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Bihar’s Big Battle: Unpredicted winners

Psephologists failed again. Bihar’s complex caste politics proved unpredictable. Though media-fuelled ambition couldn’t help Tejaswi find his way to become Chief Minister, the State’s inherent political-nature has reserved a place for him. A victory of Tejaswi, a brief time deputy to Nitish Kumar could have been a return of jungle raj, which the Biharis had rejected 15 years ago.

Political Bihar has a unique character, strange in many ways. Fifteen years ago, a long time jungle raj under a family-controlled party in Bihar was brought to an end with peoples’ determination never to bring it back. Since the caste influence is predominant, the politics of Bihar is not very easily vulnerable to a sustainable change, unless the people show their dejection. That was the context, which kept Nitish relevant in the State politics for as long a period as one and a half decades. Now the relevance is waning. A fluctuating political sentiment makes the State politics wildly different from all its neighbouring States.  

It was the State that had given a shock to Modi in 2015, after his spectacular 2014 Lok Sabha poll sweep. People then wanted Nitish to continue as their Chief Minister known for his good governance called sushaasan, which the State had never seen before. Years later, people were about to forget the jungle raj that had the nepotism at its core. People have begun to feel fed up with Nitish now. This is what the verdict 2020 has shown exactly. Modi had reminded them of the probability of remerging the corrupt Lalu rule if the coalition called MGM was voted in. People knew the jungle raj was worse than the torments they faced in the lockdown, which enabled BJP to save its ship. Still, the caste equation did not change significantly. 

In the last 30 years, the State never embraced a party with national presence making a large national party be only a junior partner in sharing of power with local satraps. Local satraps once used to steal national political scenarios because of the sheer size of the State’s Lok Sabha seats combined with their winnable clout of caste. In the coalition era, they used to cut their dues and stabilised their local clout for a national bargain. 

Since 2014, the national political equation has changed calibrating the regional clout of a party within a particular region. They may continue to nurse their regional dream, but with a power to challenge the aggressive BJP under Narendra Modi, the chief vote catcher for the party. But back to the State rule, it is again the caste that determines the fortune of a candidate. 

In one sense, despite having to face the stain of his father’s corrupt legacy, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD’s) Tejaswi Yadav could successfully remain relevant in Bihar politics, bravely resisting Modi’s weighty influence. Most psephologists predicted him to be the election winner this time and be Chief Minister of Bihar, as people were said to be unhappy with Nitish Kumar. Politically Tejaswi also hasn’t been a politician of a clean image, but one for being a substitute when anti-incumbency storms the State. However, this time, as the anti-incumbency was about to break out, the public had reserved a different verdict. No intelligence could read the public mind. Moreover, it is not easy for parochial media men to speak the truth until their political prejudice is kept aside. Each media entity and person has their political affiliation. That deprives the public of their right to know the truth. If the public has got the shock of Bihar election track change, it is only just that.  

Poll predictions may have gone wrong in arithmetic terms. In recent years, prediction failure has become just a common affair. But all pollsters, belonging to both the sides of the political pole, have seen a Tejaswi wave in the air. That itself shows he is not a politician to be blindly written off in a State where people with their taste for caste always look for a mass leader. In Bihar, caste has its first say. That will continue to remain. The caste priority converts even political liabilities into local political assets. It is here, even celebrated psephologists fail to read the public disposition. If pre-poll and exit surveys in Bihar have gone wrong it is because of the complex caste equation that remains deep in the State. Political parties also play their game well on their chessboard, making the fight more intense and predictions equally more complex. For the same reason, no standard equation of poll statistics would work out. 

Nitish Kumar could place himself well to play the role of a national leader. But he is trapped in a party with a regional base. His relevance is now getting phased out with a drastically reduced political manoeuvrability. But, now his return to national politics or ready takers for him in national politics is ruled out. His main qualification of being a politician with a clean image is overshadowed by personal anti-incumbency and stiffness in dealing with social issues. In Bihar politics, a leader’s ability to manoeuvre to be on the winning side determines his survival. That is where Chiragh Paswan has failed miserably in the elections. It was in the same art, his father Ramvilas Paswan, who was found to be on the winning side always, succeeded despite having no mass base of his own for winning an election independently. 

In a State like Bihar, politicians like Nitish cannot attract people for a long time so long as he refuses to identify by the tag of a prominent caste with a mass base. That needs a strong grass root level touch, moving beyond one’s ivory tower. As a coalition chief, Nitish did not go down the level most pollsters predicted in the election. But he may choose to go down this time before completing the upcoming term for one reason of his own compulsion to stay with Modi, once his archrival. Coalition with Modi was his last resort since all other options are ruinous. The polarised media would keep alerting him to keep a distance from his principle coalition partner. The partner is now larger than his own party, to avoid getting swallowed by BJP that has a history of gobbling up all its allies. 

If Nitish is chosen to head NDA, that would be only to avoid a Maharashtra-like mishap. Taking the chair of Chief Minister with fewer seats would be like wearing a mascot of BJP with overweighting BJP cabinet members. In Maharashtra, BJP was reluctant to give the post to Shiv Sena for the reason of it being its junior partner in terms of seat count. Nonetheless, the second generation Shiv Sena leadership and Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar type have always been of vastly different classes. 

Nitish would be given the coalition leadership and a chance to run it until BJP makes itself to win the State assembly alone. That is not very easy until BJP grooms one like Tejaswi to steal the young minds of Bihar away from the box of caste. Whatever may be the result and future changes in the local political equation, no one needs to be surprised if Nitish gives up his ambition to remain in the office of Chief Minister before completing his current tenure as a coalition head. 

In Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, parties with regional power remained strong enough to resist the onslaught of the aggressive BJP. But a coalition among these parties which have a strong presence in these States fails to put up a national alternative to BJP. Andhra Pradesh and Bihar have two young leaders with deeper political bases. They have proven themselves as locally accepted leaders being cosy within their State. That makes a fight with the now ubiquitous BJP a tough battle, obviously with a limited option for people to pick up their rulers.

Sajikumar Nair



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