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02 November 2015

NDA Forming Govt, BJP May Get Majority On Its Own

If this does not happen, there would still be no UPA government! Read on to know why and how.


T
he headline tells the entire story. But the Bharatiya Janata Party had reasons to be concerned from the first two rounds of Bihar Assembly elections, while it is upbeat about the third, which it is expecting to sweep, when I landed in Patna and went all over the place in the state. The third and fourth rounds are going to be good for the BJP, as it is the weakest stretch for the so-called Mahagathbandhan, while the outcome of the last round is believed to be determined by Muslims. Our readers know what that means. This was the state of affairs when I landed in Bihar for the second time after assessing the electoral situation two months ago for Swarajya. And this is my introduction to the piece because all parties in the fray agree to this theory off the record, and so do local journalists who have a much better idea of what is happening on their turf than the staffers of Delhi-NCR based media houses.

According to the internal assessment of the BJP, it is winning about 20-21 of the 49 seats that went to polls in the first round. Out of the 32 that were up for grabs in the second round, the BJP is expecting 16-20. While this means the party is getting near 50% of the seats, analysts in the organisation are looking at it as a damp squib. That’s because no strong anti-incumbency factor was felt despite a high pitch “jungle raj” campaign against Lalu Prasad Yadav’s alliance with Nitish Kumar, which was supposed to project the Bihar chief minister in poor light.

There are four factors that are being seen for this ‘lacklustre’ performance. One, party chief Amit Shah, who handled the propaganda in the first two rounds, plastered all campaign material with his face along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s. Shah is being seen as a rank outsider in the state. Off the record again, party workers concede Shah’s face is camera-unfriendly. That only adds to the “baahri” (outsider) accusation Nitish Kumar has charged the BJP with.

Besides, some state unit leaders of the BJP are so put off by Shah’s highhandedness that they wish their party loses this election — a prospect that would lead to a demand of removing him from the post of party president.


The PM's photo can be used anywhere in India, but why would Biharis be attracted to Amit Shah?
Second, Upendra Kushwaha had the advantage of being recently humiliated by the JD(U) government of Bihar during the Lok Sabha elections, which fetched him sympathy votes from members of his caste (Koeri) that went to the NDA kitty. The anger at being ‘ill-treated’ by a Kurmi Nitish Kumar has subsided ever since among the Koeris; as such, the Koeris and Kurmis have voted together for a party/alliance en bloc traditionally. Kushwaha squandered away the caste factor further by distributing tickets mostly among non-Koeris for this Assembly election. He believed he alone could pull the whole clan along; the BJP believes — going by the queue of voters in front of different party stalls near polling stations where his RLSP contested — he was mistaken.

Third, it is ironical that analysts are still talking in terms of caste arithmetic in one of the most economically backward states of the country. This is not Modi’s style of campaign, but somewhere this time he gave in to casteist demands, if not so much in speech, then certainly in ticket distribution. But then, politics is not a game of idealism. When the UPA riding on a Yadav and a Kurmi stalwart played to their respective caste galleries with impunity, the NDA couldn’t have played for the ‘fair play’ trophy. This is a repeat of the Lok Sabha election story where the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was forced to invoke his backward status after Mani Shankar Aiyar’s “chai wala” jibe.

The going got tougher for the BJP when RSS Sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat, without provocation, said that the Sangh wanted a review of caste-based reservations. Yet another foot in the mouth was of Gen VK Singh who spoke of a Dalit and a dog in the same breath. While their bona fides may be in place, a better sense of timing and choice of words were expected of them.

Local journalists as well as swayamsevaks of the RSS who work for the BJP believe that Bhagwat and Singh’s statements may have cost the NDA up to 12 or 14 seats that went to polls in the first phase and about 5 in the second.


A section of the BJP office in Patna
The refrain that the RSS is a “socio-cultural” organisation does not wash, as it interferes regularly in matters of governance, thus placing itself undoubtedly in the political arena. So what if its focus is social work? Parties do social work as well. So what if the Sangh is not a party? No standard dictionary says an outfit has to be a party in the electoral fray to be political. Now, if the RSS is political, it better show some political sense and maturity.

That the good retired general is not a dyed-in-the-wool politician does not impress either. After a few years in activism and now more than 18 months as a minister in the Union government, he cannot afford to be loose in expression.

In the meantime, Bhumihars’ historical love for the Congress got rekindled for altogether localised reasons. That may not give the INC any seat, but it certainly dented the BJP’s vote share.

Fourth, there were groups outside the party system that had campaigned aggressively for Narendra Modi in 2014, which turned disgruntled when the BJP showed no interest to entertain them after coming to power. Prashant Kishor, whose group Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) had campaigned for Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha elections, is one such name. He switched camps after Shah and Arun Jaitley refused to patronise him. Then, KC Tyagi of the JD(U) managed the media brilliantly in New Delhi. This two-pronged approach helped Nitish attain a stature in Bihar somewhat close to Modi’s in 2014, political observers say. In fact, the language of sloganeering adopted by the JD(U) has stark similarities with that of the BJP last year. Consider the following hoarding.


Compare the rhymes: 'Ab ki baar/ Modi sarkar' with 'Bahut hua jumlon ka waar/ Phir ek baar Nitish Kumar'
Hope in Modi floats still
Modi’s fans in the party and outside, however, are hopeful that all such calculations would turn meaningless in the face of their poster boy’s sheer appeal. “We will win because of the sheer chemistry that Modi enjoys with voters; all this caste arithmetic is outdated; it no longer works that way,” says journalist-turned-BJP spokesman Sudesh Verma. He does not deny that the RJD and JD(U) enjoy some voter loyalty, but he insists that would translate to bigger vote share in their respective bastions and not a bigger tally across Bihar.

The optimistic and pessimistic sections in the BJP are both relying a lot on the 50 seats that went to polls on 28 October. They see all non-Yadav OBCs voting against the Mahagathbandhan with a vengeance. This may not reflect in the analyses by NCR-based television channels because their reporters were witness to assertive Yadavs while other OBCs and MBCs sounded tentative. The trend will continue in the fourth phase.

To understand this, one has to understand the caste conundrum of Bihar. Non-Yadav backward classes tend to be subdued in expression. That does not mean, however, that they remain suppressed while exercising their franchise.

No idea what ‘development’ means
This is more or less how Bihar looks,
whichever small town you enter
All the supporters of Nitish Kumar as well as his muted admirers in the BJP that I talked to have no idea of what Bihar desperately needs: jobs. Numbering in thousands and lakhs! As and when I asked a Nitish fan what development the Bihar chief minister had brought in, he/she would point at a stretch of land and say there used to be no road on that stretch while now there is a road! Never mind that the pothole-ridden road is crying for maintenance. Not one soul in my entire tour had this idea that an atmosphere conducive to investment was needed in the state, which included reduction in the rate of crime as much as the ease of doing business.

And this is a failure of the BJP. When a mass of people is alien to an idea that is an essential part of your ideology, it’s your job to introduce and hard-sell that idea in their midst. No campaigner in the party, not even Prime Minister Modi, stressed on private sector investment.

The cloud has a silver lining
While the caste equations above were shared by all parties contesting in this election, no voter that I spoke to seemed interested in castes alone. In the entire demographic range, they were only Muslims who said they were not going to vote for the BJP-led NDA. There was no unanimous choice among the Hindu electorate, and each one of them said they wanted vikas (development), with about 70% believing a Modi-dictated state government was the right choice and the remaining 30% reposing faith in Nitish Kumar — with the caveat that he should not have made Lalu Yadav’s RJD his partner.


Mohammed Noor Alam (left) will vote for
Lalu-backed Nitish while Chunnu Prasad
will vote for Modi's BJP, these shopkeepers
in Motihari said. They also said they were
friends despite their political differences.
Of course, fans never care for hardnosed poll mathematics. When they told me Nitish Kumar could have thrown a formidable challenge at Narendra Modi if he had not allied with a ‘corrupt’ Lalu Prasad, they did not factor in the JD(U)’s electoral history. Throughout its existence since its formative years as the Samata Party, it used to throw tantrums during the ticket distribution process in the NDA, grab more seats to contest, but convert a less-than-impressive percentage of them into victories.

During those 17 years of BJP-JD(U) alliance, an accommodating, malleable, junior partner BJP always won a greater percentage of seats that it got to contest in. Not only that, the upper castes transferred their loyalty to Nitish when the JD(U) was an ally of the BJP; now he is getting the M-Y combo of Lalu. So, a Nitish with neither a Modi nor a Lalu could have been as good as a big nought.

Demographic divide
Women, first-time voters, OBCs and EBCs have rallied behind Narendra Modi so far while SCs, hurt by Bhagwat and Gen Singh’s statements, went to the Mahagathbandhan. It was near impossible for the BJP-led NDA to come up with a face saver to alleviate the Dalit pain in time before 12 October when Bihar began the process of electing a new government. The OBCs, who look up to the prime minister as a tall leader from their grouping, and EBCs, who stand rock solid behind Jitan Ram Manjhi, salvaged the NDA’s position somewhat from a fiasco that a couple of motormouths pushed the alliance towards.

Lallan Sahni, a fruitseller, will vote for the BJP
Muslims are voting not only predictably but also intelligently. A new scene that has surfaced on the poll arena is a near absence of religious attire among the Muslim electorate. No burqa and no skull cap in the queue! The BJP believes this cannot be a coincidence. The communal get-up has been avoided deliberately after community meetings so that the sight does not polarise Hindus towards the NDA.

The people I interviewed also said that the NCP and MIM stood little chance in this battle. Muslims would simply not let their votes get divided this time.

The tables have turned
The BJP has read the demographic situation pretty well. Hence, one sees the about turn on reservations. Before the first two rounds, the party was at pains to explain to the Dalits and OBCs that their quotas would be left untouched. Now it is the UPA’s turn to be defensive as Modi wants the voters to believe that the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine is hatching some ‘conspiracy’ to snatch away a chunk of reserved seats from the Hindu downtrodden classes and gift that percentage to Muslims.

It’s all calculated. The belief that poll results in Seemanchal, going to the booth in the fifth and last phase, are determined by Muslims is deep-rooted. There is only one way the BJP can pull it off: Turn SCs and OBCs paranoid of Muslims, let non-Muslim votes consolidate and create a Hindu backlash. Again, the name of this game is politics. Do not expect saintly detachment from the party that rules at the Centre.
But Shah overdid it by bringing Pakistan into the discourse. “Galti se bhi agar BJP Bihar mein haar gayi, ...” (if the BJP loses by mistake) was an avoidable phraseology. A party must never talk of the prospect of losing before the election is over. It gives an impression that it is bracing for defeat based on inputs from its workers. In reality, the karyakartas are saying the party is winning for sure.

Finally, the table below has the score I got from the electorate — in consultation with local journalists, television channels based in Bihar and my sources in the Intelligence Bureau. The Delhi elections had proved that the feedback from swayamsevaks may be misleading because they go by the number of supporters of the BJP who exercised their franchise on the polling day rather than all the voters on the electoral roll. One may recall that the BJP had got just 3 out of 70 seats from the 2015 Delhi results though its vote share was more or less intact in the 32-33% range — thus establishing my theory. So this time, I hear out some electoral theories from them, but do not ask them their estimated score.


Round
Regions/districts
Number of Vidhan Sabha seats
Expected tally of the BJP-led NDA
1
Banka
6
2

Begu Sarai
7
2

Bhagalpur
6
3

Jamui
6
3

Khagaria
6
3

Munger
6
0 or 1

Nawada
6
4

Samastipur
6
3





Sub total
49
20-21




2
Arwal
2
1 or 2

Aurangabad
6
3 or 4

Gaya
10
5

Jehanabad
3
2

Kaimur
4
1 or 2

Rohtas
7
4 or 5





Sub total
32
16-20




3
Buxar
4
2 or 3

Bhojpur
7
4

Nalanda
7
4 or 5

Patna
14
8 or 9

Saran
10
7 or 8

Vaishali
8
5 or 6





Sub total
50
30-35




4
Gopalganj
6
6

Champaran (East)
12
7 or 8

Champaran (West)
9
5 or 6

Muzaffarpur
11
8

Sheohar
1
1

Sitamarhi
8
4 or 5

Siwan
8
6





Sub total
55
37-40





TOTAL
186
103-116

Significant in this finding are two regions: Gopalganj is where Lalu Yadav hails from, but his candidates are losing here. And Nitish Kumar’s nominees are set to lose the battle in his bastion to good fighters put up by the NDA.

The alliance can, therefore, comfortably reach the halfway mark in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. Including the last phase, I have arrived at a figure of 140 for the NDA out of which 124 will be of the BJP alone. All analysts I met with in Bihar agree more or less on this figure even as the BJP is publicly giving an exaggerated account of its expectations for the NDA (160) to boost its voters’ morale.

In the fifth phase, other than trying to engineer a Hindu backlash, the BJP is expecting Mithilanchal and Kosi regions to compensate for the Muslim vote consolidation in favour of the UPA in Seemanchal. I wish to file a report at the end of the last day of polling to add to this assessment. Even without witnessing the fourth phase, my extensive travel in the region concerned gives me confidence about my prediction. The bases of my estimate of the first three phases have already been described above.

Yet with all humility I must add I am too human to be able to see the future. But in the event that this prediction does not come true, I still see almost no chance of a UPA government taking shape in Bihar. The JD(U)’s poor record of converting contested seats into seats won is expected to continue. This would make a strange government that is headed by Nitish but where Lalu’s party is the senior partner. Given the Yadav patriarch’s domineering attitude and his party’s criminal infestation, such a government would be impossible to run.

On the other hand, for all the revulsion Nitish exhibits for Narendra Modi, nobody knows it better than him how comfortable a coalition he had had with the BJP for 17 years. Since Modi and Kumar are no longer rivals on the national scene, in a scenario where the BJP is the single largest party followed by the RJD and then the JD(U) — nobody is betting a dime on the Congress — the possibility of the present ruling party of Bihar rejoining the NDA post-poll cannot be ruled out. This is not my theory; both BJP and JD(U) leaders are mulling over the possibility.

Modi’s newfound love for the United States after a decade of visa ban on him shows he is a politician who can bury the hatchet. If Nitish does not want to officiate over a topsy-turvy government, he will have to be as flexible. Of course, this is too much of a hypothesis at the moment.

With my limited psephological ability, I reckon a ‘normal’ NDA government in Bihar — which is to say that the pre-poll alliance will be good enough for Narendra Modi’s post-poll nominee to approach the governor to stake a claim for government formation.

This is my original report filed on 31 October 2015; the first two paragraphs were deleted from the version that was published in Swarajya.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.