Old relations and loyalties have collapsed, but new bonds are yet to be forged, resulting in an intense political churning in the State
The political ferment in Bihar throws up a picture so complex that old categories of understanding the State are becoming redundant.
A young Paswan photographer in Madhubani supports the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Narendra Modi in the coming polls, for only Mr. Modi can “fight Pakistan, which keeps killing our soldiers on the LoC.” A Yadav shopkeeper asserts that Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad’s “era is over.” An upper caste philosophy professor in Bhagalpur argues that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar must be defeated for walking out on the BJP. But at a Patna middle-class home, Brahmin professionals reject the Modi “hawa” as artificial, and praise Mr. Kumar for his governance.
In Patna city, a group of Muslim migrant workers from Bihar Sharif wonder whether Mr. Prasad or Mr. Kumar will be a better bet for them. On the outskirts of Darbhanga, a Mahadalit farmer says his family has always voted for the Congress since they had benefited from the party’s early land reform initiative. But his neighbour, also of the Mahadalit community, supports Nitish Kumar for giving them a new identity.
Now examine the big picture.
For 20 years, the State’s politics has been fundamentally bipolar, with Lalu Prasad representing one end, and forces opposed to him constituting the other end of the axis. Today, politics has turned triangular, and in some pockets, even a four-cornered contest.
Fluid social dynamics
Mr. Prasad is in jail. But his party — due to deep caste and patronage networks, the power of his personality, and a strong, senior crop of senior leaders — remains a formidable force. The BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance, which dislodged the seemingly invincible Mr. Prasad from power and brought together a coalition of castes from opposite ends of the spectrum, is dead. The break-up has been so bitter that the BJP says Mr. Kumar — under whom party leaders served in the State cabinet till not so long ago — should suffer the same fate as Mr. Prasad for his alleged role in the fodder scam. Despite being the weakest of the four forces in the State, the Congress is being wooed assiduously by the two strongest regional forces.
All of this indicates an intensely competitive and fluid political landscape. Old equations have collapsed, but new alliances are yet to be born.
Old loyalties of particular castes to particular leaders do not hold anymore, but new bonds are yet to be forged. And while traditional categories are fading, new frames of understanding are yet to be devised.
Each social group is grappling with its own dilemmas. Take a few examples.
Yadavs, who have been loyal supporters of Lalu Prasad and credit him for giving the backwards dignity and a voice, are exploring alternatives. The RJD has been out of power in the State for eight years. On the ground, the Yadavs have been traditionally at the forefront of tensions with Muslims. And given that Mr. Prasad is not a key factor at the Centre, there are views within the caste-group to back the BJP for the Lok Sabha. But there are many other Yadavs — probably the majority — who remain loyal to Mr. Prasad and will stick by him in the face of adversity.
For the upper castes, the BJP has been a natural choice for the last two decades. They supported Nitish Kumar since the BJP was a part of the alliance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large sections of the so-called “forwards” are furious with the Chief Minister for not supporting Mr. Modi. This is coupled with resentment that the government has not been able to pull off the next generation of reforms — on power and employment — in its second term. But like other social groups, upper castes are not a monolith either. The presence of strong Rajput leaders in the RJD — and its recent victory in Maharajgung by-election — shows that sections of the community back Mr. Prasad. Others, like the Patna middle class residents alluded to earlier, fear a return to RJD rule, and are happy with the security and infrastructure under Mr. Kumar.
A small section of the Muslims had begun to shift away from Mr. Prasad to Mr. Kumar in the last elections itself, given the Chief Minister’s emphasis on backward Muslims.
The trend of switching sides is expected to accelerate further in light of Mr. Kumar breaking ranks with the BJP. Across Muslim pockets, residents are closely watching Mr. Modi’s actions in order to assess whether he presents a threat and this will determine their voting patterns.
Given this fluidity in the social coalitions, political parties are nervous.
The JD (U) knows it has a tougher job at hand, fighting polls on its own without the backup of the BJP’s strong organisational network and upper caste opinion-makers. The RJD knows that this will be a battle of political survival, and their only hope is capitalising on the “victim card.”
And the BJP, while banking on a Modi hawa, is acutely aware that unless it can chip away Yadav votes from the RJD and extreme backward caste votes from Mr. Kumar, it will have difficulty in stitching up a winning coalition. The Congress is being wooed by both regional forces, in the hope that the alliance will be seen by Muslim voters as the real secular alternative to the BJP. But the Congress, despite flirting with Mr. Kumar, has kept its options open.
With this almost unprecedented churning, Bihar promises be the site of the key battles that will define the 2014 election — secularism and majoritarian-laced communal politics; the various forms of development; and newer forms of caste assertion.