Patna: While the BJP is the powerful national party, the Janata Dal-United is set to play big brother in the Bihar Assembly elections later this year. The BJP’s popular face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to play second fiddle – the party has no other option. While the party looks strong on paper to outsiders, the reality is that its limited social support base and the lack of a chief ministerial face has hurt its chances.
This was reflected in the fact that twice over the past month and a half, BJP president J.P. Nadda has made it clear that the NDA comprises three parties – BJP, JD-U and the LJP – under the leadership of Nitish Kumar, their chief ministerial candidate. Nadda was not the first to say so. In mid-June, at a time when the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic were being felt, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that Nitish Kumar would be their chief ministerial candidate in upcoming assembly polls.
Even PM Modi has lauded Nitish Kumar like never before. It is believed to be the reason why two senior BJP leaders from Bihar – both union ministers – Giriraj Singh and Ashwani Kumar Choubey, known as vocal critics of Nitish Kumar, have been unusually quiet.
BJP leader Nikhil Anand said the party’s goal was that the NDA should win the polls and Nitish Kumar will be the chief minister again. “There is no seat-sharing issue between the BJP and the JD-U,” he said.
Political watcher Satyanarayan Madan says that the BJP’s political mentor, the RSS, has no problem with Nitish Kumar playing the big brother role as he has been favourable to their core agenda in recent years. “The BJP understands its own strength and weakness in Bihar better than most. The party is not in a position to contest the polls without the JD-U and minus Nitish Kumar’s face as of now. It had tasted defeat in the last assembly polls in 2015 when it went at it alone. For the BJP, Nitish Kumar is its best ally; one who has the party enough room to widen its social support base among non-upper caste people,” he added.
Senior JD-U leader Sanjay Singh Singh recalled the Lok Sabha 2019 campaign where the two parties had contested an equal number of seats, “despite the fact that we had only two sitting MPs and the BJP had 22. The BJP is fully aware of Nitish Kumar’s face value. People have faith in the CM to deliver on promises made to them, unlike others,” he said.
In 2020, the JD-U is eyeing more seats than last year. It has categorically told the national leadership of BJP that there will be no compromise, this after some BJP leaders from the state stated that both parties should contest an equal number of seats.
According to sources within the JD-U, CM Nitish Kumar is adamant on dividing the 243 assembly seats in the state between the JD-U and the BJP, with a greater number of seats than previous arrangements. On the other hand, the JD-U wants the BJP to share its seats with the LJP. However, the BJP is angling for an equal division of seats among the three.
Another JD-U leader said the party has decided to contest no less than 115 seats in the polls. “The JD-U is ready to accommodate the Hindustani Awami Morcha of former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who recently joined NDA, from its share of seats. Similarly the ,BJP should accommodate the LJP,” he added.
Reports mention that the Lok Janshakti Party has sought at least 36 seats, including 20 of its own choice, but the JD-U is adamant on not wanting to share.
Political observers argue that the LJP is trying to force its hand in the seat-sharing arrangement. There seems to be no reason for it to walk away from the NDA. According to observers, the LJP’s bargaining chip within the NDA is its social support base among the Dusadhs, a militant Dalit caste, who constitute about four percent of the total votes in the state.
Experts say that the BJP had used ‘brand Nitish’ to fight against the RJD since the mid-90s till the early 2000s. The BJP had projected a clean image of Nitish Kumar as a suitable face for the post of the chief minister in the 2005 Assembly polls and it clicked with the masses.
Several BJP leaders privately mention that the ‘Nitish factor’ is not visible in the state any longer and that the JD-U itself is banking heavily on the ‘Modi factor’ – Nitish Kumar, too, had promoted ‘brand Modi’ during the 2019 polls. “It benefited the JD-U that won 16 of the 17 seats it contested this time as an ally of the BJP, unlike 2014 when it had won only two of the 30 seats it contested in Bihar by itself,” a BJP leader said.
A BJP MLA also said that Nitish Kumar’s popularity has declined; he is no longer a reliable face. “His claim of ‘sushahan’ (good governance) has been punctured on account of a collapse of law and order in the state and his political credibility is at an all-time low,” said the leader.