The battle for Seemanchal

The BJP is trying to win over a stronghold of the Mahagathbandhan

March 06, 2023 01:27 am | Updated 01:27 am IST

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses a joint rally of the Mahagathbandhan in Purnea.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses a joint rally of the Mahagathbandhan in Purnea. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying hard to make inroads into Seemanchal, currently the stronghold of the Mahagathbandhan. The importance of the region can be understood from the fact that Union Home Minister Amit Shah launched his Lok Sabha campaign in Bihar in September 2022 from Seemanchal and has visited Bihar thrice after the Janata Dal (United) snapped ties with the BJP in August 2022.

In response, the Mahagathbandhan, which comprises seven parties, held a rally in Purnea district of Seemanchal on February 25 at the Rangbhoomi Maidan, the same place from where Mr. Shah launched his campaign.

Seemanchal, located in north Bihar, comprises four districts: Purnea, Katihar, Kishanganj and Araria. In the 2019 elections, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won three seats and the Congress won one in the region. At the time, the JD(U) was part of the NDA. With the JD(U) walking out of the NDA alliance, the Katihar and Purnea parliamentary seats are now with the JD(U), Araria belongs to the BJP, and Kishanganj belongs to the Congress.

The four districts represent 24 Assembly constituencies. Seemanchal is therefore important for the 2025 Assembly polls too. For the JD(U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), pitted against the BJP, the high share of Muslims (47%) could be politically beneficial. But now the BJP is focused on not only consolidating Hindu votes but also wooing the Pasmanda Muslims, who constitute over 80% of the Muslim population in Bihar. This is a cause of worry for the Mahagathbandhan. The Pasmanda Muslims are the weaker sections of Muslims who converted to Islam from the backward classes and Dalit groups long ago. The community, with poor socioeconomic conditions and no political representation, has been demanding Scheduled Caste (SC) status for a long time. The Sachar Committee Report noted that the conditions of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians has not improved and the Ranganath Mishra Commission recommended delinking SC status from religion.

Apart from its outreach to the Pasmanda Muslims, the BJP has also alleged that there are serious issues with the caste census, launched by JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar. The party says the format in which the exercise is being carried out looks “flawed” and could potentially “tamper with the citizenship register.” It alleges that the process ignores the threat of counting illegal Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya as Indian citizens. Seemanchal is a border region, with Nepal next door and Bangladesh not far away.

While the Mahagathbandhan has been saying that the BJP is resorting to a divide-and-rule policy, Mr. Shah has warned the people in Valmikinagar of West Champaran district and Patna that a victory of the ‘grand alliance’ would ensure the return of a “Jungle Raj.” The BJP has planned many rallies in the days to come in the Seemanchal region.

The Mahagathbandhan has to deal with not only the BJP challenge, but also contend with the Owaisi factor. The presence of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi could benefit the BJP as the AIMIM is expected to dent the vote bank of the Mahagathbandhan as it has done in previous elections and regions. The people of Seemanchal believe that Mr. Owaisi stands for the Muslim community. This was borne out by the 2020 Assembly polls when the AIMIM won five seats in Seemanchal.

“Seemanchal is considered the stronghold of the Mahagathbandhan, whereas for the BJP, it is a politically weaker area,” said Sanjay Kumar, political analyst based in Bihar. “The BJP is trying hard to galvanise support for the party and polarise the region, which has poor people in large numbers. It wants to make inroads into the region, which has a high concentration of the Muslim population. Moreover, it will try to set the agenda before the Lok Sabha poll that it is the party which can save the country and Hindutva.”

Whether the BJP’s strategy of consolidating Hindu votes while also appealing to Pasmanda Muslims for their votes succeeds remains to be seen. But the Mahagathbandhan has to contend with both external and internal challenges. Against the backdrop of rumours about a growing rift between the JD(U) and RJD, Mr. Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav emphasised that the ‘grand alliance’ is intact in Bihar and is ready to stop the juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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