These are strange days in Bihar politics — the BJP is ostensibly going into polls with the ally Janata Dal (United), openly committed to getting a JD(U) Chief Minister back in the chair, while its ally, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is fighting Assembly polls on its own , in order to ensure that the BJP occupies the chief minister’s chair.
This extraordinary turn of events has happened because of LJP leader Chirag Paswan’s decision to go it alone in these polls, but, at the same time vowing only to put up candidates in seats where the JD(U) is the NDA party in fray, while not doing so in BJP seats. Both Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar and the BJP have maintained silence since Sunday, when the decision was announced by Mr. Paswan, but analysts say it clearly points to the BJP’s firm bid, for the first time since 1995, to capture the Big Brother status vis-à-vis Bihar in the NDA.
The BJP has traditionally deferred to Mr. Kumar and the JD(U) in the past when it came to Assembly polls, in terms of seats fought and the claim over the top job. This despite many leaders within the BJP consistently having questioned the party’s deference to the JD(U) despite the BJP having a better strike rate in all the polls, and being dominant in the Lok Sabha numbers. Coalition dharma was however observed, some would say more than sincerely. Then came the breach between the BJP and the JD(U) in 2013, when Mr. Nitish Kumar walked out of the NDA refusing to accept the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He forged a seemingly impossible alliance with the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) sweeping the 2015 Assembly polls and forming a government in the State.
The BJP has learnt many lessons from the 2015 defeat, one, that people vote differently in State and national elections, even if your leader has immense popularity, and secondly, in a polity run by caste arithmetic, the JD(U) was an important ally to help undercut a total Upper Caste - Backward Caste polarisation.
The return of the JD(U) in 2017 to the NDA fold was therefore eagerly worked for and the two parties, the BJP and the JD(U) went into the Lok Sabha polls as equal partners. The BJP wanted this new equality in Bihar NDA to extend to Assembly seats. This was resisted by the JD(U), but the party gave in, agreeing to fight 122 seats to the BJP’s 121, with the understanding that the LJP would be accommodated by the BJP from its share of seats.
This is when things get interesting. Several surveys and the BJP’s own assessment through the COVID-19 lockdown period with its exodus of migrants from other States returning home to Bihar, in many cases on foot, as well as the handling of other governance related issues made it plain to the BJP that Mr. Kumar was at the nadir of his popularity, while Prime Minister Modi retained his appeal. The lessons of 2015 were also clear however, nothing must be done to make it seem as though the BJP was an upper caste outfit unable to keep a partner who could bring in backward caste votes.
Mr. Chirag Paswan’s move to fight separately, and only put up candidates against the JD(U) may help BJP, now fight more seats than ever before in Bihar, emerge as the single largest party and lay claim to the chief minister’s chair. A consequence that encourages the feeling that Mr. Paswan is doing all this at the behest of the BJP.
The BJP has had, even in the elections it lost in Bihar, an excellent strike rate on seats. And even if Mr. Paswan doesn’t win too many seats, but manages to make sure the JD(U) loses out on some, his key result area would have been delivered.
Just how this rather forked tongue policy and campaign will play out among the State’s very politically astute voters is another matter. For now though, what till two months ago looked like a one sided poll, however, is suddenly split wide open.