Smaller political outfits are fast turning into festering sores for the major political formations as the poll pitch gradually picks up pace in Bihar with preparations beginning at the level of the Election Commission as well as by different political parties.
At least four smaller parties have become troublesome for their major partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Janata Dal (U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and in the Grand Alliance or Mahagathbandhan led by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress.
While the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is pin-pricking the NDA allies by staking claim on enhanced number of assembly seats, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), Rashtriya Loktantrik Samata Party (RLSP) and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) are fast becoming a pain in the neck of the Grand Alliance.
The main reason behind tolerating the demands of HAM and the LJP by both alliances is their yearning for Dalit votes, which constitute nearly 16 per cent of the total electorate in Bihar.
While Musahars comprising little over 5 per cent of the total Dalit population are broadly understood to support HAM leader and former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Paswans or Dusadhs comprising 4.5 per cent electorate are said to back LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan.
Both the alliances are eager to have at least one of them on their side to maintain the social balance, especially among the Scheduled Caste community.
Besides, their efforts to woo Rajaks and Chamars - the third major bloc among the Dalit community – will give them an edge over the rival as Dalits can influence approximately 50 assembly seats, including 37 reserved for Scheduled Castes and two reserved for the Scheduled Tribes in the state.
Both the LJP and HAM have also become key factors in the changing contours of alliance politics in Bihar. Of late, LJP president Chirag Paswan has begun singing a different tune seeking to contest at least 94 assembly seats and, at the same time, questioning the very justification of holding the assembly polls when the state is in the grip of coronavirus pandemic. This was a demand earlier made by RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav.
Tejashwi has also opposed to the concept of virtual election rallies at a meeting with the Bihar Election Commission and already demanded continuance of the previous mode of electioneering through real rallies and public meetings lest his party may not participate in the poll process.
The growing rift between the two regional allies JD (U) and LJP has made the task of seat distribution a complex exercise for the BJP, which is working hard to ease the situation and improve the ties between them. The BJP has already announced that the ruling NDA will fight the polls under the leadership of Nitish Kumar and the LJP leader and union minister Ram Vilas Paswan has also declared to back the BJP in whatever decision it takes on the issue of chief ministerial candidate.
The BJP and JD(U) describe this harsh stance of the LJP as hard posturing for a larger number of seats in the upcoming state polls. The LJP had contested 42 assembly seats out of 243 in the 2015 assembly polls when Nitish Kumar was leader of the Grand Alliance. This time, the LJP has demanded 94 seats leaving ‘scope for negotiations’ at the final stages of seat-sharing talks.
The LJP is sore over the fact that the JD(U) has never acknowledged its strength in seat-sharing talks while the JD(U) is angry over the recent statements made by Chirag Paswan against Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar over alleged mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
Confusion prevails in the political circles after reports that the LJP is hobnobbing with the Congress at the behest of Congress MP Akhilesh Prasad Singh. This has not been denied by Ram Vilas Paswan clearly. “Responsibility for everything related to party affairs is on Chirag. Everyone, including me, will follow whatever he decides. I have no say in it. There is a Parliamentary Board and Chirag,” the senior Paswan said to a query on the issue.
In the rival camp, HAM leader Jitan Ram Manjhi is sore over ‘non-coordination’ among the Grand Alliance partners and unilateral decision of the RJD to announce Tejashwi as the chief ministerial candidate. Recently, the Congress in-charge of Bihar, Shakti Singh Gohil, has taken up the task of cajoling Manjhi.
The HAM leader is learnt to have staked claim over 30 assembly seats, arguing that the Musahars are evenly distributed across different assembly constituencies in the state. If respectable number of assembly seats is not offered to HAM chief, he might jump over to the NDA bandwagon, which will have a vacancy for a tall Dalit leader in the wake of recent aggressive stance of the LJP leadership.
Interestingly, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) headed by Mayawati, too, exerts some influence among the Dalits and other Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) in districts bordering Uttar Pradesh, including West Champaran, Gopalganj, Buxar, Kaimur and Sasaram.
Dalit politics in Bihar had taken a decisive turn when in August 2007, the then NDA government led by Nitish Kumar set up the Bihar State Mahadalit Commission to identify the castes within Scheduled Castes who lagged behind in the development process and to suggest measures for their uplift.
In April 2008, 18 Dalit castes were brought under the Mahadalit category to begin with. These are Bantar, Bauri, Bhogta, Bhuiya, Chaupal, Dabgar, Dom (Dhangad), Ghasi, Halalkhor, Hari (Mehtar or Bhangi), Kanjar, Kurariar, Lalbegi, Musahar, Nat, Pan (Swasi), Rajwar and Turi.
Three months later Dhobi (Rajak) and Pasi castes were also added to the Mahadalit category based on the Commission’s recommendation. Afterwards, the Chamars were also included in the Mahadalit category by the state government in November 2009 on the grounds that they too were lagging in literacy and economic status and were victims of untouchability at the hands of other Mahadalit castes.
The only sub-caste that was left out was Paswan or Dusadh on the grounds that they were more literate and dominant among the Scheduled Castes. The non-inclusion of Paswans was seen as a deliberate move by Nitish Kumar to settle a score with his then political adversary Ram Vilas Paswan, who has considerable clout among his caste men.
But when the LJP joined the NDA, the Paswans were also included in the Mahadalit category, thus enabling them the benefits under the Bihar government’s schemes. In effect, all the 22 Scheduled Castes in Bihar are in the Mahadalit category and getting benefits of the Bihar government policy.
Nitish Kumar’s Mahadalit gambit had worked very well at the time, as it created a new caste conglomerate among the Scheduled Castes and led to landslide victories in 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 assembly elections.
But the Mahadalit vote bank could not remain solidly behind Nitish in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when he fought the Lok Sabha polls alone. He could win only two seats.
In 2015 Assembly elections Nitish joined the Grand Alliance led by Lalu Prasad thus creating an infallible caste equation of Muslim-Yadav-Mahadalit combination besides the EBCs. The Grand Alliance won the polls in a landslide, garnering 178 out of 243 assembly seats.
Now with the crucial 2020 assembly elections just a few months away, Nitish has recalibrated his pro-Dalit strategy by bringing quite a few more EBCs like Dangis into the Mahadalit category. The Dalit votes, which are 16 per cent of the Bihar electorate and slightly more than 14 per cent Yadav votes, assume significance as assembly polls are set to be bipolar contest.
While the LJP and HAM will eventually settle on either side of the political divide, the RLSP and VIP are likely to settle on some assembly seats in the Grand Alliance itself. Consequently, an edge among Dalit or Mahadalit vote bank is expected to tilt the balance in the acutely bipolar contest of 2020.