Lok Sabha Election 2019: Shifting voter loyalties in Nitish Kumar's pocket boroughs likely to increase JD(U)'s dependence on BJP

Pragya Singh
Nitish is Bihar’s tallest Kurmi leader but his voters are being swayed by the prime minister’s tough-on-corruption and nationalistic image as much as him

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is gradually getting dwarfed in the rough and tumble of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. What is more, he is realistic enough to accept that his electoral fortunes are linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's magnetic pull on voters.

This becomes all too clear as Kumar alights from his helicopter at Parwalpur village, in Nalanda district, which his party €" Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) €" considers as its pocket borough, to address an assembly of 1500 people in this veritable cauldron of heat and dust.

Kumar extols his government's work ۥ the gleaming highway, the schools he built, the bicycles he gave to school students. Yet, in the same breath, he credits all these achievements to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. "It gave Rs 50,000 crore to Bihar," he says.

Bihar's Mr. Development, the image Kumar has assiduously crafted for himself, then requests the gathering to pay him "mehnatana" and "mazdoori" or wages for his hard work. The wages he seeks are in the form of votes and, he said, they will contribute to making Modi the prime minister again.

After Kumar's chopper lifts off in a swirl of dust and disappears into the horizon, the people discuss the pluses and minuses of the JD(U) candidate, Kaushalendra Kumar, who is the sitting Member of Parliament representing Nalanda. This region is dominated by the Kurmi caste, to which the chief minister belongs. Kaushalendra is accessible but disinterested in development, they say. More significantly, he belongs to the JD(U), not the BJP. Therein hangs a tale.

Nitish is Bihar's tallest Kurmi leader but his voters are being swayed by the prime minister's tough-on-corruption and nationalistic image as much as him. They will vote for Kaushalendra, they say, because Kumar has asked them to, but the goal is to make Modi prime minister. A decade ago, Kumar would have asked for votes in his own name, and not invoked Modi to ensure victory for his party's candidate.

Stopping at villages on the highway between Nalanda and Patna, the diminishing of Kumar becomes palpable. But there is also another yardstick to judge it. For instance, Tejashwi Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal €" which heads the Opposition alliance comprising the Congress, the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP), the Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) €" does not ask for votes in the name of the Congress or Rahul Gandhi. This is in sharp contrast to Kumar invoking Modi, whose nomination as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2013 had prompted the JD(U) to walk out of the NDA.

It is not lost on Biharis that Kumar is caught in an unequal relationship with Modi's BJP, and that this is largely his own doing. The JD(U), the RJD and the Congress forged an alliance that swept Bihar in the 2015 state Assembly elections. For two years, Kumar was the chief minister and Tejashwi was his deputy. In July 2017, Kumar broke the alliance with the RJD and formed a new coalition government with the BJP. Kumar's image of Mr. Development and Mr. Clean started losing its uniqueness, because these are precisely the credentials that are popularly assigned to Modi.

Bihar's political circles are abuzz with the astonishing fact that the JD(U) did not release a manifesto for this election. The NDA election machinery in the state was also managed almost entirely by the BJP. People are also trying to fathom the implication of some recent events, such as Kumar's conspicuous silence while the PM and other leaders chanted 'Vandey Mataram' at a recent rally. JD(U)'s sudden demand for special status for Bihar has also perplexed election-watchers, for the Center has already firmly rejected this demand.

But beyond the politics of image and coalition dynamics, Kumar faces the grim prospect of his social base fracturing. In 2014, the JDU won two seats and a 16 percent vote-share, which far exceeds the four to seven percent of Kurmis in the state population. His electoral salience is attributed to the social engineering that he undertook after he became the chief minister in November 2005, the backbone of which is backward classes, both Hindu and Muslim. These castes are colloquially called panchphoran, or spice mix, in the state. "The reason for this nomenclature is that these social groups are scattered in small pockets, and silent, but they swing electionsۥthey are just like spices, which are invisible but without them, food does not get its flavour," says Mohammad Sajjad, a proffessor at Aligarh Muslim University and a commentator on Bihar politics.

Kumar's vote among these groups is fracturing because RLSP of Upendra Kushwaha was with NDA but now it has moved away and is courting the six per cent-strong backward Kushwaha/Koeri caste that JD(U) had captured. The VIP has also started to challenge the Nishad (Extremely Backward Caste) base of JD(U). Then the HAM, which was also earlier allied with Kumar, has split from NDA and seized the imagination of Manjhis, a Mahadalit caste. The Manjhis have taken umbrage with JD(U) when Jitan Ram Manjhi, the HAM founder, was unceremoniously made to exit the chief minister's post, which Kumar then re-occupied.

It is Kumar who had deftly re-organised Dalit identity in Bihar by carving out a new 'Mahadalit' category, which comprised 21 out of 22 Scheduled Caste groups. He only left out the Dusadh (Paswan) caste, thereby starting a process to wean all other Dalit castes away from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), whose leader is Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan.

Besides, the backward as well as Dalit castes also vote for the RJD, other than Bihar's 30 percent Muslims and Yadavs. This is why, when the JD(U) and the RJD had combined in 2014, they had created an electorally unbeatable behemoth.

"Everybody knows what the BJP government is all about," says Ravidas, an elderly daily wage worker who is a chamar by caste and lives in Jamunatoli, a few kilometres from Islampur village in Nalanda, reflecting the anxiety that the Dalits feel under the current regime. "They have neglected the poor." He, and a group of young students from this makeshift habitation say they have decided to vote for the Congress party and not the JD(U).

"The Nitish era was fine after the RJD fell, but now we are reeling under official corruption and there are no jobs," says Deepak, a 22-year-old who is preparing for competitive exams in Patna. Several women in the locality say they will vote for the "telephone", the election symbol of HAM, on 19 May, which is the concluding round of the 2019 election.

"We were toddy tappers and have no source of income since the alcohol ban," says Chandravati Devi, who lives in Maurya Colony on Patna's outskirts, in one of many ramshackle huts where Dalit domestic workers and labourers live. (At the same time, many women support the Bihar government's decision to ban alcohol.) These mix of voices reflect changing electoral alignments that are also a natural consequence of this partnership between the JD(U) and the BJP.

Kumar is facing a blowback among these voters also because of the Center granting 10 percent reservations to the poor among the unreserved sections. They fear that this is the first step in diluting the reservation policy. At the same time, the Bhumihar and Brahmin voters, who are roughly 11 percent of voters in the state, feel that Kumar represents the interests, including reservations, of the backward communities. The elite-caste have an additional concern that the BJP itself is emphasising on backward voters and taking their support for granted.

"What choice do we have but JD(U)'s Kaushalendra," says Satyanand Sharma, a Brahmin farmer of Sanchari village in the Hilsa block of Nalanda. "We cannot vote for the RJD and its leader Lalu Yadav or his family members, and therefore, we will accept even a lamp post as a candidate from the BJP," he says.

The elite castes do not support the RJD because its rise to power broke their hegemony. Thus, reservations have become a double-edged sword for Kumar. "The Bhumihar is not just our core voterۥhe convinces other communities to vote for us and stems the voters of our rivals," as a BJP leader in Patna says. "This time, all we will get is the Bhumihar's own votes, not other benefits of having them on our side," he says.

Patna BJP circles jubilantly project Kumar's return to the NDA fold as 'ghar wapsi' or homecoming. "He had been with us throughout, he just made a mistake once," a BJP leader in Patna says. They also point out that the panchphoran are widely distributed and the same caste group does not vote uniformly across the state, which makes the 2019 election in their state tough to call.

For instance, Muslims, especially the Pasmanda or backward sections, had voted for JD(U) but Kumar now has to rebuild his secularist image brick by brick. "I have always worked for everybody," he said at Parwalpur, mentioning minorities twice.

The refrain among Muslims in Nalanda, Patna and Pataliputra is that the JDU does not charm them as it once did. "Muslims vote for a party that screams secularism the loudest," says Maulana Anisur Rahman Qasmi, who heads the Imarat Shariah, an influential seminary in Phulwari Sharif, a suburb of Patna. "The message has gone out that Muslims must consolidate behind whichever party they support." The implicit message is that Muslims will support the Congress and RJD, which have made anti-Hindutva their clarion call.

The reason for Muslims drifting away from the JD(U) is that the BJP's hardline Hindutva stance is straining social relations in Bihar. "There was no Hindu - Muslim conflict, but now we sense that the distance between us and Hindus growing. We want to vote for the RJD, which controlled such tendencies," says Naushad, who owns a shoe store in Sarai, near Danapur in Pataliputra.

BJP's votes, combined with those of LJP and JD(U), covers nearly half the population. When the very same combination had contested the 1999 elections it had won 41 out of 54 seats in Bihar, which included Jharkhand, which was carved out as a separate state subsequently. Yet, 1999, 2014 and 2019 are considerably different. Voter attrition is more a concern for Kumar, even if he scores a good number of the 17 seats he is contesting in this election, because a stellar BJP performance would intensify JDU's dependence on the national party.

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