In 2015, flush with the dramatic victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah hoped to sweep the Assembly elections in Bihar, the other major Hindi-belt state in northern India. The first is of course Uttar Pradesh, the so-called cockpit of Indian politics, and in UP the BJP’s calling card was Hindutva. Mr Shah thundered that if the BJP were defeated, crackers would be burst in Pakistan. And Mr Modi announced a huge financial package from the Central government in the loudest of tones. But Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), along with the Congress, scored an impressive victory. The Modi magic did not work. The BJP’s defeat was also a rejection of Mr Modi at a time when it seemed that he was riding the crest of popularity, with an overwhelming victory in neighbouring UP in the 2014 general election. The victory of the Nitish-Lalu duo was interpreted as the unbeatable caste combine of all backward castes and the significant Muslim minority in the state.
Nitish Kumar was not really the lily-white “secularist” that he projected himself to be because he was in alliance with the BJP in the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections in the state, and the BJP’s saffron hue was as prominent then as it ever was. His disapproval of Mr Modi’s saffronism did not carry much conviction. But after the 2015 Assembly poll victory, Nitish Kumar could not bear with the aggressive pressure tactics and intrusion of the impetuous and young Tejashwi Yadav, who was the deputy chief minister. And with a little help from Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, who conjured up a “crime”, which is what the BJP has always been good at, Mr Kumar slipped out of the strangling grip of Lalu Yadav’s family. And he was back with his old mate, the BJP, in 2017.
The present speculation about the outcome in the Bihar Assembly elections flows from the developments of 2015 and 2017. It is being argued that this is Nitish Kumar’s “last stand”, and the BJP is preparing to push him off the stage once the election is won because Mr Modi and Mr Shah have not forgiven Nitish Kumar’s “betrayal”! There are of course serious flaws in the assumptions of the analysts, if not that of the BJP leaders themselves. The BJP is a second party in Bihar. It cannot hope to become the party of first choice. The BJP’s hopes lie in the fact that after two decades of being the second party in Maharashtra, the BJP moved to the first position, edging out the Shiv Sena. But then the Shiv Sena chose to walk out of the alliance, and the BJP’s lead position in Maharashtra came to nought.
It is keeping in mind the Maharashtra experience that Mr Shah, the BJP’s spokesperson though he is not the president of the party any more, declared quite early that Nitish Kumar would be the chief ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), comprising the JD(U), BJP and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of the late Ram Vilas Paswan. More than the Machiavellian plot to avenge Nitish Kumar, the BJP leaders are reconciled to the fact that they cannot win without the JD(U). There is the plausible argument that Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) are in the same position as the BJP, and that Nitish Kumar can never hope to win an Assembly majority without the BJP.
There is the fact that Nitish Kumar is the last of the “big” leaders in the BJP camp, and he along with Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan had been Bihar’s political heroes. It is now time for a generational change. There is no leader in the JD(U) who can take Nitish Kumar’s place. The BJP in Bihar does not have either first-rung or second-rung leaders, though there has been speculation that Union minister for law and justice, information technology and communications Ravi Shankar Prasad is a potential chief minister waiting in the wings. But he does not enjoy the same popular base that Nitish or Lalu do, and Paswan did in his own small limited way, and all of them had emerged from the Jayaprakash Narayan students’ movement of the 1970s. It is too early to speculate whether Tejashwi Yadav will be the Gen Next leader of Bihar. Bihar’s politics seems to be at the end of its political tether, though anti-BJP partisans would like to place their bets on Tejashwi Yadav and the RJD. The political formations as they exist now are caged in their caste grooves. No party can command the approval of the people across the caste barriers.
There is a political vacuum in Bihar, and there is room for some of the existing players to grab the opportunity and fill it up. The BJP could have done it, but it has shown that it is not confident about its ability to make it on its own. The deference shown by the BJP to Nitish Kumar is not pure goodwill. The diffidence of the BJP in Bihar perhaps could be traced back to then chief minister Lalu Yadav’s assertive act of stopping Lal Krishna Advani from going to Ayodhya on his infamous “rathyatra” in late 1990. It was a figurative act, and the BJP seems to have been stuck at the Bihar barricade. The Hindutva card has no resonance in Bihar and Mr Shah and Mr Modi are acutely aware of it. The poll surveys show that Mr Modi enjoys high popularity ratings, but they do not seem to be sufficient for the BJP to dare to go on its own in the state.
Two of the influential Hindi states are stuck in a past which they are not able to free themselves from, Bihar more so than even UP. The people in the state are hugely political, but they are not able to forge their political destiny. This election is much more than the victory or defeat of the major players in the fray. It is Bihar standing on the edge of an uncharted future.