Go Solo or Stick with the NDA: Is Chirag Paswan Ready for Big Bihar Gamble?

Lok Janshakti Party chief and MP Chirag Paswan addresses a press conference after launching 'Bihar First-Bihari First' campaign at the party office, in Patna on February 21, 2020. (PTI Photo)

Lok Janshakti Party chief and MP Chirag Paswan addresses a press conference after launching 'Bihar First-Bihari First' campaign at the party office, in Patna on February 21, 2020. (PTI Photo)

The brewing rebellion in the NDA camp led by Lok Janshakti Party’s (LJP) Chirag Paswan which has baffled political watchers in the state. They say going solo would be a gamble for Paswan given the 2005 saga when 29 party members rebelled against his father Ram Vilas Paswan and joined the JD(U).


Rajiv Kumar

The raging Covid-19 pandemic and Election Commission’s guidelines have hit poll campaigning in Bihar in a big way. However, this hasn’t in anyway stopped political jugglery in the state.

With just a day left before nomination for the first phase polling, the political alignments remain far from settled. On the other hand, cracks have started appearing in the Mahagathbandhan over the issue of seat distribution as well as on the question of leadership.

To begin with, the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the principle opposition party in Bihar, is facing the heat from ally Congress over the number of seats the RJD is reportedly offering to the grand old party. The Congress, according to reports, is not ready to accept anything less than 70-75 seats against the RJD’s offer of around 60 seats in the 243-member state assembly.

Another of the RJD’s ally, the Upendra Kushwaha-led RLSP has already snapped ties and joined hands with Mayawati’s BSP in the state.

However, it’s the brewing rebellion in the NDA camp led by Lok Janshakti Party’s (LJP) Chirag Paswan which has baffled political watchers in the state. In a fast-changing political scenario, LJP’s national general secretary, Shahnawaz Ahmad Kaifi, on Tuesday said that Chirag Paswan is their party’s chief ministerial face, a stand contrary to BJP’s acceptance of Nitish Kumar as the alliance’s face in the state polls.

Speaking to news agency ANI, Kaifi said, “The party members also believe that we should fight on at least 143 seats in the elections. I, too, would urge the party to fight on these many seats."

On Monday, Paswan junior, according to reports, met BJP president JP Nadda and demanded a decision on seat-sharing soon. This was Paswan’s second meeting with the BJP boss in the last two weeks. Earlier, both met on September 15 where Paswan reportedly asked Nadda to contest more seats in the state than Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).

Paswan also reportedly shot off a letter to PM Narendra Modi, dwelling on the current political situation in Bihar while ruing about strong anti-incumbency wave against the CM.

So, what explains Paswan junior’s sudden rising against the JD(U) and especially chief minister Nitish Kumar?

Before moving forward, it would be prudent to explore where the LJP electorally stands in Bihar’s caste-ridden identity politics.

It is true that there was a brief time in the state’s politics when Ram Vilas Paswan was seen as a singular claimant to Dalit votes, which constitute around 16% in the state. However, with the Nitish Kumar government carving out the ‘Mahadalits’ or the most deprived section among the Dalits, Paswan was left with just 5% loyal votes of his Dusadh sub-caste. Losing this core captive vote bank to the JD(U) is still stinging the party.

Electorally, too, the LJP’s vote share in the assembly polls has gone down from 11.10% votes in 2005 to a dismal 4.83% in the last state polls. The party won just two of the 42 seats it contested in the 2015 assembly elections.

The Lokniti-CSDS Post Poll survey for 2015 assembly polls found that just 51% of Paswans (Dusadhs) voted for the NDA in which the LJP was a partner. This was much lower than the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when more than two-thirds of the Paswan votes went to the alliance.

Realising the importance of the fluid Dalit vote bank, Nitish Kumar, too, has been trying to further consolidate his Mahadalit votes plus dent Paswan’s core Dusadh votes.

Many of recent decisions by Nitish Kumar point in this direction, including bringing back Jitan Ram Manjhi, a prominent Dalit face in the state, back to the NDA fold.

Further, as a political expert pointed out, appointment of building construction department (BCD) minister and a Dalit face, Ashok Choudhary, as JD(U)’s state working president, announcement of jobs for the kin of murder victims who were from the Scheduled Castes, induction of retired Dalit IPS officer Sunil Kumar in the party are some of the recent steps taken by Kumar to consolidate his hold among Dalits. Any further fracture in the LJP’s core Dalit votes will also help the JD(U) counter the former in case Paswan moves out of the NDA and puts up candidates against the JD(U).

The top BJP leaders have so far remained silent on the ongoing infighting between the two key allies. The LJP hasn’t got any assurance from the BJP so far on seat-sharing with sources claiming that the party has been offered around 27 seats, much lower than 42 seats it contested in the 2015 assembly polls. Another hiccup that has reportedly emerged is that the seats offered by the BJP aren’t of LJP’s choice.

So, where do things move from here for the LJP?

The first and the safest option for now would be to agree to the number of seats being offered and continue in the NDA alliance, says a political commentator who didn’t wish to be named.

The gamble, the commentator argues, for the LJP would be to walk out of the alliance. But, it may turn out to be a pure misadventure. Given LJP’s shrinking and limited voter base, Paswan could well face a prospect similar to LJSP’s Upendra Kushwaha or Pappu Yadav of Jan Adhikar Party. Furthermore, it will make senior Paswan’s position in the Union Cabinet untenable, he said.

Second option for the LJP would be to go solo, an idea being pushed by some LJP leaders, including party’s state president and Samastipur MP Prince Raj who was quoted by the Times Of India as saying that the LJP is “prepared to contest 143 seats, whether as a constituent of NDA or on our own".

A source close to the party hints that these 143 seats would be those on which the JD(U) would be contesting. This step is a safer option and would keep the route open in case the party decides to come back to the NDA fold later. However, moving out of the NDA’s fold for the party is easier said than done. Though the party has released a video message of its Vaishali MP Veena Devi favouring fighting on 143 seats, a future rebellion cannot be ruled out. There is a history to it in the party and Chirag Paswan would do well to remember it.

In 2005, when Ram Vilas Paswan dithered on supporting Nitish Kumar as the CM, 21 of its 29 members rebelled against him and later joined the Nitish-led JD(U).

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