Patna: All is not well with the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar ahead of the crucial state assembly elections later this year. Bharatiya Janata Party ally, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), has been forcing its hand over seat sharing, and demanded it contest at least 42 out of 243 assembly seats. The LJP’s stand has put the BJP and the CM Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) (JD-U) in a fix, with both trying to contest the maximum number of seats possible while keeping a share of 30 seats for the LJP. This has angered the party, which has hardened its stand against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD-U in a muscle-flexing exercise for seat-sharing.
The LJP has shattered the myth that the NDA is united in the state. The party’s president, Chirag Paswan, removed Munger district unit president Raghvendra Bharti for publicly stating that the NDA was “intact” and that there were no differences over seats.
Chirag, son of Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan who exercises control over the LJP from Delhi, is said to be miffed with the party’s allies, the BJP and the JD-U, over the functioning of the NDA government led by CM Nitish Kumar, and has repeatedly dropped hints about the same.
By sacking a party leader for merely a statement to the press, Chirag sent the strong message that there were cracks within the NDA, and meant it as a warning to all party leaders to not speak publicly without his approval or permission.
A.K. Mishra, a political commentator from Bihar, said that the LJP’s machinations are to force its hand in the seat-sharing bargaining. “There is no reason for the LJP to walk away from the NDA.It has a good relationship with the BJP. But, the party has differences with the JD-U over seat sharing and it's lack of role in the day-to-day functioning of the NDA government,” said Mishra.
Mishra said that the LJP’s bargaining chip in the NDA is its social support base among the Dusadhs, a militant Dalit caste, which constitutes about four percent of the total votes in the state. Ram Vilas Paswan belongs to this caste and still enjoys their overwhelming support, a fact made clear following win after win in the polls. “In the caste-ridden politics of Bihar, caste equations change in favour of or against an alliance thanks to Paswan. The BJP understands that more than other political parties,” he added.
The BJP is confident of its traditional support from the upper castes, Vaishyas, Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) and a section of the Dalit population. Similarly, the JD-U is sure of the support of members of the Kurmi caste (CM Nitish Kumar’s caste) the Koeris, Kushwahas, a major chunk of the EBC vote and is also trying to woo Muslims.
Another political commentator, N.K. Chaudhary, said that for the NDA to lose the LJP will be a major setback ahead of the polls, which was why the BJP has been constantly trying to end their differences. “BJP does not seem to be in the mood to take the risk of letting the LJP join a rival alliance. After all, aside from other voter bases, Dalit votes do matter,” he added.
Senior RJD leader Bhai Virendra said that the LJP could join hands with his party, with their politics of social justice a common factor. If the LJP joined hands with the Grand Alliance, it will widen its social support base. The LJP will be able to get sizeable Dalit votes in favour of the alliance, he said.
LJP general secretary Shanawaz Kaifi has defended the removal of Bharti, saying that his statement was contrary to directives by the party. “It was decided by the LJP that any stand in public on the alliance will be made by Chiragji,” he said, adding that there was “no need” for Bharti to issue a statement and violate the “discipline of the party”.
According to LJP leaders in Bihar, this is not the first time that Chirag has questioned the idea of a united NDA. In June, Chirag asked party leaders to be ready to contest from all 243 assembly seats. It fuelled speculation in political circles that the LJP was angry about being sidelined within the NDA.
LJP leaders said that unlike a seasoned politician like senior Paswan (Ram Vilas), Chirag is keen on pursuing an aggressive brand of politics in Bihar to widen the party network and its social support base. “Chirag is eyeing more seats this time. He has demanded 43 seats for the LJP to contest,” a senior LJP leader said.
In the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls, the LJP contested 42 seats in alliance with the BJP and won two seats.
While the BJP-led NDA appears to be formidable when compared to opposition Grand Alliance, the reality is different. The LJP is unhappy with the attention being given to CM Nitish Kumar and the JD-U. “The LJP considers itself to be more loyal to the BJP and the NDA than the JD-U, and expected a respectable place and a share in the government as well the NDA at-large. However, Nitish Kumar has been trying to impress the top BJP leadership over the LJP; Chirag is asserting for the party’s rights within the NDA,” said another LJP leader.
There have been reports of widening differences between Chirag and Nitish Kumar over several issues. It was reflected when Chirag raised the question of law and order in Bihar to embarrass Nitish, who has repeatedly claimed that there was nothing to worry about. Chirag also criticised Nitish Kumar for the poor handling of the issue of the returning migrant workers after the lockdown began in March. Chirag has also targeted the state government over its poor roads and health infrastructure.
Nearly a month ago, Chirag rattled Nitish Kumar when he said that he would support the BJP despite “whether it goes with Nitish Kumar's leadership or changes its mind.”
Chirag’s stand was not taken in good taste by the JD-U, which reacted strongly and said that the BJP has already declared Nitish Kumar as the Chief Ministerial face of the ruling NDA for the Bihar election. “There are no ifs and buts; Nitish Kumar is not only the Chief Ministerial candidate of NDA – the elections will be contested under his leadership,” said JD-U leader Nikhil Mandal.
Chirag was also unhappy by the JD-U offering former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi a choice to join the NDA, or merge his party Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) with the JD-U ahead of the state assembly polls. Manjhi is a Dalit leader like Chirag’s father Ram Vilas Paswan.
According to LJP leaders, Chirag has made it clear to the BJP that his party would not compromise on a number lesser than 42 seats. “Chirag has informed top BJP leaders that LJP was part of the NDA in last assembly polls, unlike Nitish Kumar's JD-U, which contested the polls alongside Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a traditional rival of the BJP. It is for the BJP to decide,” the LJP leader said.
Chirag is adamant that the LJP's agenda of ‘Bihar First, Bihari First’ be incorporated in the election campaign.
Bhupendar Yadav, the BJP in-charge of Bihar, held two recent meetings with Chirag in Delhi to try and pacify him. Yadav also met Nitish Kumar in Patna on Wednesday and with other BJP leaders on Thursday to end differences within the NDA.
However, with the virtual election campaign being kicked off by the BJP and JD-U, there are rumours doing the rounds that Chirag is on the lookout for a deputy chief minister post offered to him by RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, who is widely seen as chief ministerial candidate of the Grand Alliance.
A lot depends on Ram Vilas Paswan, known as ‘mausam vaigyanik’ (weather scientist) – a reference made famous by Lalu Prasad – for his uncanny knack to switch over to a winning combination before the elections.
On paper, the NDA looks stronger than the opposition Grand Alliance. While the NDA the Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019 by winning 39 out of 40 seats, the outcome of the by-elections in October 2019 was in favour of the Opposition.