Praful Bidwai


Has a secular anti-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance at last been sealed in Bihar, following Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad’s declaration that he would consume “poison” by fighting the coming Assembly elections jointly with the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress, and proposing Nitish Kumar as its Chief Ministerial candidate in the presence of JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav?


The tentative answer is yes, but the final, decisive answer would only emerge when seat-sharing arrangements between the different parties have crystallised after tough negotiations. Going by the shifting stands of their leaders and their recent verbal duels, many hitches are likely in that process.


Yet, it’s clear that if a JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance is indeed forged and puts up a spirited fight, it could give the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a bloody nose and prove a political trendsetter that’s even more momentous than the Aam Aadmi Party’s landmark victory in Delhi.


The BJP’s defeat in a core Hindi-heartland state would take the shine off Mr Narendra Modi’s artificially glorified image and strengthen the nationally growing popular disenchantment with him.


It wasn’t easy for Mr Yadav to persuade Mr Prasad to accept Mr Kumar’s leadership. A number of Prasad loyalists, including former Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, had publicly opposed Mr Kumar’s projection as CM at Mr Prasad’s behest. The two have been bitter rivals and traded charges of “jungle raj” (under Mr Prasad) and of greed and “betrayal” (by Mr Kumar) for forming a coalition government with the BJP, which he broke up only in 2013.


Even more important was the BJP’s recent pressure, coupled with handsome inducements, to wreck JD(U)-RJD reconciliation. This was reportedly discussed between Mr Prasad’s financer-confidant Prem Gupta and BJP president Amit Shah, who has managed to get all the accused indicted in Gujarat’s “fake encounter” cases, including himself, discharged or freed on bail, and who apparently promised to have Mr Prasad exonerated in the fodder scam too.


What finally brought Mr Prasad around was a two-pronged approach: convincing him that he would be hopelessly isolated and become a political pariah if he was seen to be even remotely collaborating with the BJP; and second, getting the Congress to force him to accept Mr Kumar’s leadership.


Mr Yadav played a major role in the first process by getting RJD members and supporters to lobby Mr Prasad hard in favour of an alliance with the JD(U): they sent him over one lakh SMSs. The second task was left to the Gandhis with whom Mr Prasad has a close equation. Mr Prasad met Rahul who told him that the alliance with the JD(U) is non-negotiable. Ms Sonia Gandhi refused to meet him until he fell in line.


Finally, Mr Prasad declared: “I want to assure the secular forces and the people of India that in this battle of Bihar, I am ready to … drink all types of poison. I am determined to crush the hood of this snake, this cobra of communalism.” This showed as much rancour as reconciliation. One can only hope Mr Prasad puts his heart and mind into building a viable alliance with the JD(U)-Congress.


Earlier, he tried many tactics to undermine the proposed alliance, such as using Samajwadi Party leaders to veto a merger between various groups professing a Socialist orientation, who were once part of the Janata Party. The merger was proposed last November and formally announced on April 15. It was to precede the Bihar alliance.


This ‘Janata Parivar’, to be headed by SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, would include, besides the JD(U) and RJD, HD Deve Gowda’s JD (Secular), Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal, and smaller splinters. Despite its grand alliance-style aspirations, the grouping right now only has 15 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 25 in the Rajya Sabha.


Last month, the SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav ruled out a merger before the Bihar elections. This was partly to test the viability of the merger idea at the state level; partly it also reflected the reluctance of various Janata Parivar leaders to cede to others the perks they enjoy as chiefs of their parties in Parliament, or lose their exclusive party offices built on subsidised land in central Delhi.


Mr Prasad tried yet another ploy, that of proposing to rope in Nitish rival Jitan Ram Manjhi into the alliance, knowing this would be unacceptable to Mr Kumar. Mr Manjhi, a Musahar (a designated Mahadalit caste), was made CM by Mr Kumar after the JD(U)’s rout in the last Lok Sabha elections. He started building his own base against Mr Kumar who had him removed. He has since cosied up to the BJP. So has Pappu Yadav, thrown out of the RJD.


Mr Kumar was no innocent either. He wantonly antagonised OBC groups like the Kushwahas, whose leader Upendra Kushwaha formed his Rashtriya Lok Shakti Party and won three Lok Sabha seats by allying with the BJP. Mr Kumar need not have rubbed Mr Manjhi up the wrong way. He also concentrated excessively on administrative issues and failed to build up the party’s cadre base.


The RJD and JD(U) are divided along caste and community lines. The RJD mainly represents the Yadavs, the uppermost OBCs, who form about 12 percent of the Bihar population, and a section of ashraf (upper-layer) Muslims. The JD(U) is primarily a party of the Kurmis (8 percent of the population) and other lower OBCs. But it also traditionally commands some support among Dalits other than Paswans (Dusadhs).


The BJP exploited social-level rivalries between these groups in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: the alliance it led won 31 out of 40 seats. This became possible not merely because of the false hopes Mr Modi created, and his use of his OBC identity, but the immense caste-class polarisation he wrought.


According to a Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, a staggering 78 percent of the upper castes and a high 68 percent of Dusadhs voted for the BJP-led combine, as did 53 percent of the lower OBCs.


The opposition vote was divided between RJD (20.5 percent), JD(U) (16.0 percent), Congress (8.6 percent), and NCP (1.2), but still added up to 46.3 percent—well above the combined vote of the BJP (29.9 percent), LJP (6.5 percent) and RLSP (0.1 percent), totalling 36.5 percent. This 10 percentage-point lead has massive implications in a straight two-way fight.


If the opposition now gets together, its combined vote may not add up to 46 percent-plus, but it will probably still have an unbeatable advantage over the NDA—not least because the Modi honeymoon is long over; and the underprivileged who voted for him out of ignorance of the Gujarat model, and the desperate hope that he would deliver jobs, are sorely disappointed. Besides, even the upper castes and Dusadhs are unlikely to vote for the NDA with the enthusiasm they showed in 2014.


This doesn’t argue that the election will be a cakewalk for the JD(U)-RJD combine. The BJP remains a force and will snatch some votes through the Manjhi-Pappu Yadav alliance. But it’s an eminently winnable fight for the combine if it agrees on a reasonable seat distribution formula and campaigns sincerely for the selected candidates, without sabotaging their chances out of petty rivalry.


That formula cannot be based on the 2010 Assembly elections, when the RJD won a mere 22 seats (of Bihar’s total of 243) with a 18.8-percent share, and the JD(U) won 115 seats with a 22.6-percent vote-share, in alliance with the BJP’s 16.5 percent.


Nor can the formula be founded on the exceptional 2014 election, when the RJD held the first or second position in 145 Assembly segments, compared to the JD(U)’s 43. A new paradigm is necessary, based on criteria such as balanced constituency-wise representation for social groups and high candidate credibility.


The secular bloc parties must start negotiating such an arrangement soon. They would be wrong to exclude the Left from their front. The Communist Party of India and the CPI(ML-Liberation)— and to lesser extent, the CPM—have a sizeable base among the poor peasants and landless of Bihar. They have demonstrated a capacity to bring them out to vote. They can also provide sensible policy and programmatic guidance to the secular bloc.


The Socialists and the Communists in Bihar had a creative dialogue and mutually beneficial competitive relationship with each other from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. They both lost heavily when that relationship was disrupted with the Socialists’ merger into the Janata Party, from which they came out splintered and disoriented. The long-interrupted dialogue must be resumed through formal inclusion of the Left into the secular bloc.


Mr Kumar is relying on the likes of publicist Prashant Kishor, who played a key role in Mr Modi’s campaign through Citizens for Accountable Governance, funded by Big Business. Mr Kumar would do better to get advice from tried and tested progressive secularists.

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