The key to understanding the upcoming polls in Bihar lies in a rather simple question: will the coming together of Lalu Prasad and >Nitish Kumar work on the ground? Any analysis of the 2014 Lok Sabha election results, which many consider as the lowest point for the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and Congress, suggests only one possibility — that the >mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) is comfortably ahead of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The combined vote share of the grand alliance was more than that of the NDA by at least five percentage points. The parties in the alliance were also comfortably ahead in approximately 130 Assembly segments. This means that the grand alliance can manage a victory by simply ensuring that the voters of the individual parties from 2014 do not drift away.
Rivalry and distrust This, however, is not going to be easy for three reasons. The first challenge for the leadership of the RJD and the JD(U) is to deal with a growing animosity between their core support bases, namely the Yadavs and the Kurmis, respectively. There is a history to this animosity. Mr. Kumar’s separation from Mr. Prasad’s Janata Dal, which led to the formation of the Samata Party and then the JD(U), has its roots in the Kurmi Chetna Rally of 1994, at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. The major issue at the rally was of the Yadavs getting all the benefits while the Kurmis were marginalised in the Lalu regime.
This mutual distrust was also reflected in opinion poll surveys conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2014. Results clearly showed that while the RJD voters and the Yadavs were not very fond of Mr. Kumar, the JD(U) voters and the Kurmis had a similar perception about Mr. Prasad.
In a National Election Study (NES) survey conducted in 2014, voters were asked to mark their preferences on whether they liked Mr. Kumar. Results showed that one-fourth of the RJD voters and one-fourth of the Yadavs said they never liked him. The numbers were more marked than those of even Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voters. According to the results, 18 per cent of the BJP voters ‘never liked’ Nitish Kumar.
Similarly, in a survey conducted in January 2014, voters were asked about Lalu Prasad’s arrest in the fodder scam case and whether the sentence handed down was appropriate or rather harsh. One in every five JD(U) voters said the punishment should have been more stringent. The results also suggest that this pattern was replicated among the core support base of respective parties. Among the respondents surveyed, while 19 per cent overall felt that Mr. Prasad should have been more severely punished, the proportion rose to 24 per cent when it came to Kurmi voters. This raises serious questions over whether the two parties would manage to transfer their core support bases to each other.
The second challenge is to deal with the negative perception of Mr. Prasad’s regime among JD(U) voters. Mr. Kumar in the last ten years has portrayed himself as a ‘Vikas Purush’ (a leader who gives importance to development). The alliance with Mr. Prasad is likely to alienate a section of the voters, who may have voted for Mr. Kumar on the plank of good governance and development.
RJD voters are not very fond of Nitish Kumar (in %)
Perception problem In politics, performance is measured by perceptions and the incumbent’s record is always compared with that of the previous government. As an ally of the RJD, the JD(U) does not have that leverage. The NDA has intensified its attack on the RJD by calling its regime ‘jungle raj’. In such a scenario, Mr. Kumar will not only have to allay these fears, but also defend the state of affairs during the RJD regime.
The field reports suggest that the JD(U) and the RJD at present are running mutually exclusive campaigns. The chemistry between the cadres of these two parties is missing at the booth level. There is an unease among RJD workers because their leaders have already given up a claim for the chief ministership and hence they will be treated as the ‘junior partner’ in the alliance despite having a broader social base in the State. The JD(U) workers, on the other hand, dissociate themselves from the Lalu style of politicking and governance. The grand alliance is likely to find it difficult to create a common campaign platform and rally the party cadres under one banner.
The third challenge is dealing with parties like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and the rebel candidates, who could significantly dent the grand alliance.
JD(U) Voters not very fond of Lalu Prasad (in %)
The NCP and the Samajwadi Party have already walked out of the alliance, unhappy with the number of seats allocated to them and have announced a joint front. Similarly, the presence of a six-party Left Front and Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM is likely to make things difficult for the grand alliance in the Bhojpur region (Bhojpur, Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Gaya, and Nawada) and Seemanchal region (Araria, Kishanganj, Purnea, Katihar, and Bhagalpur) of the State, respectively.
Simultaneously, the seat-sharing arrangements within the grand alliance is likely to create rebellion within the RJD and JD(U). These two parties announced that they will contest 101 seats each, while the Congress would contest the remaining 41. The RJD and JD(U) in last two Assembly elections contested around 170 and 140 seats respectively, which means they will have to deny tickets to some of the leaders who contested in 2010. This could lead to a desertion by several potential alliance candidates who could either join the NDA or contest as independents. Overcoming these challenges is going to be a tall order. In the absence of a strong electoral chemistry on the ground, it is likely that the grand alliance’s electoral arithmetic will fade very quickly. In that sense, the single biggest challenge for the alliance between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad — friends-turned-foes-turned-friends again — is to maintain a posture of being natural allies and present a united front that instils confidence in their party cadre and voters.
( Rahul Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. Pranav Gupta is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi .)