In Bihar’s Darbhanga (rural) constituency, which went to the polls on Tuesday, Faraz Fatmi, the Janata Dal (United)’s assembly candidate, barely received any support from his party’s ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP MP from the region, Gopal Jee Thakur, did not visit Darbhanga to ask people to vote for Fatmi. And instead of campaigning for the JD(U) candidate, local BJP workers flocked towards former party leader Pradeep Thakur, who is contesting from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
The development did not come out of the blue, people familiar with the matter told HuffPost India. In September, in a meeting held by Ram Kumar, the RSS’s Prant Pracharak for north Bihar, some BJP leaders and workers had told him that they should not be forced to support candidates such as Fatmi and Mukesh Sahani of the Vikassheel Insaan Party, who had opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act. Fatmi, a former MLA, had been expelled by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in August.
Darbhanga (rural) is not the only constituency where cracks between allies BJP and JD(U) are out in the open. In Bhagalpur, RSS workers campaigned for LJP candidates. In Jamui, which voted in the first phase last week, LJP workers vociferously campaigned for BJP’s Shreyasi Singh, even as JD(U) leaders withdrew from the campaign.
“This is like begaani shaadi mein Abdulla deewana (taking joy in an event you have no role in). This LJP is an unwanted ally trying to grab our campaigning. It is a very funny situation,” a JD (U) leader from Jamui told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
Just a couple of months ago, the Bihar assembly elections were expected to be a walkover for the ruling JD(U)-BJP coalition. Since then, the entry of Chirag Paswan’s LJP as a potential spoiler as well as an unexpectedly resurgent campaign from the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD have complicated matters for Nitish Kumar, who is eyeing a fourth straight term as Bihar chief minister. The Chirag factor has also worsened the JD(U)-BJP relationship, which was already marked by mutual distrust.
Squeezed between the BJP, which could try to sideline him after the election, and LJP, which has been throwing insults at him, Nitish, whose party has never come to power on its own, is fighting a tough battle for political survival.
Chirag has fielded LJP candidates in all the 122 seats the JD(U) and Jitan Ram Manjhi led HIndustani Awam Morcha is contesting. While LJP candidates are also going up against BJP in five constituencies, Chirag has termed this a friendly fight, claiming that his objective is to form a BJP-led government in Bihar.
The JD(U) is putting up a strong face, saying that the LJP is actually playing into the RJD’s hands.
“If Chirag is saying that his sole intention is to defeat the JD (U), not the BJP, then he must explain why he fielded a candidate at Raghopur assembly seat where BJP’s Satish Kumar is contesting against leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav. Chirag and Tejashwi are soft to each other. Chirag is questioning the seven-point commitment of the Nitish government. He has forgotten his uncle Pashupati Kumar Paras as minister in the Nitish-led government was part of the commitment of the government. It has become clear that Chirag and Tejashwi have a common intention to dislodge the NDA government,” Neeraj Kumar, a JD(U) leader who is a minister in Nitish’s cabinet, told HuffPost India.
However, political analysts point out that Yadav-dominated Raghopur has around 18,000 Paswan voters who generally vote for RJD. LJP’s candidate, they say, could win away these Paswan voters from RJD, weakening Tejashwi’s position.
“The BJP and JD(U) are also dealing with Hindu upper-caste discontent, which has been exacerbated by the Munger firing last week during a Durga Puja procession,”
While the BJP has strongly denied that the LJP is acting at its behest, as many as nine senior BJP leaders, including former RSS pracharak and BJP organisational secretary Rajendra Singh are contesting from Chirag’s party this time.
“We wanted Chirag to stay in the NDA alliance in Bihar but the leadership of Nitish was not acceptable to him. He is giving the impression of being pro-BJP and anti-Nitish. The BJP has no association with LJP and also there is no discussion over a future alignment with the LJP,” Bihar BJP spokesperson Rajeev Ranjan told HuffPost India.
The LJP, meanwhile, insists that it is part of the BJP-led NDA but just cannot see eye to eye with JD(U).
“We kept telling the BJP that Nitish has become unpopular and a liability. LJP favoured election under the leadership of the BJP. We walked out of the alliance once the BJP preferred Nitish. Forward-caste voters who traditionally vote for the NDA are highly annoyed with Nitish and they also can’t vote for Tejashwi-led mahagathbandhan. Forward-caste voters are polarizing in favour of the LJP. We are saving the NDA from the liability called Nitish,” said Abdul Khaliq, a former civil servant who is now secretary general of the LJP.
What are Nitish’s options?
Throughout his tenure, Nitish has cultivated the Extremely Backward Classes (ECB) , who constitute 30% of the total vote share in Bihar. Though this social segment is floating in nature, their vote is crucial, as they have been able to counterbalance the RJD’s famed Muslim-Yadav combination which has a 31% vote share.
Nitish still has a good hold over a large share of ECB votes, besides part of the Mahadalit votes. But facing voter anger and a reported anti-incumbency wave, Nitish knows he needs to keep the BJP in good humour to reap the gains of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity among voters.
A senior office-bearer of the BJP, who was assigned to track the mood of voters in three districts ahead of the election, said that he found a general feeling among people that the BJP should move out of Nitish’s shadow.
“While there was unquestioned support for Narendra Modi among people, I did not find a single person supporting Nitish. Among BJP workers and supporters, there was a sense of alienation towards Nitish and Nitish-led JD (U)-BJP government. This sense of distrust has left us worried. I had conveyed my findings to the central and state leadership. But leaders like Sushil Modi, who destroyed the BJP in Bihar, overruled us,” alleged the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP is the deputy chief minister of Bihar.
Political analyst Praveen Kumar, told HuffPost India that the politics of convenience has kept BJP and JD (U) together despite differences.
“The Sushil Modi-led faction of the BJP in Bihar is batting for Nitish amid a dominating sentiment in the BJP ranks that it is time to teach a lesson to Nitish. For the sake of smooth transfer of votes, BJP and the JD (U) will not annoy each other. If BJP leaders are not speaking against LJP, the reason is pretty clear. The LJP commands 4.5% of Paswan vote. Time will decide whether JD (U) and BJP are faithful partners or fooling each other. There is a perception among people that LJP and BJP are enjoying a silent camaraderie,” he said.
The BJP and JD(U) are also dealing with Hindu upper-caste discontent, which has been exacerbated by the Munger firing last week during a Durga Puja procession, in which one young man was killed and more than 30 people injured. Even a section of the BJP termed the police action as a return of ‘General Dyer’ raj and the LJP and RJD were quick to attack Nitish. Munger SP Lipi Singh, who was removed by the Election Commission after the incident, is the daughter of a senior JD(U) leader.
“It was brutal and inhuman. The Nitish government has a problem with Hindu festivals. Give me a single reason why I should vote for NDA. Why should I support the BJP?” said Sami Sachin Singh, an RSS worker from Munger.
When Munger voted in the first phase of the election, the NDA felt the heat of people’s anger, though it tried its best to contain the damage.The trader community in Munger town, which constitutes around 6.4% of the total vote share of Munger assembly seat and traditionally supports the BJP, boycotted the polls to protest the young man’s death.
Another incident that has marred Nitish’s reputation as a good administrator is the death in Bhagalpur of Ashutosh Pathak, allegedly after being beaten up by the police. The death has angered Brahmin voters in the region.
While the NDA is in a tight spot, there is also speculation among analysts over Nitish’s options post-election if there is a hung assembly or if he is sidelined by the BJP.
Nitish is an unpredictable ally—he deserted the BJP in 2013 when Modi was chosen as the party’s PM candidate, and JD(U) performed badly in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Then he joined forces with Lalu Prasad and became the chief minister after a stunning Mahagatbandhan victory. Two years later, he deserted the RJD and went back to the NDA.
With his reputation for loyalty in tatters, this time Nitish may find that his options are limited.