of achieving competitive edge over the rivals. The ongoing battle may create fissures among the workers of the three NDA allies at the grassroots level and damage each other’s electoral prospects in the elections.
Keeping this in mind, efforts are also on by senior leaders of both the BJP and the JD(U) to salvage the situation and to remain united with the constituents. It is the fear of losing to the rivals that may keep the NDA flock together in the long run.