Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, in Gaya, on April 2, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

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Bihar votes for 40 seats across all phases in Lok Sabha elections 2019. The state sends the fourth-highest contingent to Parliament. At seven percent of the Lok Sabha’s total strength, Bihar is likely to play an important role in government formation at the center. The state which was a bastion of the Congress till 1990, became a stronghold of the Janata Dal / Rashtriya Janata Dal under Lalu Prasad in the aftermath of the Mandal movement. Lalu’s fifteen-years in power—directly and by proxy—which was infamously called jungle raj, was brought to an end in 2005 by his friend-turned-foe Nitish Kumar, in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party. This time, the National Democratic Alliance of BJP-JD(U)-LJP is up against an RJD-led coalition of seven parties. In 2014, the NDA (without Nitish Kumar) had won 31 out of 40 seats.

Caste Rules The Roost

The state is a hotbed of caste politics. Upper caste (15 percent), Yadavs (14 percent), Muslims (17 percent), Dalits and Mahadalits (16 percent) are the key constituents of the population. Traditionally upper caste, Kurmis (the community to which Nitish Kumar belongs) and Dalits have backed the NDA whereas Muslims and Yadavs have supported the UPA/mahagathbandhan.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?
  • Two-third voters of BJP belong to upper caste and most backward caste.
  • Around half of JD(U) voters are Kurmi-Koeri, Muslims and upper caste.
  • Two-third voters of the RJD are from Muslim and Yadav communities.
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Nitish And Lalu: Friend-Foe-Friend-Foe

Nitish Kumar left the NDA in 2013 anticipating the announcement of Narendra Modi as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the three main parties – BJP, JD(U), and RJD contested separately. Ahead of the 2015 Vidhan Sabha elections, Nitish formed an alliance with Lalu and the Congress, which managed to stop the BJP juggernaut. The alliance partners were able to seamlessly transfer their votes to each other, with a leakage (loss of votes in translation) of less than 5 percent.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Revolving Door Alliances

In 2017, Nitish Kumar made a return to the NDA after growing differences with Lalu Prasad and concerns over allegations of corruption. Meanwhile, former union minister Upendra Kushwaha and his Rashtriya Lok Samata Party left the NDA on differences over ticket distribution. Former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha is also no longer with NDA either. Both have hopped over to Lalu’s mahagathbandhan.

Parties constantly changing their alliance partners makes the contest quite difficult to predict.
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

To Broaden Social Base, Lalu Has Sacrificed Seats

A grand battle is on the cards in the state in 2019. The NDA consists of BJP, Nitish Kumar’s JDU and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP. The mahagathbandhan consists of Lalu Yadav’s RJD, Congress, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM, Mukesh Sahni’s VIP, Sharad Yadav’s LJD and CPI-ML. From the NDA, JDU and BJP are contesting on 17 seats each and LJP on six seats. From the mahagathbandhan, RJD is contesting on 20 seats (1 candidate from CPI(ML) and Sharad Yadav to contest on the RJD's lantern symbol), Congress 9, RLSP 5, HAM 3 and VIP 3 seats.

This is the lowest number of seats which RJD is contesting since its formation. In 2009 and 2014 it contested for 28 and 27 seats respectively.

Tejashwi Yadav, taking a leaf out of Nitish Kumar’s book, has shown a big heart in accommodating allies. The party has been stuck with the Muslim-Yadav tag for decades. However, these two vote blocks alone are not enough to defeat the BJP. To broaden its socio-economic base, RJD has given 5 seats to RLSP (Kushwaha), 3 each to HAM (Mahadalits) and VIP (Sahni). The mahagathbandhan’s potential support base includes Yadavs (14 percent), Muslims (17 percent), Mahadalits (10 percent) and Koeri/Kushwaha (8 percent), together accounting for half of the population. On the other hand, the NDA boasts of support from Most Backward Classes (24 percent), upper castes (15 percent), Dalits (6 percent), Kurmis (4 percent), and Adivasis/Others (2 percent).

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

One of the reasons why the NDA lost to the mahagathbhandhan (which Nitish Kumar then led) in the 2015 Vidhan Sabha elections was the poor performance of RLSP, LJP, and HAM. All of them had a strike rate of less than 10 percent.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Now both RLSP and HAM are with the mahagathbandhan and have been allotted 8 seats.

However, Kushwaha and Manjhi are not undisputed leaders of their communities. Sharad Yadav is more of a liability than an asset.

Not a single MLA from the JD(U) left the party along with Sharad Yadav when he floated his own party. The months-old Vikasshil Insan Party has been given three seats. Nitish Kumar created the Mahadalit category and commands good hold over them. 20 percent Mahadalits supported JD(U) when it contested alone in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, Nitish also has good support among over Koeri/Kushwaha voters. 30 percent of Koeris supported JD(U) in 2014.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Modi Versus Mini-Modi In Odisha 

Easy Ride For NDA In 10 Seats?

In NDA, BJP is the captain and JD(U) the vice-captain. In the mahagathbandhan, RJD is the skipper and Congress its deputy. HAM, RLSP, and VIP are weak links in the mahagathbandhan’s armour, while LJP is the weak link in NDA’s armour. Wherever the primary two parties of each alliance are contesting, the battle is expected to be tough.

While Mahadalit, Kushwaha, Sahni voters may back RJD and Congress candidates, wherever BJP and JD(U) are pitted against the weak links of the mahagathbandhan in 10 seats, the Muslim-Yadav voter may not be convinced to transfer votes and work whole-heartedly.

Similarly for the NDA, the four where LJP is contesting, most against RJD, will be tough.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Weatherman Paswan Stays With NDA…

Ram Vilas Paswan, who has a history of being on the right side in most elections, has decided to stay with NDA after some initial bickering. Paswan has been a regular hopper from the UPA to the Left front to RJD and now NDA. He has a strong influence among the 6 percent Dalit voters in the state. In 2014, LJP won 6 out of 7 seats riding on the Modi wave. This time, reports suggest that his son and other family members are facing tough fights due to anti-incumbency.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Tamil Nadu’s Game Of Musical Chairs

Potential Spoilers

Many small parties enjoy decent influence in certain pockets and have played the role of vote-cutters, damaging both alliances. Bahujan Samaj Party (2.2 percent) and Samajwadi Party (0.3 percent) have some presence in the districts bordering Uttar Pradesh, as does Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (0.5 percent) in districts bordering Jharkhand. The Left parties also enjoy support in some areas. Unhappy at being left out of the mahagathbandhan, the CPI(M) plus CPI vote share in 2014 was 1.5 percent. Former JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar is contesting on a CPI ticket from Begusarai.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

While the NDA is banking on the leadership ratings and popularity of the Nitish-Modi duo, the mahagathbandhan is hoping to exploit anti-incumbency against 14 years of Nitish rule on the back of the social coalition it has crafted. The opinion polls give NDA the edge. In the end, it may well boil down to a seat-by-seat contest and whoever is able to create the perfect caste combination may win. What might prove to be Lalu and Tejashwi Yadav’s undoing may be the decision to give too many seats to weak partners.

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.